The State Department wants your opinion. No, not on weighty matters like the Arab Spring/Winter, relations with Russia, the state of NATO, or Chinese free-trade violations. The pressing question of the day is whether it should rename its blog DipNote.
To tell the truth, the options are not exactly mind-blowing, a reflection of State’s uneasy struggle to enter the flow of 21st-century communication, and a bit of a waste of time.
On Friday, December 7, State issued an invitation for crowd-sourcing possible alternatives. A list of four final choices has been chosen from the names submitted by 370 State Department employees worldwide:
- Unclassified: The State Department Blog
- Matters of State
- (And, yes) DipNote
Perhaps the selection reflects the less-than-free-flowing style of Foggy Bottom. In any event, those who feel like voting should click here. The naming competition is part of a redesign that allegedly will “include greater functionality and interactivity with an emphasis on visual engagement.” Nothing wrong with engagement, but do all those diplomats not have anything better to do than thinking up blog names?
In other news, the State Department is grappling with procedures for public diplomacy in the world of instant communication. Proposed new guidelines for approval of blogs, tweets, and other written communication are in the works, an apparent effort to tighten control.
Supervisors are to have two days to review tweets and five days for blog posts, speeches, or prepared remarks. Articles or books would be subject to a 30-day review period. Needless to say, two days is an eternity in social media terms, and would restrict the potential for officials to engage in free-flowing debates.
The procedural review was undoubtedly influenced in part by the debacle over the tweets from the Cairo U.S. embassy staff as they were attacked on September 11. It may also have been occasioned by a recent book, a scathing indictment of U.S. public diplomacy in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the People of Iraq, authored by former State Department employee Peter van Buren. State has not been pleased.
Social media is an important part of U.S. public diplomacy today. State’s social media outreach has expanded exponentially, as recently described by Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine at The Heritage Foundation on December 3. Embassies now have their own Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) has four major Facebook properties to engage foreign audiences. In just 15 months, State’s own Facebook page following has expanded from 800,000 to more than 8 million, including young people in Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, and Venezuela.
At the same time, however, U.S. diplomacy around the world is experiencing serious challenges (the Middle East comes to mind), and American leadership has seen decline under the Obama Administration.
The bottom line is this: Twitter and Facebook diplomacy cannot substitute for a serious global agenda, and may even be viewed as the Internet equivalent of fiddling while traditional U.S. diplomacy burns.