On a mailing list of which I am a member, a poster asked if Twitter can be used as a broadcast medium. Definitely not a broadcast medium, in my opinion. "Conversation" is a buzz word, but it's a buzz word for something big. My personal take is that these tools are facilitating a paradigm shift that is causing similar change management issues in the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. Specifically authority is shifting from institutions to individuals, and organizations are a little afraid of that, even while hoping to embrace "social media."
In the very recent past, certain boundaries were firm. If you wanted a job reference, for example, you turned to your boss. If you wanted to know what was going on at a local nonprofit, you subscribed to their newsletter, whose content was scrutinized by people "in control" of the messages. If you wanted to do certain research on your job, perhaps you accessed the company's physical library or shared drives. As a customer, you were reliant on the word of a few of your friends - if you even happened to know that your friend used that product or service.
Nowadays, you can connect with coworkers on LinkedIn and use those recommendations (whether or not the company told you to ask for references "only from the HR department.") You can get on Facebook and find that friend of a friend who works at a nonproft; that person might have the scoop that the party line fails to include. Buy a product such as a Mac computer, and you may find hundreds of other customers talking about the product on forums - maybe even forums sponsored by the company.
Certainly there are drawbacks: rumors, gossip. Unvetted material is a problem, but censorship and misrepresentation by organizations have a bit of a check now. People "in charge" have to share the power and the stage.
I think a small, grassroots organization can do a lot with Twitter and Facebook, even without a Web site. The catch is that it needs to be PERSON-centered. Trusted individual to trusted individual. Party lines and top-down announcements and pronouncements fall flat on Twitter and Facebook. Constituents and clients and community members get to respond back; no more whitewashing of the organization's problems or hiding that bad press coverage hoping it will blow over.
If you haven't guessed, I am happy about these changes. I have encountered many managers, in my limited experience more in the nonprofit world than in the for-profit - but definitely in both places, who are a bit more authoritarian in personality type than I am! Those types are usually the ones who want to "broadcast" information and get real nervous about commenting, open conversation, or authentic staff input. I am engaged in some activism online, led by a nonprofit director who is extraordinarily tech-savvy and, evidently, very much interested in sharing rather than hoarding power. She's got blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and uses them all well. It works because she comes across not as "the official spokesperson", but as an individual.
Here's to radical, small-d democracy!