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E-diplomacy: between hype and reality

Published on 14 June 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

E-diplomacy has attracted a lot of attention recently. Some new terms have been coined including Facebook diplomacy and Twitter diplomacy. The Arab Spring initiated a new wave of commentary on Internet-driven changes in international relations.  Many articles have been written about prominent diplomats using blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.

The empowering potential of the Internet in global governance is evident.  The smart use of Internet tools can help make diplomacy both more inclusive and more effective. However, there is a risk that the current social media excitement could be taken to an extreme. It may raise unrealistic expectations and ultimately endanger the empowering potential of the Internet on diplomacy. Moderation is just as important in e-diplomacy as it is in traditional diplomacy.

The first alert signals about techno-hype have started to emerge, including Thomas Friedman’s article Facebook Meets Bricks-and-Mortals Politics. Techno-hype is not new, as a toast proposed by the British Ambassador Edward Thornton in 1858 on the occasion of the completion of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable illustrates:

To] The telegraph wire, the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.[i]

Many wars, including two world ones, have taken place since the toast by the British ambassador. Yet, techno-hype might still have some positive effects. It could  inspire people and push the frontiers of possibility. The problem starts when techno-hype becomes the only lens focused on reality. Striking the right balance between what is possible and what is real, is essential. In e-diplomacy, this balance is in the interplay between continuity and change. Continuity is represented in the core tools of diplomacy, negotiations and compromise, both of which are as old as humanity. Change is represented in the new tools, including the latest ones such as Twitter and Facebook.

One approach to discussing this interplay between continuity and change in e-diplomacy is the Gartner Hype Cycle, which my colleague Pete Cranston introduced in an earlier post. For ease of reading I include the diagram here.

E-diplomacy: between hype and reality

Gartner’s model describes how new technology is adopted by society. We provided initial data on web-tools (green dots) and diplomatic practice (blue dots) based on a quick survey among Diplo-staff. The survey shows two biases. The first is a general one, seeing e-diplomacy through the media coverage of e-diplomacy in the US State Department, the most advanced in this field.  For example, the use of Twitter is beyond hype-point, while many other countries and international organisations are in the very early phase of adopting Twitter.

The second bias is more specific for Diplo, coloured by our involvement in, for example, online diplomatic training (the last 15 years) and e-participation (the last 6 years). In both areas we have reached the phase of re-evaluating and are trying to move to the ‘plateau of productivity’.  The level of e-learning and e-participation varies worldwide. For example, e-participation is in an early phase, perceived predominantely as the web-broadcasting of international events short of using interactive e-tools.

Before you start commenting on the map, let me provide a short explanation of the e-diplomacy hype cycle illustration. The cycle starts with a technology trigger and moves quickly to the peak of inflated expectations.  This is the moment of high techno-excitement.  The cycle then turns downwards towards the phase of disillusionment.. In this phase we start asking questions: Are these tools really as efficient as we thought? Are they really going to change social reality? Twitter is being re-evaluated in this way at the moment by diplomats.In the disillusionment phase, the survey puts the impact of Internet tools on public diplomacy, diplomatic training, and consular service.

This re-evaluation sets the stage for  the slope of enlightenment, and ultimately, what Gartner calls the ‘plateau of productivity’  or real and full use of new technology in diplomatic activities.  According to the survey, the use of webinar tools and MFA blogs is approaching maturity, as they are increasingly integrated into everyday diplomatic activities.

Some activities could not fit easily in the model. One of them is negotiations. I disagreed with the ‘collective wisdom’ of Diplo (expressed in the survey) that negotiations is at the beginning of the cycle. Although there is very little techno-hype around negotiations, the Internet and computers have already had a rather invisible, but profound,  impact on negotiations. Some simple tools such as editing with track changes in MS Word or e-mail exchange in the preparations of face-to-face negotiations have already impacted negotiation dynamics substantially.

Please let us know your views on the first version of the e-diplomacy hype cycle based on input from Diplo’s community. Is anything missing? Are the different tools and diplomatic activities properly placed?

[i] Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, London: Phoenix, 1998, P. 87


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