There is little question that social networking is a powerful tool. Today, nuggets of popular information — from life-changing incidents to celebrity sightings — spread like wildfire over Web sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter at rates that leave modern media outlets envious.

Users can view these Web sites via numerous devices, including home computers and the almost-ubiquitous consumer handsets that have made texting an obsession for a large segment of the population. For public safety, being able to reach people on these handsets is especially important, because they are with people virtually all the time, whereas an alert system based on dwindling landline subscribership is much more of a hit-and-miss proposition.

Indeed, a number of responder agencies have tapped into the social-networking resource in an attempt to better communicate with their constituencies. But, as with many Internet technologies, the easy accessibility that makes online social networking so powerful also is its greatest downfall.

Between hackers and imposters, it is tough to know whether the information source is the entity advertised. Indeed, the city of Austin police department earlier this year had to get the Texas attorney general’s office involved to shut down an imposter claiming to be the law-enforcement agency.

Such incidents are troublesome for responder agencies, because their "relationship with the community is based on credibility and trust," former Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans said during a Webinar broadcast yesterday.

That Webinar was sponsored by Internet startup Nixle, which has established a system that lets government agencies leverage online social networking in a secure manner. Nixle is a strategic partner of Nlets, the international public-safety network that houses Nixle's servers, according to Nixle founder and CEO Craig Mitnick. Using a VeriSign authentication engine, only appropriate personnel can post to an agency's Nixle site, assuring viewers that the information posted is coming from the agency.

In addition to security, Nixle offers government agencies the ability to post pictures, video and maps to the site. From the Nixle interface, entities also can simultaneously post information to their other Web sites and social networking portals. And one of the most powerful features is the ability to geographically target those who receive alerts, all the way down to a neighborhood level.

It's a formula that has been well received in the government space. In just three months, Nixle already has 1,700 government subscribers and has been growing at a rate of more than 1,000% per month, Mitnick said.

In these difficult economic times, perhaps the most attractive feature of Nixle is that it's free to government entities for one-way communications. That's because the Nixle business model is built on the company generating revenue from secure, internal enterprise solutions that can include two-way communications — services that the company will begin offering in the fall, Mitnick said.

"These revenue streams allow the government platform to be free," Mitnick said.

Of course, Nixle still is subject to some of the normal limitations of commercial technologies. To get alerts, users must subscribe to Nixle — something government agencies have had difficulty getting citizens to do with more traditional alerting systems. In addition, while Nixle has the ability to push out 500 text messages per second, it cannot control how many of those messages actually reach the subscriber in a timely manner, particularly if the subscriber's commercial network is strained, which often happens when a large incident occurs in an area.

For these reasons, Nixle certainly is not a panacea for emergency-alert communications, but it certainly is a handy option for public-safety officials to have in their toolboxes — and you can't beat the free price.

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