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Twitter: Revolutionising reporting?

Published on 22 November 2011
Updated on 19 March 2024

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead (Mark Twain)

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Reports are the lifeline of diplomatic services, international organisations, and many other institutions. Thousands of reports are written daily as a result of meetings, projects, and other events.

Reports are becoming voluminous. The availability of a medium with almost no cost (computers) and the convenience of copying and pasting make reports much longer today than in yesteryear. And the longer they become, the less likely they are to be read and ultimately the less useful they will be. How to report effectively has become a key organisational issue for many diplomatic services and other organisations.

Here is one historical digression that could hint to a possible solution. One of the best diplomatic reporting dates back to the nineteenth century when sending cables via telegraph was enormously expensive. Diplomats, mainly US, had to craft every telegraph carefully (others used carriages till the early twentieth century).

Could Twitter provide a solution for long reports or at least hint in which direction reporting should move? Limited to 140 characters, instead of long e-mails and blogs, Twitter forces us to keep our communication concise and focused. Perhaps we should consider restricting the length of (diplomatic) reports?

Recently I experimented by reporting using Twitter from a few events. It required a complete immersion into the events with a high level of concentration and a lot of energy. After tweeting from one session (90 minutes) I felt physically exhausted, proving vividly that the brain is the main consumer of energy.

What were my findings?

  • My experiment in vivo confirmed McLuhan’s premise that ‘the medium is the message’. Even further, the medium shapes our thinking. My wife has noticed recently that my verbal communication has become shorter and more concise (Twitter style), which might not be a bad thing at all.
  • I had to make sure that my tweets were interesting, relevant and useful. If I write boring tweets, nobody will read them – even if they are only 140 characters long.
  • I also had to think about the context in which my followers would read my tweets. Tweeting from an event on the Balkans, I wondered what my followers knew about the region. Writing engaging tweets and understanding the sociocultural context in which tweets are read is vital.
  • One great advantage is that tweets serve as mental hooks. It’s easy to forget exactly what was discussed at an event but if I tweet, I can still vividly remember what was discussed days later. Memory hooks have developed as a collateral advantage of tweeting.
  • One weakness of my tweet-reporting is that my tweets were more my interpretation of the event than a factual summary. It is probably matter of personal approach. Tweet-reporting can be factual.

We will continue an experiment with tweet-reports. Mary Murphy is conducting research on diplomatic reporting in the Internet era. Your comments and suggestions to Mary would be useful. (marym@diplomacy.edu).

I also promise that my next text will be more twitter-style (i.e. shorter and concise).

As additional reading on diplomatic reporting I suggest the following papers: Ambassador Victor Camilleri’s background paper, Aldo Matteucci’s proposal on How to use Wikis for Diplomatic Reporting, Ambassador Kishan Rana’s background material on Feedback in Diplomatic Reporting, and Ambassador Nabil Fahmy’s reflections on Diplomatic Reporting and Media Coverage of Events. An example of Tweet-reporting by Andrea Glorioso from the Council of Europe Meeting on Internet and Human Rights.

ANNEX: Tweet-report from the morning session at the GCSP’s Conference on the Security in the Balkans (9th November 2011)

  • Like in time machine; back to Balkans themes at GCSP even; met a good friend Vesko after +20 years; compared hair-styles (I lost 😉
  • Against historical fatalism in Balkans; historians prepared joint history book (like French/German); not used in schools YET bit.ly/sqkbGh
  • Need to change mindset; my small contribution – book on Compromise in Serbian bit.ly/sSZCZA
  • @TimJudah1 with realistic optimism about Balkans: No news is good news; Balkans is boring
  • Agree with Judah for 3 reasons: 1. end of Balkan geo-narcism: center of the world, bridge among civilisation
  • 2. end of transition of communist elite into tajkuns; they feel less threatened; look for law and order
  • 3. without elite manipulation people will find solutions (common sense, invention, initiative)
  • Balkan is tired of ethno-nationalism; no stomach for big narratives; comic and failed HDZ fear-campaign against Serbs
  • M.Todorova: Recent success of Bulgaria due to 3 lost wars in 20-century. Serbia lost 4 wars recently. Some hope

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