Private Connected Citizens, Public Connected Diplomacy

Alan Kotok

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Alan Kotok is editor of PublicDiplomacy.org, and a regular blogger in his day job with Science Careers.

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What happens when thousands of bloggers worldwide devote their piece of the World Wide Web to a single topic for a day? On 15 October 2007, according to the organizers of Blog Action Day 2007, more than 20,000 blogs worldwide posted more than 23,000 items on the issue of climate change and related environmental matters. The posts ranged from in-depth policy discussions to simple how-to tips on recycling.

The important lesson of the event is that private citizens now have the means, motives, and opportunities to take public diplomacy into their own hands. Using the Web to mobilize individuals on public policy issues is nothing new, as seen in national election campaigns in the U.S. and elsewhere in the past few years. A more recent phenomenon, however, is the increased use of the Web by private individuals to influence global public attitudes on policy issues, which up to now has been the realm of official public diplomacy. Practitioners of official public diplomacy now need to deal with this phenomenon.

Getting high-level attention

On one level Blog Action Day may have given more momentum to the climate change issue, already propelled by the awarding a few days earlier of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the UN's climate change scientific panel. On an official level, however, the event gained the support of the UN Environmental Programme, and as part of the Blog Action Day, the EU's Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas held an online chat.

It is easy to dismiss Blog Action Day as another exercise that hardly moves the needle on the issue at hand. But Blog Action Day shows that the viral qualities of the Internet can enable a number of Web-connected individuals across the globe to organize and focus their resources on a public policy issue and, in this case, get some public officials to take notice.

Another international issue where the Web plays a role is the democracy movement in Burma. Members of the social networking site Facebook started a group to support the Buddhist monks (Facebook account required) protesting Burma's military government. On 24 September 2007 the group had 3,500 Facebook members, but by 20 October the group had grown to 426,000 members. At the end of September the group was growing at a rate of one new member a second.


[P]rivate citizens now have the means, motives, and opportunities to take public diplomacy into their own hands.

The group's Facebook page tells how members can register their disapproval of the military regime in 16 different countries, and encourages participation in upcoming protest marches. But more important than these informational notices is the role the group plays as a forum for members. Individuals use the group to comment on events, give their personal experiences confronting public officials about Burma or participating in protests. These postings in turn generate encouragement and support from other members. Like Blog Action Day, this Facebook group has drawn messages of support from dignitaries such as Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and British prime minister Gordon Brown.

Connections made over the Web and across international boundaries can be applied to professional endeavors as well as political issues. Wikis (a term derived from the Hawaiian word for "quick") are collaborative Web pages where participants worldwide pool their knowledge to build publications, such as books in multiple languages and encyclopedias. Other Web-based professional collaborations like Global Text are creating free college-level text books for developing countries. Scientists use international collaboratories to connect researchers professionally in different parts of the world.

Technical innovations, emotional bonds

This phenomenon stems is helped along by the increasing popularity of blogs, social networks, and wikis that are lumped under the rubric of "Web 2.0". What makes Web 2.0 applications different from earlier uses of the Web is their greater interactivity and personal involvement. Where before an individual would simply visit a Web page, now Web visitors get directly involved in generating the content appearing on the page. Blogs, for example often generate comments from visitors that in turn often generate more postings by the bloggers. Social network members organize groups (as the Burma protest) based on common interests, where members gain new contacts and friends as a result. Wiki participants become collaborators and co-authors in building complex intellectual products.

Technology however, is just part of the story. The emotional bonds created between individuals and their Web communities explain the strong attraction of Web 2.0 applications. In all of these instances, individuals are active participants rather than passive consumers. Their participation exposes their knowledge to public scrutiny, and thus involves more personal risk. This risk-taking, however, is often rewarded by gaining new contacts and friends that many people find highly rewarding, empowering, and even addictive. Thus participants in these Web sites often have a large emotional investment.

Harnessing Web 2.0

Official public diplomats face a challenge in harnessing this grass-roots phenomenon. In some cases, these private connections support official public diplomacy objectives, particularly where official resources are limited. However, official diplomats (public or otherwise) cannot control the message in these Web communities. The power -- some say the beauty -- of the Web is its decentralization and diversity. Official participants in the Web 2.0 world need to honor this culture.

The State Department's official blog DipNote that began in September 2007 at first glance seems to have the right idea. A variety of high-level and front-line officials offer first-hand assessments of current issues, and a few posts (“question of the week”) openly solicit comments. Comments are subject to review for relevance and abusive language, but that is not unusual for organizational blogs. And DipNote still publishes comments critical of official policies.

However, DipNote's content and the comments it generates talk past each other. DipNote may provide State Department a voice in the blogosphere, but to be part of a genuine conversation, DipNote needs to engage its empowered Web 2.0 visitors as they have come to expect. Otherwise, DipNote's visitors will go where their voices are respected, not just printed on the screen.

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Posted: 21 October 2007.
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