We are witnessing the birth of the social media press corps


“Instameet” participants, selected by the Department of Interior, at the Washington Monument’s opening ceremony Monday. (Courtesy @AnthonyQuintano)

At 1 this afternoon, tours will once again begin at the Washington Monument, closed since a 2011 earthquake broke its internal elevator and cracked its outside facade. But if you want an early look at the reopened monument, your best bet may be Instagram — where 12 select users, handpicked by the Department of the Interior, will share glimpses of the reopened tower before just about anyone else.

The “Instameet,” as DOI calls it, isn’t a new invention — brands like Tommy Hilfiger and General Electric, as well as groups of users in countries as far-flung as Indonesia and Moldova, have seized on this shtick for years. But while DOI billed its inaugural Instameet as a fun social event for the department’s Instagram followers, there’s obviously a gap between, say, a group of casual Instagram users taking “groufies” in Dubai … and an exclusive group of government-accredited, amateur photographers, expected to broadcast news to the masses.

That’s not a social meet-up. It’s a press corps. And some government departments, incidentally, have gotten pretty explicit about the difference. While DOI billed today’s event as a more or less social meet-up, NASA will issue straight-up “social media credentials” for its Antares rocket launch in June, designed to give popular bloggers, tweeters and Instagrammers the “same access as journalists.”

The NASA application process, which closed Friday, demanded that applicants prove they had a large, respected and unique audience, distinct from traditional media’s. Applicants also had to agree to share images “in real time,” preferably with the #NASASocial hashtag, and make those photos available to NASA to reshare on its own platforms.

“Selection is not random,” the agency’s release intones.

All this, of course, comes on the heels of the White House’s first “Instameet” last October, wherein a small group of the White House’s Instagram followers (presumably, then, people who are predisposed to like the White House) got a private tour of the South Lawn and Kitchen Garden and talked photography with official White House photog Pete Souza.

This all sounds really lovely, of course, and aesthetically, it is: Just look at all these vintage-filtered photos from the National Mall!

… but all this comes at a time when the traditional press corps — read, the ones who don’t have to “like” a government department on social media or pass some screening of their tweets to score credentials — gets less access to the government than ever.

Don’t get me wrong: Lots of people get their news from nontraditional sources nowadays, and that’s totally valid. But as the “social media press corps” gains traction, it’s worth staying alert to the government’s subtle influence in it. These Instagrams from the Washington Monument may be innocent — and pretty! — but they’re not organic. That’s worth remembering.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 9