Monday, September 21, 2009

Social Media and Cultural Diplomacy

Today I went to a panel discussion on Cultural Diplomacy as part of a Cultural Symposium at Syracuse University. ( The panel included Marjane Satrapi, Paul Salopek, David Pogue, and Shen Wei, and was moderated by SU law professor David Crane. Each of them are very respected in their fields and watching them interact was very interesting, particularly the inputs and interactions between David Pogue and Marjane Satrapi.

David Pogue is a New York Times columnist and author of "The World According to Twittter." Marjane Satrapi is an Iranian and French contemporary graphic novelist and author of "Persepolis." While the discussion was not devoted to cultural diplomacy as it related to social media, the topic certainly came up. These two panelists views on social media and cultural diplomacy seemed to be quite opposing, though both were respectable.

Pogue kicked off the discussion using his iPhone to demonstrate cultural diplomacy by using an App to listen to an amateur musician play music on his iPhone in Australia. He explained how this technology has the ability to connect with complete strangers in very unique ways. He may be impressed or unimpressed by the Australian's musical talent, but he most certainly feels connected to him, improving the diplomatic relations of two individuals. He went on to further explain his points, but I'll now explain Satrapi's side.

She criticized that social media; Twitter, Facebook, and other such outlets do not have the power to improve cultural diplomacy because it is not real. She even said something to the idea of you can have 500 friends on Facebook and none of them may be your "real" friends.

To this, I say two things. First, I disagree, this person agreed to be connected with you. Just because you cannot see or hear a person in real time, does not mean that you are not connected with one another. Secondly, who is to say, even if they are not best friends or even face-to-face friends that their connection within the social media realm cannot give them the power to influence one another?

Example: Friend A and Friend B connect on Facebook. They do not know each other personally, but have similar interests; they are in the same groups and fans of the same pages. Friend A is from the United States, and Friend B is from Iran. Two weeks go by, and Friend A puts up a status that pops up on Friend B's newsfeed. The status reads "I support the 'Greening of Iran.,'" in reference to the Green Movement that does not the support the current radical regime of Iran and may force the regime to close Iranian universities to prevent protest and opposition.

Friend B reads this and is a student at a university in Iran, who also supports the Green Movement. Friend B messages Friend A, and they begin an in-depth discussion of Iranian politics from two totally different points of view. Friend A learns a lot about the Green Movement from someone who is actually living it; and Friend B finds comfort in support from an outsider. Maybe this is a miniscule scale, but here are two people, an American and an Iranian citizen, who have forged an important bond. If that's not cultural diplomacy, I don't know what is.

Marjane Satrapi made many insightful and interesting points during the panel discussion; I simply did not personally agree with this one. If we are truly trying to improve cultural diplomatic relations, then shouldn't we go after it with any means we have available? To rule out social media, a force that is taking the world by storm, seems like taking a step backwards.

Social media is a force whose undeniable advantages should not be ignored by anyone; businessmen, politicians, diplomats, or anyone hoping to stay informed in this world. Social media does have the power to aid cultural diplomacy when used in the proper manner. Thats my PR thought for the day.

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