Tuesday, April 27, 2010

E-Diplomacy Update

I've been thinking a lot about the changing strategies of the State Department when it comes to social media this week and the limitations of my own expertise as a rhetorician who has been situated in a particular context as a U.S. academic that makes me well aware that my policy recommendations will be informed by certain biases.

As regular readers know, I've been studying institutions as digital media-makers for over a decade, an area of research that started with national digital libraries and led to my first book on the digital rhetoric of governments, Virtualpolitik. Although much of that book was about the failures of the Bush administration, I argue that there is an inherent conflict between regulation and content-creation for institutional media-makers and so I find many of the same anxieties playing out in the Obama administration as well. Having worked in e-government and e-learning for over 20 years on the local and state level, I may have a more jaded view than big-picture utopians with more resources and grander plans.

My theorizing on this subject was first influenced by Jane Fountain, who developed the concept of the "virtual state," which was initially imagined as a bureaucracy that maintained files, following the theories of Max Weber about the constitution of authority by modern states. In reality, of course, digital files don't function like file drawers in government offices. Things are a lot messier in a networked world, and it is understandable that government policy makers would have major anxieties about digital files that can reach unintended audiences and be used for unanticipated purposes. "Transparency" and "access" sound like noble ideals, but as I'll be arguing in "If You Can't Control the Data, Consider the Message" at the Gov 2.0 conference this year, there can be many unpleasant surprises created by e-government.

My book is also about how official, carefully produced, high-tech forms of communication and other kinds of mediated, strategic interactions with foreign "others," often says more about our own anxieties rather than the needs of audiences abroad, so that the messages of e-diplomacy are actually far too often addressed to domestic rather than foreign audiences. My chapter about the web presence of the State Department after September 11th directly addresses those concerns.

I've also thought a lot about the claims of people who write about the persuasive power of so-called “propaganda games” that supposedly represent the "military-entertainment complex" that keeps political subjects docile and uncritical. I'm not convinced that digital persuasion operates in a simple push-button manner, and so I often find myself disagreeing with critics of the government as much as I do with the agents of the government itself.

I tend to believe that software (like videogames) operates according to a set of rules, and when we interact with software as users, we become aware of how those rules operate. These rules, Ian Bogost argues, constitute a kind of rhetoric, which he calls “procedural rhetoric” that carries often implicit messages. Sometimes these messages are actually different from the state-sanctioned message.

I have many friends and colleagues who are exploring how virtual worlds can be used for public diplomacy: Bill May, Joshua Fouts, Ren Reynolds, and David Denton. They've spent enough time creating and interacting with computational media that they understand that media often send multiple messages. Like me, many of them have also thought about how games can be played from both sides and how artists can retask components of games and simulations developed to further U.S. military agendas as tools for protest and dissent.

I've also thought about the opinions of a group of scholars who study "participatory culture" in civic education and civil society initiatives, many of whom are part of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Central group, with which I am also loosely and sometimes contentiously affiliated. Although some of these critics are cyber-utoipians, the fact that they recognize the unintended consequences of practices of informal learning and its politically subversive character makes them an important reference point for the limited expertise I can claim.

Like Geert Lovink of the Institute of Network Cultures and the Video Vortex project, I often feel like the outsider at the policy table, as I look at things like how YouTube gets used for public diplomacy.

I suppose one could say that I have two major areas of concern:

- A concern about how four strategies -- Public Diplomacy, Social Marketing, Risk Communication, and Institutional Branding -- cause the government to borrow persuasive techniques from the advertising industry and how this communicates approval for subconscious messaging and the ideologies about race, class, gender, sexuality, age, consumerism, etc. that the advertising industry represents.

- A concern about what Siva Vaidhyanathan has dubbed the "Googlization of government." With the expanding use of commercial Web 2.0 technologies by government agencies, Vaidhyanathan and a number of scholars have also expressed concern that in the name of "participatory culture" the government may risk compelling its citizens to participate in particular copyright regimes that constrain speech, to submit to corporate user agreements that rewrite the social contract, and to divulge private information to commercial vendors without their consent.

I often feel like I'm an odd person to be acting as a consultant, since I use tactical media and am particularly attracted to satire as a way to get my point across, whether I'm giving out my annual Foley awards for bad government websites or doing a full-fledged parody of the DipNote State Department blog.

I also have a tendency to be perhaps a little too frank in some of my entries in this blog, like this one, for example.

The painful Briefing 2.0 with U.S. Department of State Spokesman Sean McCormack was apparently intended to emulate aspects of the popular YouTube/CNN debates by having Internet users submit questions to powerful stakeholders and government experts, but this twenty-nine minute spectacle of cluelessness received fewer viewers -- by a factor of seven -- than this spontaneous video of my kids playing the Atlantic City Pipe Organ. Forget skateboarding dogs, this video was trounced even by bad Sponge Bob impressions, high school poetry readings, and "How to Plot a Point on a Graph." It would have been bad enough if McCormack was performing solo for a webcam in his bedroom, but there was an entire room full of dumbfounded reporters present at the event, who were apparently forbidden from asking questions themselves, even though this was ostensibly a press conference. It's really cringe-inducing to see McCormick struggle with his statements about "fun" and "foreign policy" and take credit for "something I started three years ago," as though that made him an savvy old hand.

Looking at the State Department social media offerings again with fresh eyes, I first of all wish that they would revise their website for kids, which has some good research resources, the reason that children actually go to government websites when writing school reports, but also some idiotic content that follows the "fun" paradigm of drivel devoted to bad puzzles and games.

I also wondered why video content on the State Department website doesn't facilitate downloads, when White House videos can be easily downloaded as MP4s. Recent content on the State Department's YouTube channel featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to no longer allow comments, which were available -- although moderated -- during the Condoleezza Rice era. This is certainly understandable given the online phenomenon of "Hillary haters" that I observed during the 2008 election. However, many users expect to be able to comment on and remix online video, so this use of YouTube as a one-way channel of communication may give it limited appeal.

In addition, it was interesting to think about which State Department videos fell into the "most viewed" category on their YouTube channel.

In first place was the infographics video for the townhall-style component of the Summit of the Americas. Of course, there are problems with the rhetoric of infographics and the simplification that it reifies, since as Bogost argues the dictum that "Information is Beautiful" should be interrogated.

In second, third, and fourth places was commentary about the investigation of the Daniel Pearl murder, which made me wonder how many YouTube viewers landed there while searching for gruesome beheading videos. In addition to briefings, there were also PSAs on their YouTube channel, such as this one featuring Jane Goodall. Among them were also some very low view videos. Middle East Digest seems to get very few views.

I'm still wary about the quality of institutional blogging from government agencies. The State Department's Dipnote is definitely better than it was during the Bush era, but I can't see it attracting a large audience while it is still largely dry PR announcements and its experiments with first person commentary, like "Why I Went to Kirkurk," are far too bland to draw readers to its prose.

Finally, Dipnote on Twitter updates far too slowly for the fast-moving Twitterati. It could be much more site-specific and time-specific. In other words, is it fast enough to be persuasive? (Of course, when they were engaging in rapid-fire exchanges that engaged directly with other policy-oriented tweeting, there could be problems, as in this case.)

Update: It looks like their Twitter feed was just relaunched here and is getting more site-specific, time-specific rapid updating.

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