From analog to digital diplomacy: a snapshot of the evolution of the tools of the diplomat

A display of the evolution of tech at the State Department
A display at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.

If you’re interested in public diplomacy in the age of social media, I hope you’ll join me (either virtually or in person) at the New America Foundation next week, where I’ll be moderating a discussion on how the latest connection technologies are being applied to statecraft in the 21st century. Who’s participating and why? What have been some lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to listen and engage?

I’ll be talking with the following three representatives from the U.S. Department of State, each of whom will share case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches:

  • SuzKPH
    Suzanne Hall
    , Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • EdAndDunn
    Ed Dunn
    , Acting Director the U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center, U.S. Department of State
  • nicholasnamba
    Nick Namba
    , Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State

If you have questions for the panel, please submit them and vote for others on Google Moderator. Of course, I’ll also be monitoring the hashtag for the event (#SMWdiplomacy) on Twitter during the event, along with comment threads on Google+ and Facebook.


SURVEY: 85% of American adults who use social media say people are “mostly kind” on the sites

A new survey report on “the tone of life on social networking sites” from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 85% of American adults who use social media say people are “mostly kind” on those sites:

These attitudes will naturally be of great interest to people who work in practices that span open government to education, in terms of practitioners considering the use of social media for public engagement, civic participation, and deliberative democracy, along with grist for digital ethnographers of both the amateur and professional variety.

More stats, excerpted from the report:

“A nationally representative phone survey of American adults finds that:

*85% of SNS-using adults say that their experience on the sites is that people are mostly kind, compared with 5% who say people they observe on the sites are mostly unkind and another 5% who say their answer depends on the situation.

*68% of SNS users said they had an experience that made them feel good about themselves.

*61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person. (Many said they had both experiences.)

*39% of SNS-using adults say they frequently see acts of generosity by other SNS users and another 36% say they sometimes see others behaving generously and helpfully. By comparison, 18% of SNS-using adults say they see helpful behavior “only once in a while” and 5% say they never see generosity exhibited by others on social networking sites.”

Why don’t Google and Facebook use ChillingEffects to mitigate censorship like Twitter?

At the request of the government of India, Google India and Facebook have removed content from Blogger and the world’s largest social network after a court order. As Alex Kirkpatrick reported at Mashable, “Indian prosecutors are suing a host of Internet companies on behalf of a Muslim religious leader who has accused them of hosting content that insults Islam.”

If Google and Facebook used Chilling Effects like Twitter, we’d know what content they had censored in India For context, consider Twitter’s stance on censorship and Internet freedom.

While Google’s Transparency Report for India is laudable and impressively visualized, it doesn’t show what content was removed.

As far as I know, Facebook neither posts data of content takedown requests by region nor the content itself. If you know of such data or reports, please let me know in the comments

Laptops, smartphones and social media allowed in U.S. House press gallery

The C-SPAN coverage of the resignation of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and tributes to her in the United States House of Representatives included something new: the House-controlled cameras provided an unusual display of extra TV camera shots in the House chamber, including the Giffords family in the House gallery.

In general, the viewing public does not get to see what’s happening elsewhere in the House. “These additional angles added much to the public’s appreciation for this Congressional action,” said Howard Mortman, communications director for C-SPAN, “and might lead one to ask, why not permit such camera shots every day?”

Mortman also alerted me to another interesting development: According to a new Roll Call story, journalists now can bring their laptops into the press gallery and use them to report on what’s happening. Reporters have to ask to do it — and they’ll need to have fully charged laptop batteries — but Superintendent Jerry Gallegos told Roll Call that he will allow laptops in for special events.

“It won’t be something that at this point we’ll be doing on a daily basis, just because power is an issue out there,” he said. “But because the House changed their rules allowing BlackBerrys on the floor … it didn’t make sense for Members to be able to tweet and not be able to have reporters get the tweets.”

It’s not the first time computers have graced the gallery, Gallegos said. The decision to allow laptops goes back to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But the gallery staff tired of arguing with testy writers about why plugging multiple power cords into limited outlets and running wires across the floor is a fire hazard.

