Update 05 January 2008: I’ve added several more posts and media mentions on this subject.
After summarizing some of the commentary surrounding Deputy Assistant Secretary Colleen Graffy’s use of Twitter, I have a few points I think are worth adding. First off, I’ll admit a bias in favor of Twitter since I use the service and have come to like the unique interaction and community it can foster (not to mention my bias toward the State Department, where I earn my daily bread).
Nonetheless, I appreciate many of the criticisms levied against Graffy’s use of Twitter, particularly those that critique it’s usefulness as a public diplomacy tool. Indeed, I agree that Twitter’s usefulness – and social media general – is naturally limited by the inherently impersonal nature of the interaction. I really doubt any web-based mechanism will ever fully replicate the fidelity of live, person-to-person interaction. Furthermore, as many have pointed out, the web only reaches a small minority of the world’s population so television, books, radio and on-the-ground interaction will, for a long time to come, constitute the backbone of public diplomacy efforts.
Social media as a multiplier
What many of the commentators seem to be missing however is that Twitter comprised a very small part of her outreach. Just by reading through the tweets from her European trip, it is obvious that she spent much more time utilizing the oldest public diplomacy tool available: face-to-face meetings. Anyone who thinks we can replace person-to-person engagement with social media – and still maintain the relationships public diplomacy depends upon – will be sorely disappointed. It is in support and along-side this in-person engagement that social media is most useful – not in lieu of it.
Graffy alluded to this when she said “[c]ommunicating in this peppy, informal medium helped to personalize my visit and enhance my impact as a U.S. official”. For a marginal amount of extra effort, she was able to connect with a wide variety of individuals before, during and after her trip, giving them a chance to better see her as a person and not a random government official passing through. Her individual tweets (and photos and videos) provided a constant low-level engagement that help create regular awareness of Graffy and her work. It is through this sustained contact that the impact of her visit is then magnified. Leisa Reichelt calls this “ambient intimacy“, the ability to regularly keep in touch with people “you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible”. In addition to time and space, social media also flattens hierarchy, a barrier to interaction not easily surmounted in real-life interactions.
All about the personal
This leads nicely into my next point, that social media is, fundamentally, about the personal – just like the face-to-face interaction critical to effective public diplomacy. In an offline meeting, the personal touch is always there, how someone looks, the sound of their voice, the personal stories they tell and the give-and-take of conversation. This interaction helps make the representative a tangible, real person. Reaching this level of fidelity in online conversations is not easy and may appear awkward or banal, but perhaps no more-so than a third-party may find in an overheard in-person discussion. It is this “over-sharing” (intentional or no) that really brings a person to life, whether online or off.
It is for this reason that some have argued that brands or organizations don’t belong on Twitter in the first place. Social networks are, after all, places for people to interact. Notably, many well-known personalities also use social media solely to further their brands, focusing on broadcasting instead of creating real relationships.
I think the Obama campaign is a perfect example of this. It was omnipresent online. If there was a social media tool, you can bet Obama had a profile. Yet, for all the praise directed toward the campaign’s use of new media, much of it was aimed at disseminating campaign material and empowering users while comparatively little on personally connecting Obama with voters. The Obama campaign was certainly on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook (and everywhere else), but it would be a stretch to say Obama himself was.
In contrast, it is plainly obvious that Graffy is maintaining her own Twitter feed. Those who engage with her on Twitter can be reasonably confident they are having a real one-on-one conversation with her and not the unit’s media intern. Stripping the personal from her Twitter stream would turn her tweets into just another State Department outlet, of which there are already plenty.
Planning and policy
Taking a step back, I nonetheless concur with several of the criticisms, though perhaps not when specifically relating to Graffy’s use of Twitter. Ilan Berman’s second point, that Washington lacks an overarching communications and engagement strategy (particularly in regards to the Middle East and confronting our enemies), is generally accurate and regularly cited. Better coordination between public diplomacy efforts, particularly those using social media, would help present a more coherent image and more consistent engagement (while also improving efficiency).
Second, Charles Brown’s criticism that Graffy’s tweets lacked any sort of policy message is well-founded, but her avoidance of policy commentary is understandable, though not desirable. State has extensive rules on vetting public statements, whether online or off (occasionally for good reason). Hopefully the shift to social media will encourage greater freedom for Department staff members to speak on policy, but these restrictions will not disappear swiftly or easily.
Ultimately however, the worst outcome would be for State to give up and simply cede this ground. Not everyone will agree with efforts like Graffy’s use of Twitter, but they demonstrate a real willingness to go beyond merely pushing a message to really trying to foster real conversations (both online and off), which, in the end, is what public diplomacy is all about.
There have been a number of additional posts and media mentions that are worth noting, including: