Twitter has become one of the preferred tools of communication for foreign policy practitioners, from cabinet ministers to ambassadors and diplomats. It has evolved from the most talked about micro-blogging website during the first US presidential campaign by Barack Obama, to a veritable complement to traditional diplomacy.
On 8 March 2013, DiploFoundation’s webinar Twitter: the fastest-growing tool for diplomats explored how the social network has grown during the years from the first ever tweet sent by its founder Jack Dorsey, to a crowd of Twitter users spreading all around the world.
Lecturer Andreas Sandre, author of the book Twitter for Diplomats and a Press and Public Affairs Officer at the Embassy of Italy in Washington DC, analysed how, during the past couple of years, Twitter has grown to become the fourth social media in the world with around 288 million active monthly users as at the end of 2012. It has registered the fastest growth among its competitors, including giants like Facebook, YouTube, and Google+.
Twitter spread exponentially in countries with a high Internet penetration and a culture rooted in the social media experience: statistics on active usage show countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey with percentages in the mid-fifties and mid-forties, respectively; Indonesia and the Philippines at 49% and 39%, respectively; and Mexico, Argentina, Malaysia, Brazil, and India at around 30%. These are important statistics to consider when drafting a social media plan, more so when you look at those numbers in terms of how users access Twitter: in fact, as the number of mobile phones increases in areas like South America, Africa, and Asia/Pacific, the number of Twitter subscribers grows, especially among two groups: joiners (new users) and followers (people, including consumers, using Twitter to collect information, follow the news, and curious about the tool). The spread of Twitter has interested also the diplomatic world becoming – in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton –’a new nervous system for our planet’. It is now a tool that serves as a veritable bridge between what Professor Anne Marie Slaughter calls the ‘billiard word’ and the ‘Lego world’. The first is ‘a world in which states are reduced to their heads of state, their foreign ministry, and their army, and they interact with other states almost entirely in terms of power’, as she explained in 2012. The second is ‘a world in which states come apart […] and have the ability to network or partner or make an alliance with social actors. […] It is a horizontal world. There are no ladders because there are no hierarchies. It is a web. Power still exists in a web, but it is exercised from the center, not the top.’
The webinar showed how foreign ministers and ambassadors have been particularly drawn to Twitter. However, amongst the most successful are those following what our lecturer Andreas called the three key pillars to harnessing the power of ideas and inspiring others:
- Be bold: be able to pass the message along with no confusion and interpretations. Diplomacy on Twitter has to be clear and concise – remember you only have 140 characters – but always in way in which common sense and balance prevail over rush.
- Be organic: be able to build a real dialogue on Twitter, just like you would on the phone or in a e-mail exchange. Being organic is what makes you personable and real.
- Be engaging: isn’t that the goal of Twitter diplomacy? The webinar showed there is no wrong way to use Twitter. There are, however, users who are more successful – not only in terms of followers – and users who believe the risks outweigh the benefits. Twitter is there to be explored and used. If you’re already on Twitter, don’t be a follower, start using it!
One last word of advice comes from Alec Ross: ‘The policy should not be “thou shall tweet”,’ he said at the 2013 Internet Freedom Fellows in Geneva. ‘If you’re not comfortable with it, don’t use it.’