“Early on, they weren’t going to be able to operate without plugging in,” he said. “It was very obvious that was going to create a safety hazard.”

Thankfully, battery technology has evolved since the 1990s and the House Chief Administrative Office equipped the chamber with Wi-Fi in August. So, Gallegos said, “It just seemed like now was the time.”

Even if the laptops run out of battery power or have connectivity issues, however, reporters will now have another option: Mortman tells me that iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and other smartphones will also be allowed into the press gallery of the U.S. House on a “trial basis.”

As a result, we should expect to see more livetweeting and Facebook updates from journalists on-site. That said, there’s a major caveat: Mortman said that the trial will be monitored to ensure that no photos or video are recorded.

Given the role that smartphones now play in the professional lives of journalists of all beats, political, tech or otherwise, the limitation on pictures and video is notable. There’s a good chance that the trial could be tested, as soon as a newsworthy event occurs off the C-SPAN camera. Late last year, during a debate over the payroll tax, House staff shut down C-SPAN cameras. Government staff acting to limit the capacity of a journalist to record a debate between elected representatives in the People’s House might raise valid First Amendment questions.

“One day, hopefully, the House (and U.S. Senate) will also allow in independent media TV cameras,” said Mortman.

Transportation Camp DC gets geeky about the present and future of transit

Today in Washington, the “School without Walls was full of of civic energy around open data, tech, community, bikes, smart cities, systems, efficiency, sustainability, accessibility, trains, buses, hacking, social networking, research, policy, crowdsourcing and more. Transportation Camp, an “unconference” generated by its attendees, featured dozens of sessions on all of those topics and more. As I’ve reported before, transit data is open government fuel for economic growth.

A Case for Open Data in Transit from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Below, the stories told in the tweets from the people show how much more there is to the world of transit than data alone. Their enthusiasm and knowledge made the 2012 iteration of Transportation Camp in the District a success.

Can Facebook predict the winner of the 2011 NH presidential primary?

Last week, looking at Twitter as a predictor the Iowa caucus results or building tools to do so felt like the shiny object of the moment in the tech blogosphere. Some were more over the top than others but the genre is well established: adapt the numbers of followers and fans a candidate has on Twitter and Facebook to the classic “horse race” coverage of political campaigns. Used that way, it feels like the latest in a long list of reasons to conjecture that political coverage is broken.

As Micah Sifry suggested at techPresident, however, you shouldn’t believe the social media hype.

“There are so many ways that such changes might NOT be indicative of anything, or indicative of the opposite, that it almost seems silly to list them. A candidate might gain followers because he’s entertaining to his opponents. She might gain followers because of something outrageous that she says. The same with retweets. As the saying used to go, “a link is not an endorsement.” At best, it’s a very low-level indication of interest, an invitation to start a relationship that campaigns need to convert into real support. Similarly, we shouldn’t take big numbers of followers or “likes” as proof that a candidate has a really engaged base. Over on the Huffington Post, Alan Rosenblatt demolishes the notion that Newt Gingrich 1.4 million Twitter followers means he’s popular among Republicans. For starters, half of those accounts aren’t even in the United States. Newt’s numbers are a sign of online longevity and notoriety, not much more. And who can forget when Herman Cain was topping the Facebook “buzz” charts?”

Today at techPresident, Nick Judd published a feature on Twitter obsession that went even deeper into the issue and how problematic trying to prognosticate about the campaigns using social media can be. It’s worth reading the whole thing but here’s the relevant bit:

“The thing about attaching numbers to people’s names is that it usually makes them want to make the number go up. Call it gamification if you want. The truth is that it’s human nature, and as more people pay attention to social media, it is creating a sort of downward behavioral spiral. Candidates wanting more points on the social media scoreboard are urging supporters to tweet and post to Facebook on their behalf — spreading borderline spam on social networks and doing nothing to make the campaign season less of a horse race when that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. “

Judd suggests that instead, political reporters and tech journalists (and those of us who try to straddle those worlds, on some level) should be evaluating the success — or failure of campaigns based upon better metrics.

