Note: This post was originally published on the Public Diplomat Website.
Several weeks ago I was asked if there was a difference between the terms digital diplomacy and diplomacy 2.0 or if they are simply synonyms. At the time, my answer was that both terms relate, among other, to the incorporation of Social Networking Sites (SNS) in the activity foreign ministries (MFAs).
However, the more I explore the use of SNS by MFAs, the more I realize that the two terms may in fact be different. Defining digital diplomacy, and diplomacy 2.0, is important to both scholars and practitioners. MFAs must define digital diplomacy so that they may train diplomats, developed best practices and evaluate their digital diplomacy efficiency. For scholars, defining digital diplomacy may lead to a better understand of the relationship between the concepts of public diplomacy and nation branding.
Over the past year I have dedicated much time and effort to characterizing the manner in which MFAs currently use SNS. My analysis has shown the following:
- Many MFAs use SNS in order to transmit information to their followers with regard to foreign policy events, issues, initiatives and actors (i.e., foreign countries)
- MFAs, embassies and foreign ministers are able to attract large audiences to their SNS profiles. These audiences are comprised mainly of international followers. Only a small segment of the local population follows its MFA online.
- Engagement between MFAs and their followers is almost non-existent. The vast majority of comments posted by MFA followers do not receive any attention from MFAs.
- When engagement does take place it is quarantined by MFAs. The US State Department, for instance, holds many Q&A sessions on Facebook. Such sessions take place at a pre-defined time and deal with one specific issue. SNS followers are not able to ask questions relating to other topics.
- MFAs and embassies routinely follow their peers on SNS in order to gather and disseminate information to the diplomatic community. Diplomatic institutions, and figures, create vast online social networks. As such, digital diplomacy has become an important working tool for diplomats.
- MFAs use SNS in order to portray a certain national image. Thus, SNS is used in both public diplomacy and nation branding activities.
It is therefore fair to claim that MFAs have incorporated SNS in the conduct of diplomacy to the extent that it amplifies traditional public diplomacy and nation branding activities. By speaking at a global audience, rather than with a global audience, MFAs have yet to abandon the broadcast model of public diplomacy. When compared to the Voice of America radio station, The State Department’s twitter and Facebook channels represent an evolution in public diplomacy rather than a revolution.
We may therefore define digital diplomacy as the use of SNS by MFAs for gathering and disseminating information. Diplomacy 2.0, on the other hand, may be defined as the incorporation of the ethos of Web 2.0 in MFA online activity.
The evolution of the internet has often been described as a transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. Popularized by Tim O’Reilly in 2004, Web 2.0 websites are quite different from the static web pages of the late 1990’s. What characterizes web 2.0 is an “architecture of participation” in which website users are invited to contribute to web platforms. Moreover, Web 2.0 is also based on an “architecture of listening” in which feedback from users and “friends” is regarded as important and relevant information.
SNS may be the quintessential representative of Web 2.0 given that they cultivate a participatory psyche among users. When people add content to SNS they are often the authors or curators of such content. Given that such content is visible to all their online contacts, or “friends”, they become part of an online information community. Members of this community are expected to react to content shard by their “friends” be it by posting a comment or hitting the “like” “share” or “re-tweet” buttons. Thus, SNS also represent vibrant online communities.
MFAs have yet to adopt the Web 2.0 culture of dialogue, listening and participation. While MFAs offer their “friends” relevant and interesting content, and while “friends” may comment on such content, lack of two-way communication and emphasis on followers’ comments means that MFA social media channels are still characterized by a Web 1.0 architecture. It may also mean that MFAs are characterized by a Web 1.0 mentality.
The transition from digital diplomacy to Diplomacy 2.0 would see the incorporation of the following elements:
- Ongoing engagement between MFAs and their followers that is not limited in time and topic. Naturally, MFAs cannot engage with all their followers all the time. Nor are they expected to. Yet resources should be devoted to communicating with followers and creating vibrant online communities hosted on MFA SNS channels. MFAs should also routinely comment and “share” information posted by their folowers.
- The adoption of an architecture of listening among MFAs. This new architecture would view comments by followers as important information that relates to how a nation is vied by foreign publics. It may also be used by MFAs when outlining foreign policy initiatives. Such an architecture would signal a transition from the broadcast model to the dialogic model of public diplomacy.
- User generated content is seldom used by MFAs. When such content is used it is usually part of a photo contest on Instagram or Facebook such as” What does the UN mean to you?” Yet MFA followers may be called on to contribute to the development of MFA and embassy web sites, special web platforms and nation branding campaigns delivered via SNS.
- Crowd sourcing is another important element of Web 2.0 which is largely overlooked by MFAs. For instance, I have yet to find an MFA that posited the following question to its many followers: What do you expect to find on our channels? What kind of content would interest you? What would like to talk to us about? Nations may also call on local populations to help outline foreign policy goals. Only Ambassador to the UN has used SNS in order to ask her followers- what issues would like to see the UN Security Council tackle this year? If web 2.0 is user centric, then Diplomacy 2.0 should be follower-centric.
Foreign ministries have only recently migrated to SNS. Given that MFAs are large organizations with firmly established working routines, it is fair to assume that the process of adapting to new technologies and mentalities will be a long and complex process. Thus, integrating SNS in the conduct of diplomacy presents many challenges. However, it also presents many opportunities including the establishment of long lasting relationships with foreign publics. In a world marked by a decline in political awareness and interest, SNS based diplomacy may be also prove an innovative tool for increased political and civic engagement. These opportunities will only be realized when MFAs make the transition to a Web 2.0 mentality. Thus, it is possible that we should use the term digital diplomacy when referring to the current use of SNS by MFAs and the term Diplomacy 2.0 when referring to the potential of SNS use by MFAs.
A potential that has yet to be realized.