Discussing Social Media in Egypt

For all my work with new media for public diplomacy, the best engagement is still the oldest: face-to-face discussions. “The last three feet”, as Edward R Murrow put it, allow for more personal interaction than the sometimes detached and often anonymous online type. Working from Washington, D.C., where we are so removed from the field, it can be difficult to remember this.

Fortunately, I received a reminder of the importance of in-person public diplomacy earlier this week. As part of my trip across the Middle East, I gave many public presentations on how social media is used by the United States government in our public diplomacy efforts. I’d done this in the West Bank, Amman, and finally in Cairo.

Presentation to the Faculty of Media and Communication, Cairo University
Presentation to the Faculty of Media and Communication, Cairo University

This past Tuesday I spoke to the faculty and students of Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass-Communications and the Faculty of Economics and Political Science. Here is the presentation I used (PPTX). I can say, without a doubt, they asked some of the most challenging questions I’ve received about social media. Their interests were wide and varied. They asked about the risks that social media could detach us from our real-world lives, the use of these tools by the Egyptian government, the role of social media in the release of Iraq war documents on Wikileaks, and much more.

Opinions were also quite diverse. Several individuals asked pointed questions about U.S. government control of the media. As the recent mid-term elections and the ever-shifting popularity of American policies demonstrate, we operate in a very challenging media landscape in which we often have little power to control the message. As I noted in the discussion, if the U.S. government is so good at this, they wouldn’t need me!

A professor of the Faculty of Media and Communications
A professor of the Faculty of Media and Communications

Conversely, the Wikileaks questions often focused on how the U.S. government is quite powerless to control even its own information. Unfortunately, since this isn’t an area I focus on I feel I wasn’t able to sufficiently address the questions. If you’re interested in the Wikileaks Iraq documents story the New York Times has a great special feature on the subject.

In addition to the challenging discussion, I was also very impressed with how Egyptians are using social media to improve their society. One project is using social media and online maps to combat sexual harassment. Another campaign uses these tools to help keep Alexandria clean, an effort that has gotten widespread media attention and compelled the local government to act. Others are using social media to create connections between ordinary Americans and Egyptians to correct stereotypes and improve relations.

The past three weeks have been a whirlwind of activity: events, interviews, chats over tea, seeing astonishing landscapes, experiencing remarkable history, and so much more. However, it is the friendships that were started that I find most important. And, naturally, we’ll be continuing these friendships over social media until my return!

Barriers and Bridges: Visiting the West Bank

Some days it feels like I have the best job in the world. This week I had one of those days. For the past several days I’ve been working with our Embassy in Tel Aviv and Consulate General in Jerusalem on their public diplomacy social media programs. This focuses mostly on sharing best practices from other missions, providing suggestions on enhancements, and helping to create a structured approach to their public engagement. This work has been great, fun, and very illuminating. I’m constantly amazed how much our missions are able to do with limited resources and even less time.

But that isn’t all that made the day so remarkable. What made the day so noteworthy was the opportunity to chat with Palestinian social media leaders. The Arabic Media Internet Network (AMIN) hosted an in-person session with bloggers and practitioners in the West Bank city of Ramallah and a second video conference with bloggers in Gaza.

Merely visiting Ramallah is worth noting on its own. This sounds strange to say, but it seems a very “normal” place. The perception you get of the West Bank is a desperate population riven and cut-off by strife. News images focus on thrown rocks and wire-topped walls. Instead there are bustling streets, car dealerships (including a gleaming Mercedes dealer), and new five-star hotels. The most incongruous feeling was the security detail we are required to have on official visits. It made me feel alien to the outside. I imagine the feeling is mutual when locals see our imposing truck hurtling by.

As an outsider, this normality hides the precariousness of the current situation. I was told stories of humiliations at checkpoints, the daily hassles of stateless-citizens, and families and friends separated by ever-shifting lines. Jerusalem itself is a city of walls. They separate the old from the new, east from west, and a troubled past from an uncertain future.

Yet there are uplifting stories as well, of tireless videographers showing the real lives of Palestinian women, bloggers working to build bridges between separated people, businessmen creating new opportunities, journalists dedicated to openness and transparency, and photographers sharing the beauty of the landscape and her people. They are using new media to tell their stories, as only they can. While the sessions were billed as a chance to learn from the work we’re doing in the State Department, we have much to learn from them.

With luck I will be back in the near future. Until then, there’s always social media to keep us connected!

The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World’s Longest River

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While the The Black Nile‘s subtitle boasts, “One Man’s Amazing Journey…”, a cliched line that probably should be forbidden from any future use, it is nonetheless quite accurate. Tracing the waters of the Nile from Uganda to Egypt, Morrison brings us on a journey not only across thousands of miles of Africa but also through a vast diversity of peoples and their rich and often troubled history. Weaving recent and historical events with the story of his own journey he provides an unique window onto a part of the world all too easily and often ignored. Furthermore, he casts light onto the diverse forces at play behind the conflicts that occasionally make headlines in Western newspapers. What many often portray in simplistic terms as strife between Christianity and Islam, Morrison exposes as complex and fluid allegiances and schisms. Often these are less about religious differences and more about the dynamics between the wealthy and poor, those in power and those outside, competing tribes and families, and other fault lines.

The book’s core however is really a travelogue, and it moves at a swift and compelling pace. The first half of the book focused largely on the interplay between Morrison and a long-time friend who has joined him on the first leg of the journey. During his recounting of their procession up the Nile he delves into their personal histories, the author’s work as a journalist stringer and his friend’s easy life working in a resort in the United States and frequent trips to the bottom of a bottle. Unable to get a visa into Sudan, and burnt-out from the oppressive heat and relentless insects, his friend leaves Morrison midway into the narrative. Once alone, Morrison spends more time examining the people he meets, the history of the places he visits, and on his own reactions to the situations he encounters.

The narration is occasionally gritty, making the rugged, unpredictable, and often sad lives of the people he meets tangible. Sometimes this tangibility is off-putting, reducing people to the mere the functions of their bodies. More often however the realism of the situation stands in contrast to these people’s humble perseverance. Simple dichotomies, between good and bad, friends and enemies are turned on their heads when presumed enemies are gracious and welcoming.

“Life in extremity is difficult to explain-things happen and people don’t know why they are happening. Some events were fortunate and others were disastrous and that’s how it went.”

There are no simple answers in the book. The alliances he examines are constantly reshaped and reevaluated. The landscape similarly is in constant flux, changed by logging, droughts, and streams of garbage. Massive dams threaten rich farmland and traditional ways of life, while bringing much needed electricity and development to impoverished towns and cities. This book raises questions, answers a few of them, and leaves a lasting impression.

Public Media Camp: Hubs and Spokes and a Look at Measurement

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Recently I had the pleasure to participate in the Public Media Camp, an unconference focused on strengthening local and national public broadcasting. A good portion of the discussion focused on the disruptive and new opportunities being presented by Internet-based dissemination and social media.

Of Hubs and Spokes

While the focus on social media related well to my work in public diplomacy, the very structure of public media actually seems quite similar to the hub and spoke model of the central State Department in Washington and the various embassies, consulates and missions scattered around the world. As with public broadcasting, content is produced and disseminated in Washington and the very diverse missions overseas. Just as NPR or PBS in Washington balances the needs of their direct national audience with the needs of their affiliate stations, the State Department also has to support an international audience for its America.gov properties while meeting overseas mission needs.

Additionally, most public media outlets focus more on informing audiences and social change than increasing profits. Public diplomacy has similar goals: changing perceptions about the United States’ and its policies and creating a better environment for U.S. goals, such as democratization, improving religious freedoms and so on. Without profits as a baseline metric, both organizations aim for more intangible goals, such as those elucidated above. This makes measurement more challenging, with related knock-on effects.

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