“…why not evaluate them in the public online sphere based on metrics that say more about their potential as a public official? Especially over the past two years, information of this type has become easier for programmers to get to. The unfinished bit is making a competition in which a candidate can ‘win the Internet’ by accumulating the most small-dollar donors, or by making the most in-state campaign stops of an hour or more in a week, or by staking out the most detailed position on oh, I don’t know, the future of American Internet infrastructure.”

I think Judd is offering political journalists a great way to differentiate themselves from the pack of stressed, overworked correspondents chasing the same story in the same place. As primary season goes into hyperdrive, I can’t help but hope that some take up his suggestion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of social media and government over the past couple years. Governance has proven to be a genuine challenge, at least with respect to the current architectures for digital participation we have. That could well change, as the civic Web moves from idea to reality. To make the point in a succinct way, policy makers seeking to leverage technology in governance in the 21st century might do better to look to the wiki, not the tweet.

Campaigns, however, particularly well suited to quicksilver sociality of media, with its capacity to share links to viral videos, rapid responses or pithy quotes. There’s a reason that reporters of many stripes, political or not, watch Twitter carefully now: it tends to be where news breaks first.

All that being said, I saw some data tonight that made me wonder, yet again, about social media’s potential value as a leading indicator, getting out ahead of the polls that campaigns and the media traditionally use to gauge how the candidates are doing. While Twitter still has low penetration in the overall population of voters, a majority of Americans online are now on Facebook.

Earlier this evening, I got off the phone with Jan Rezab, CEO of Socialbakers, whose company has been crunching social data from Facebook around the GOP presidential candidates. They’ve been porting the data into an infographic on elections at socialbakers.com.

There are several ways to read the data, said Rezab, including the overall status of a candidate, where they’ve been gaining followers over a long period of time. If we look deeper, said Rezab, the best thing is geometrics, looking at fan gains, people talking about the candidates, how many people do they reach and what topic they talk about.

So here’s the interesting data point — and yes, I may well have buried the lede — social data from Facebook shows former Utah Governor John Huntsman is trending sharply upwards, much as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum did before Iowa. Hunstman gained 1182 fans yesterday and, as of 7 PM EST tonight, more than 2000 fans, a 69% increase. The same is also true of people talking about him on Facebook, with some 8800 people on the 8th and approximately 11,0000 today, a 25% increase.

That’s “quite huge growth,” said Rezab. “He’s the one that’s trending right now.”

Will growth be a leading indicator for Huntsman finishing 3rd or even 2nd? Hard to say. The gold standard for political calculus is Nate Silver at 538, who is now at the New York Times. Silver blogged today that “Huntsman has momentum but lacks time“:

“Two new polls out Sunday night showed a favorable trend for Mr. Huntsman. A Public Policy Polling survey, which had a very large sample size, gave him 16 percent of the vote, enough to challenge Ron Paul for second place. Another poll, by the University of New Hampshire, had Mr. Huntsman at 11 percent of the vote, although this was improved from his 7-percent standing earlier in the week.”

Will that be enough to keep him viable and in the race? It’s hard to know. I’ll refer readers back to Silver’s analysis of Huntsman’s prospects on that count.

Here’s one more thing to consider: relevant academic research. Responding to a question on Twitter about whether Facebook was was predictive, Girish J. “Jeff” Gulati, a politics professor at Bentley University, replied that the growth in Huntsman’s “likes” and “mentions” was not. Rather, “our 2008 data suggest it would be response to positive news coverage of his debate performance and gains in NH polls,” he replied. According to “Social Networks in Political Campaigns: Facebook and Congressional Elections 2006, 2008,” co-authored with Christine B. Williams, suggests a causal relationship is credibel, if not confirmed by their research data and methods:

Preliminary analysis of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests (Williams and Gulati, 2008) suggests that Facebook supporters matters even more than candidate visits and television ad buys, and together these indicators explain very high percentages of the variance in candidates‟ vote shares. The predictive power of the model for all New Hampshire voters was lower than for the model of all voters in the Iowa caucuses, however, and the regression coefficients for Facebook support were not statistically significant. The model for the youngest age cohort in New Hampshire was highly predictive, and there was a very strong and highly significant relationship between actual vote share and Facebook support among 18-24 year olds. Another approach would be to include as an independent variable the percentage voter turnout for 18 to 29 year olds in each state‟s nomination contest. If Facebook support is simply a surrogate for young people‟s heightened political engagement in the 2008 election, its independent effect would wash out.

