Here's how Twitter got started
01:42 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

It takes a lot to get noticed. Joseph Galbo knows that.

As Thanksgiving approached last year and he needed to let homeowners know about the dangers of unattended cooking, Galbo took to Twitter and posted a photoshopped image of an oven-roasted turkey … holding a lit match.

“Is your turkey a saboteur?” the post inquired.

Welcome to the eccentric Twitter account of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which Galbo, a 33-year-old New Yorker, manages. The small – but vital – federal agency is tasked with running public safety campaigns and alerting Americans about product dangers and recalls.

The problem, Galbo found when he joined the agency’s digital team, was that it’s hard to alert when no one’s paying attention.

“Our social media stuff was very professional, very government-sounding, which was fine and there’s certainly a place for that but it was missing that fun edge that social media can have,” he says.

So he added it.

“I’m not trying to upset you Gary,” says a window in one recent post. “I just need some time alone forever.”

The message was for caregivers, reminding them to keep furniture away from windows so children won’t fall out of them.

Another tweet reads, “Let’s get this bread.” It’s a warning about the dangers of toasters.

“I think it’s super important for people to be engaged with their government and if it takes flying dogs and flying cats to do it, I’m glad we’re getting to that opportunity and people are finding us through this.”

Of course there are dogs in Joseph Galbo's headshot. Aren't there in yours?

Galbo isn’t alone. The commission’s account is one of a growing number of agencies and municipalities redefining government-speak in a bid to reach more people.

Think less news release, more text – or txt. Capitalization = optional. Punctuation? Meh. The rules of grammar? Pass.

Posting almost daily, the IRS often pairs its tax-filing reminders with something less stressful: pictures of food, rubber ducks and dogs – arguably the internet’s favorite animal.

The New York Conflicts of Interest Board had the words “lit,” “bae” and “fleek” all within one Twitter thread about municipal ethics.

And New Jersey’s pinned tweet?

“Your mom.”

To Stanford Social Media Lab Director Jeff Hancock, none of this comes as a surprise.

“They’re not sounding like some agency-speak which I think people are pretty desensitized to,” he says. “This might sound more authentic, it might be more compelling, it might have actually more credibility because it doesn’t sound like the usual thing.”

World, meet New Jersey

Pearl Gabel and Megan Coyne, two-thirds of the digital team behind New Jersey’s Twitter account, had a simple goal: give their state a voice.

“Djeetyet,” one of the state government’s latest tweets reads. That’s New Jersey for: “Did you eat yet?”

“We wanted the account to feel more authentic, more like it embodied the essence of New Jersey and we just kind of started to do it,” Coyne, 22, said.

The account prides itself on showcasing New Jersey’s “big state energy,” through a slew of irreverent, bold, in-your-face tweets.

“The juice ain’t worth the squeeze if the juice don’t look like this,” one post brags, quoting a Lizzo lyric alongside an enticing video of waves rolling onto a New Jersey shore at sunset.

The duo don’t plot their posts. They follow a “think it and drop it” motto, with little to no planning behind each tweet. That’s how their following of more than 200,000 is reminded they’re real, says Gabel, who refers to herself as an “elder millenial.”

“We’re doing this not just during our business hours, we’re doing this weekends, evenings, mornings and 2:45 a.m.,” Gabel says. “Jersey’s a really tough audience. We’re the creme de la creme. And they can tell when we’re faking it.”

“We are Jersey girls,” Gabel adds. “So you can call it weird or you can call it normal.”

The New Jersey Governor's Office digital team -- Megan Coyne, left, Pearl Gabel, and Edwin Torres.

Watching these accounts use slang and tap into cultural references to convey messages may seem shocking now, but that’s only because it’s a new practice, Hancock says.

“GIFs and memes are sort of seen as you know, shallow and narcissistic but that’s almost always the case with new forms of communication,” Hancock, from Stanford, says. “Like when novels were first introduced people thought they were very shallow and even addictive. They were seen as sensation novels which were kind of scandalous.”

That’s right – novels were the memes of the 17th century.

‘Changes are underway’

For both digital teams, it’s not always all about humor.

“We try to keep in mind the serious nature of the work,” Galbo says, on using just the right amount of strange. “I think more often than not, we succeed. But it’s definitely something we always talk about.”

In the four years since he took over the commission’s Twitter account, he says its following has almost quadrupled and engagement numbers are “the best they’ve ever been.”

And when New Jersey is posting about a state campaign or the governor’s latest initiative, Coyne says those tweets have consistently been reaching a wider audience as the account continues to gain traction.

“We know that doing the funnier, more Jersey-ish tweets help and also draw people in to our (other) tweets,” she says.

With millennials making up one of the largest demographics in today’s America, Hancock says, agencies that are picking up on the trend are just “being smart with their communication style.”

“Language changes a lot over time,” Hancock says. “Usually (that change) often starts with young people and it starts in sort of subcultures and then it moves more into the mainstream and then institutions like the government start to pick it up.”

“That’s when you know changes are underway,” he adds.

And we’ll have the memes to look back on to track that change – Galbo’s made sure of it.

Each and every CPSC post – every cat, glowing baby, dolphin – is archived in the Library of Congress alongside diaries kept by George Washington, historic newspaper covers dating back to 1789 and images from the Civil War.