It has been almost a year since the E-diplomacy website was launched. It has also been some time since we posted Stefano Baldi’s list of ‘Essential tools’ on our blog.

Technology progresses at an incredible speed. Not only is newer software being developed continuously, it also has the potential to become extremely popular in a surprisingly short time, or likewise, fall quickly out of use.

New is not always equal to better, and more than that, the tools I find useful for my day-to-day work may not necessarily be what you need to do yours.  

In diplomacy, one might argue that diplomats’ requirements are more or less similar: a secure way of communicating, a manageable system of finding and organising information, an effective way of conducting public diplomacy outreach, and so on.

Last week’s session on E-diplomacy, for participants attending the Modern Diplomacy for Small States workshop in Malta, led by Jovan Kurbalija with the assistance of Mary Murphy, proved that while some tools are standing the test of time, other tools have also found their way onto diplomats’ lists of essential e-tools.

1. Information aggregators, tools which aggregate information from multiple online sources to one place, continue tofeature high on the list. The idea is, as Dr Kurbalija explained, that rather than searching for content across different platforms, which can be time-consuming, the content is aggregated from various platforms and delivered to one central location.

I find that there are two ways of going about this. A fast, essentials-only way is by using an RSS/Atom reader (RSS and Atom being standard formats which many publishers/authors/journalists use for their content, and which an RSS/Atom reader can ‘capture’). This aggregates content from news headlines, blogs, audio, and video. The feeds include summarised versions or full text, author and date, and the readers can be web-based (such as Google Reader) or desktop-based (such as FeedDemon and NewzCrawler).

A second, more comprehensive, bird’s eye view way, is by using a Web 2.0 Start Page, or personal webpage. This has all the features of an RSS/Atom reader, but has the advantage of being able to do more:  integrate e-mail (for example, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail or other POP/IMAP-based webmail services), add calendars and weather forecasts, integrate photo and video services (for example, Flickr or YouTube), integrate Facebook and Twitter accounts, and many more modules. Popular start pages include Netvibes, which Stefano Baldi explains in detail here, iGoogle and Pageflakes.

The choice you make depends on the way you perceive aggregation (essentials-only vs a bird’s eye view), what your requirements are (news and blogs vs news + blogs + Twitter + social networks +…), and your personal ability to strike a balance between an incomplete picture and information overload.

Feed icons 2. Blogging probably attracts the most controversy of all. On the one hand, we’ve seen an increase in the number of blogs maintained by diplomats, especially in countries where blogging is encouraged (for example, British MFA’s blog at http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller; New Zealand’s MFAT blog at http://blogs.mfat.govt.nz/). On the other, some states are still uncomfortable with the idea of diplomats expressing personal opinions on current affairs, politics and diplomacy, even if (a) the diplomat blogs in his or her personal capacity, and (2) what is said does not go contrary to the country’s official position.

Setting up a blog is relatively easy (check out WordPress or Blogger, for example). Rather, it’s the maintaining that requires considerable effort. Ms Murphy, herself an experienced blogger, explained that blogs need to be nurtured with at least a couple of weekly posts to sustain a good level of interest (unless, of course, the blogs are being posted to a Foreign Affairs blog to which other diplomats contribute).

Feed icons 3. Microblogging has also become a popular channel for MFAs, embassies, and diplomats. Although Twitter’s 140-character limit is very restrictive (Tweetdeck has now made it possible to share longer tweets… no, it does not defeat the purpose), a brief description and a shortened URL (using, for example, bit.ly) can go a long way in driving people to your blog or website. Retweets can take the message even further, beyond your circle of followers.

Regardless of what we’re blogging or tweeting about (services like Tumblr combine blogging and microblogging), it’s always important to clearly state whether it’s being done on behalf of the ministry, mission, department, or institution, or in our own personal capacity.

The ‘I’ve never tried it because it’s a waste of time’ reply some of us have heard gives little credit to a tool which many diplomats and e-diplomacy departments are benefiting from in terms of presence and outreach. And even if we might feel too reserved to share anything of our own, it pays to be aware of new blog posts, events, research, and press releases posted by other diplomats, MFAs, diplomatic institutes – right there as it happens. Just like any other tool, what’s important is to learn how to customise it well for one’s own use.

The E-diplomacy workshop took place on 9 March, in Malta, during which we tweeted from @ediplomat(tweet log available here), and posted live updates on www.facebook.com/ediplomacy. Follow us!

Are you a diplomat and use Twitter? Have you ever blogged? Do you consider blogging and microblogging important for diplomacy? Tell us what you think...

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