Up until very recently I was very sniffy about corporate and government engagement online. I always figured that the real strength in new media lay in the credibility born from broadcasting the voices of the unheard. I associated digital engagers using blogs and micro-blogs, social networks and chat forums to be identified with the individual, with community journalists wishing to distance themselves from mainstream media, and with speaking free from constraints of institution or authority.
Until last week in fact, any official blogging from the likes of government ministers would make me shudder and I assumed it was with ignorance that organisations and authorities around the world stumbled into this new digital playground. I sniggered at local authority Tweets and hollow-laughed as government Facebook groups requested my membership. Then a friend reminded me that my own words (these in fact) appear branded on the website of a rather large organisation – no less than the World Bank. Ah. Right. And I have to confess I have never been censored and rarely edited by the bank (save for my typos). I decided to have a conversation with a Digital Diplomacy expert in the hope it would resolve my issues for me. It did.
The expert in question was the Head of Engagement with the Digital Diplomacy Team at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. With 255 websites in 40 countries and boasting 30 bloggers, he was the man to ask. I was instantly struck by his digital savvy - his global team of experts are connected with the latest shared on-the-cloud technology. Furthermore he really understood that Diplomacy 2.0 is - at its best - about a two-way dialogue. I challenged him with the notion that the credibility of this new exciting media lay in the voice of the user, not in the voice of the policy maker. He responded with a catalogue of examples of how private individuals had influenced policy – anything from online debates on economics around the G20 summit to a comment left on a Minister’s blog that led to a policy change on healthcare for British nationals in Europe. Then he introduced me to John Duncan; the United Kingdom's Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament based in Geneva. He tweets (micro-blogs). He doesn’t STOP tweeting in fact. And he answers questions via Twitter – providing instant global access to a powerful political player like a non-stop-on-the-spot high-level press conference. As if that wasn’t enough, the trump card was pulled out the pack and I was shown YouTube clips of an Ambassador wandering the streets of Hanoi and casually chatting about his work. The young Ambassador to Vietnam writes a blog in local tongue largely about his passion for football. I liked him. And I suddenly felt perfectly comfortable making way for him in the digital playground.
It is still clear, however, that the key to the success of participatory media remains the credibility of the individual. It is still about the unofficial voice. It is still about an intimacy and a belief conjured up by personal interaction. Those governments and authorities that treat digital media purely as a means to broadcast their news are more likely to fail.
My realisation is that everyone has something to say – and millions of us are saying it. The 180 million or so blogs followed by Technorati (not including an estimated 75 million Chinese bloggers) are written by people from all walks of life, in all sorts of places – uploaded from mobile phones from the side of a mountain or from a laptop in a desert – each has its place. The millions connected via social media are staggering and the people-driven content appearing in mainstream media threatens to put traditional media out of business. But one thing Web 2.0 isn’t about is elitism - it’s about embracing full-blown all-inclusive connectivity. I now see that there is plenty of space (and credibility) for corporate blogs, political blogs, business blogs, travel blogs, education blogs, local government blogs, legal blawgs, and of course the blogs and online engagement of diplomats. Bring ‘em on. I’m done with web snobbery.
Photo Credit: Flickr User imediate.community