By Lee Dunbar – Dana Perino, Josh Bolten, Stephen Hadley, and Ed Gillespie blogged the president’s trip to the Middle East this week. It’s the first White House blog, but yet another example of key players in the government getting behind the keyboard. While the White House blog is limited to the president’s Middle East trip, the State Department’s blog, DipNote is part of a long-term effort to offer “the public an alternative source to mainstream media for US foreign policy information.” Their success is dependent on whether or not the Administration can adapt to this new phase of the information revolution. Under the banner of “Web 2.0,” recent years have seen a shift from a one-way broadcast of data to a two-way broad exchange and collaboration. A communication strategy should reflect this new paradigm, matching content to what the individual is interested in via a multiplicity of online venues.
A blog is short for web log, in which a user publishes their daily thoughts and interests in a diary format on the Internet. In April 2007, Technocrati, a blog tracking application, announced that it now monitors more than 70 million blogs, with 120,000 new blogs being created worldwide each day.  Blogs can speed through cyberspace when promoted through social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. In this context, the reader can become a powerful relay station. Facebook alone has 60 million active users and is the sixth most trafficked site in the country. The volume of information is such that it must be synthesized through self-updating applications that sort content from user-chosen website feeds. RSS, the most popular type of feed, enables content to be read through an application without visiting the site, saving enormous amounts of time. Information is both specialized and personal; there is not enough time to sift through the boring or less engaging.
With information spreading so quickly, it’s critical for the government to take part. Donald Rumsfeld quoted Mark Twain in an effort to explain the new predicament: “A lie can be half way around the world before the truth has its boots on.” DipNote was launched by the State Department in September 2007 to wide criticism. Even with such a rough start, a post from the UN Dispatch (a blog run by the UN Foundation) made the case for more commentary: “Our discussions would surely be enhanced should State Department experts chime in from time to time.” Even if the message of a government blog is an official one, undoubtedly vetted for hours, there is a desire to hear what it has to say.
DipNote covers a variety of subjects, including critical foreign policy issues, discussion threads on current events, the daily life of Foreign Service Officers, and behind-the-scenes views of state visits. This wide range of content is far from specialized, personal, or engaging. In the realm of Web 2.0, each of these components is necessary to capture and hold a reader who is already suffering from information-overload.
Establishing a variety of blogs pertaining to particular interests, would enable the State Department to engage foreign policy bloggers, everyday news readers, and traditional media. It will allow for more specialized conversations in discussion threads and create an atmosphere to examine well-informed suggestions.
In addition to reviewing their current blog content, the State Department should make an effort to make all of its web content easily sharable. This enables other bloggers to do the work of spreading the message, even if they add their personal opinions. While it has already made some of its content available via RSS feeds, it should create feeds for regional and issue-specific happenings. Further, it should take cues from news sites and make content easily sharable on social networking sites.
In a more informal vein, the State Department should echo what it has done in its outside efforts. Last year it established a cadre of bloggers, known as the Digital Outreach Team, to engage foreign blogs and online chat rooms to advance the US message. It would be in the State Department’s best interests to establish a similar group to engage US based blogs and forums to counter misconceptions, answer questions and provide resources.
There is little doubt that Web 2.0 tools and strategies are powerful, but it is important to realize that any official government message will be approached with skepticism, regardless of the venue. While taking advantage of its benefits, the tools of Web 2.0 are no replacement for a strong message. Previous administrations have incorporated the new media of their time to create connections with their audience, from Roosevelt and his fireside chats to Kennedy’s live press conferences. While the means of communication are being revolutionized, the basics of good communication remain true. A blog is not a replacement for other efforts nor is it a buzzword for sound bytes, but a step forward in open government that extends a message in a personal way to millions of people.
 “About the State Department Blog,” url
 Mark Leon Goldberg, New Blog on the Block, 3 October 2007 http://www.undispatch.com/archives/2007/10/new_blog_on_the.php
 Neil MacFarquhar, “At U.S. State Department, bloggers join Middle East chat,” International Herald Tribune, 22 September 2007 <http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/09/22/america/blog.1-138816.php?page=1>
White House photo by Eric Draper
Lee Dunbar is the Program Coordinator at the Stimson Center.