Commentary: Twittering in Tehran and beyond |

Commentary: Twittering in Tehran and beyond

Guy W. Farmer

Even though Time magazine calls “a toy for flirting and telling people what your cat is doing,” Twitter played a significant role in last week’s short-lived democracy uprising in Iran.

Nevertheless, “tweeting” on Twitter still sounds like baby talk to me.

Prior to the Iranian uprising the news weekly explained how “Twitter will change the way we live (in 140 characters or less).” Well, I was astounded by this startling piece of news, and decided to learn more about Twittering – which presumably, is done by a Twit. No offense intended.

“Twitter is developing into a powerful form of communication,” Time proclaimed, adding that this new technology allows us to send 140-character updates to thousands of cyber-“friends” all day long. For example, we can tell them how we’re feeling and what we had for breakfast. How exciting!

“Twitter turns out to have unsuspected depth,” Time asserted, “because hearing about what your friends had for breakfast is actually more interesting than it sounds.” One technology writer told the magazine that these short bursts of personal information create “ambient awareness,” providing a “strangely satisfying glimpse of (your friends’) daily routines.” The excitement builds. I can hardly wait to hear what you had for lunch.

Yes, I’m making fun of so-called “social media” because I’m an old print journalist, and besides, I think the whole Twitter thing is wildly over-hyped. Even the heretofore stodgy State Department is participating in the latest technology fad with something called Public Diplomacy 2.0, in which our diplomats “tweet” about U.S. foreign policy in short bursts on Twitter and other cyber outlets.

Evgeny Morozov, who covers social media for several top publications, questions the use of the new media to defend, explain and promote U.S. foreign policy, which is the job of public diplomacy. “Watching American diplomats embrace new media for purposes of public diplomacy has been a very awkward experience,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. “By shifting its outreach campaigns to Facebook, Twitter and blogs, the government may be trying to do the impossible, i.e. to plant carefully worded and controlled messages on platforms that sprang up precisely to avoid the kind of influence that the State Department seeks to exert …”

As an advocate and former practitioner of traditional public diplomacy, I’m siding with Morozov. My specialty was media placement and I want U.S. diplomats to aim foreign policy messages at a wide variety of media outlets, but I doubt whether they can say anything meaningful in just 140 characters, except to reveal what they had for breakfast. I rest my case.

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, practiced public diplomacy for 28 years with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA).