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Can We Handle New Government? A Look at State Department Outreach to Twitter HQ

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, June 17 2009

It's rather striking, edifying -- downright breathtaking even -- to see the news late last night and first thing this morning that a State Department employee had reached out to someone at Twitter to suggest that perhaps now wasn't the best time for a service interruption. No, it wasn't that incident itself that was so eye-opening. It was the context-stripped way it has been reported and interpreted. It really was enough to make you think that Barack Obama himself got on his Blackberry to Twitter HQ, declared the service a global resource, and ordered it to stay up and running.

Take the headline from the New York Times, for example: "U.S. Steps Gingerly Into Tumult in Iran." Wow, just wow, considering how Obama has attempted to delicately negotiate what's taking place in Iran. Not surprisingly, given this idea that what had taken place was Uncle Sam himself "stepping" into the mix, Twitter's Biz Stone felt the need to blog that the company was an independent actor, not taking orders from Washington. "It's humbling to think that our two-year old company could be playing such a globally meaningful role that state officials find their way toward highlighting our significance," blogged Stone. "However, it's important to note that the State Department does not have access to our decision making process. "

Of course, Uncle Sam isn't real. Who is real is the State Department official who got in contact with Twitter, a 27-old staffer on the department's Policy Planning team by the name of Jared Cohen. (In a serious blow to assumptions about the Obama-era sea change Cohen's outreach to Twitter represents, he was hired by Condoleezza Rice's State Department under the George W. Bush Administration.) Policy Planning is sort of a cross between a think tank and State's R&D wing, charged with thinking big, new, modern thoughts. If you're a frequent reader, you've read here about how Cohen led an Iraq trip of new media folks to Iraq. Also on that trip: Jack Dorsey, the fellow at Twitter who, according to the Times, Cohen contacted about keeping Twitter up and running. In that in another ways, Cohen is working at the forefront of using technology to create more human-to-human connections in the diplomatic space. And that, of course, is exactly the sort of direct diplomacy he was attempting to facilitate by getting in touch with Dorsey.

But the supremely interesting thing here is what this State-meets-Twitter incident suggests about how unready the system to be to handle government engaging in human-to-human contact. Old framings get reverted to where huge, complex government institutions or even whole governments are anthropomorphized -- "Washington issues stern warning to Tehran," "U.S. calls Twitter..." In theory, there is among many of us close watchers a strong desire for a new era of more open, human, engaged government. In practice, we resort to old ways of thinking that make that engagement too dangerous for all but the most incautious.

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