If future research can confirm these findings and demonstrate a causal connection between online strategies and votes, then Facebook and other social networking sites will be an essential tool in enhancing the democratic process. These sites go beyond simply communicating the campaign‟s theme and information on how to make participating easier. Active engagement by the candidate and a well maintained site can make the candidate more accessible and seem more authentic. It also can encourage a more professional discussion among supporters. In addition to personalizing the candidate, Facebook puts a face on the candidate‟s other supporters and facilitates interpersonal connections around activities other than politics. And because Facebook organizes members by regional and organizational networks and gives greater access to profiles in one‟s own networks, offline meetings and connections are a real possibility. As membership in traditional civic associations declines, we see in these networks a new frontier for cultivating social capital, which candidates, elected officials and civic leaders can tap when they want to mobilize citizens for political action.

Will rapid changes on Facebook predict the winner of the 2011 NH presidential primary? There’s little doubt 2008 Facebook was a very different place, in terms of scale, functionality and integration into the lives of Americans online, than 2012 Facebook is today. Tens of millions of citizens have tablets and smartphones now and access Facebook from where ever they are. As we saw last Sunday, television networks and Facebook are increasingly integrating debates.

There’s “definitely a lot more going on Facebook and other social media this time around,” wrote Gulati in a follow up email. “In fact, every two years we see so much growth and change. I’ve been studying this since 2002. The beauty of studying this field is that there always exciting and you are never short of ideas for a new study. I still am sticking with my view that it is not a strong predictor of future success at the polls.”

Gulati listed three rationales for this assessment:

1. Much of social media strength is a function of longevity on Facebook and national visibility. “Gingrich, Romney, Paul, and Bachmann start out strong simply because they ran before and carry over their supporters or are members of Congress that are known nationwide,” wrote Gulati.

2. Some of the candidates who are stronger on social media are in that position because they are shut out of traditional sources. “Ron Paul and Buddy Roemer are cases in point,” wrote Gulati. “So my point is not to look at social media in isolation of other media.”

3. Social media isn’t integrated with the campaign. “From our interviews with Congressional candidates and staff in 2008 and 2010 (~150 interviews), we found that the staff really does not know what to do with these likes and followers,” wrote Gulati. “So even if a social media consultant is succeeding in growing the candidate’s online presence, it really does not go much past that. I think that as the number of followers grows, it actually will be harder for campaigns to truly engage with them because there are just too many. A similar problem was happening in Congress with regards to e-mail overload. I’m not sure if they really have resolved the problem.”

Gulati attributes rapid changes in likes or mentions to external events, which is makes sense. The one billion dollar question, is whether a social media following will lead to offline action, in this case results at the polls:

Of course, your post was referring to the change in supporters rather than actual numbers. I think clearly that indicates some buzz around the candidate. But I still see it as a reaction to external events as in 2008 rather than social media pushing overall numbers mostly because I haven’t seen any evidence that social media strength can move poll numbers or actual results. I think one reason that so many of us who study social media give social media such an elevated prominence because that’s all we see or what we see on a regular basis.”

Do you think the growth in user base and political involvement will lead other researchers to different conclusions? Or, as Sifry and Judd eloquently argued, should the idea or the practice of looking at politics from the perspective of a social prism alone simply be consigned to the “dustbin of twistory?”

Comments are open. And, even more important, the first votes of the presidential primary season will be cast as the eyes of the nation turn towards Dixville Notch .

Make Thomas.gov a platform, suggests House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer

Rep Steny Honey at the Congressional Hackathon

How governments deal with social media has been a focal point of friction, fantasy and fierce real-time discussion around the globe in 2011. Tonight in Washington, the first “Congressional hackathon” convened Members of the House of Representatives, staffers, media, developers and citizens at the Capitol Building in Washington to talk about how social media, open government and technology could make the “people’s house” work better for those it represents. I embedded a Storify below that collects tweets and pictures from the event, plan to file a full report at Radar tomorrow and will share video when it becomes available.

In his remarks, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer addressed how social media is affected Congress and his caucus and open government in the Executive branch. He also cited the growth of open data in cities as a model that Congress should consider for the future of Thomas.gov:

“For Congress, there is still a lot of work to be done, and we have a duty to make the legislative process as open and accessible as possible. One thing we could do is make thomas.gov – where people go to research legislation from current and previous Congresses – easier to use, and accessible by social media. Imagine if a bill in Congress could tweet its own status.

“The data available on thomas.gov should be expanded and made easily accessible by third party systems. Once this happens, developers, like many of you here today, could use legislative data in innovative ways. This will usher in new public-private partnerships that will empower new entrepreneurs who will, in turn, yield benefits to the public sector. One successful example is how cities have made public transit data accessible so developers can use it in apps and websites. The end result has been commuters saving time everyday and seeing more punctual trains and buses as a result of the transparency. Legislative data is far more complex, but the same principles apply. If we make the information available, I am confident that smart people like you will use it in inventive ways.”

If Hoyer and the House leadership would like to see that happen, several attendees at the hackathon suggested to me that Congress could take a specific action: collaborate with the Senate and send the Library of Congress a letter instructing it to provide bulk legislative data access to THOMAS.gov in structured formats so that the developers, designers and citizens around the nation can co-create a better civic experience for everyone.

Here’s the story of the rest of the event, as told in tweets and pictures:

Can a Congressional hackathon make the House of Representatives more social?

It’s time to think different about hacking in Congress. Later this afternoon, I’ll be strolling over to Capitol Hill to participate in what I believe is an unprecedented event: developers working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staffers to figure out how to “hack Congress” to make it work better for citizens. Details on the Facebook hackathon are over at the House Majority Leader’s website.

There are a number of reasons that I’m optimistic that we’ll see useful results from today’s efforts.

First, the Republicans have been invested in this area on this since before last year’s election, when the GOP leadership put embracing innovation on the agenda. In April, they sent a letter to the House Clerk regarding legislative data release. Then, in September, a live XML feed for the House floor went online. Yes, there’s a long way to go on open legislative data quality in Congress but there’s support for open government data on both sides of the aisle. Dan Schuman, blogging about what the Sunlight Foundation hopes to see from what he calls a “wonk-a-thon,” lists the many other ways the House has yet to catch up with 21st century technology:

We have yet to see bulk access to THOMAS or public access to CRS reports, important legislative and ethics documents are still unavailable in digital format, many committee hearings still are not online, and so on.

As Schuman highlights there, the Sunlight Foundation has been focused on opening up Congress through technology since, well, there was a Sunlight Foundation. To whit: “There have been several previous collaborative efforts by members of the transparency community to outline how the House of Representatives can be more open and accountable, of which an enduring touchstone is the Open House Project Report, issued in May 2007,” writes Schuman.

Second, the people coming to Congress for some civic coding today aren’t your average group of developers: they’re from Facebook. If you’ve been following technology news, you know that there’s been a fierce competition for development talent in Silicon Valley for years now, with Google and Facebook specifically focused on attracting the best and brightest. It’s fair to say that the world’s largest social network, predicted to go public next year, has had some success on that front. These developers are, naturally, likely to be looking for ways to integrate legislative data, video and RSS into Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol and Facebook’s platform.

Third, I here that there are some new tools for making the process of forming legislation more open to the people set to go online. I’m looking forward to reporting that out to the country.

Will talent, vision and opportunity combine to make the People’s House a more social, open place? Stay tuned.