What's important, what's happening, and what's public diplomacy

Yes, we all love the new social media. They provide instant information/gratification. And, what's often overlooked, they can be a useful research tool. Type, for example, "public diplomacy" when you're on Twitter, and you'll get the latest on what twitterers are saying about the subject.

But what's happening is not necessarily what's important. Much of what twitterers say is as significant as that Viagra ad aired on the corporate evening news. "Now" is not "wisdom." That's the great limitation of the new social media as an intellectual or even political tool.

All those titillated by Twitter should read Evgeny Morozov, who has written skeptically about the new media and is dismissed by a self-promoting State Department functionary in the following sweeping fashion:

The problem with his thinking ... is it neglects the inevitability that this technology is going to spread -- so he advocates a very dangerously cautious approach that says it's dangerous and we shouldn't play in that space. What the Evgeny Morozovs of the world don't understand is that whether anybody likes it or not, the private sector is pumping out innovation like crazy.

Yes, Mr. Jared Cohen -- the State Department functionary referred to above -- it's the inevitable end of history all over again, 21st century version! Keep the technologically private sector pumpin' (with a little help from the State Department) and all will be fine with the universe (just ask BP or try talking on your iPhone).

Public diplomacy (PD) -- which the State Department defines as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" -- is not rocket science. All too many academic theories about PD are incomprehensible, pompously-expressed "concepts" from persons -- among them rightfully esteemed tenured professors whose intelligence is all too often joined with a tactless inability to handle the last three feet of person-to-person contact -- who have never actually worked as diplomats in the field of "public diplomacy," which they pontificate about, often too assuredly, from their ivory towers on comfortable campuses so distant from what some call the "real world."

When I heard the learn'd astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Still, PD, dealing as it does with complex human relationships from an international perspective, is worth talking intelligently about, especially when approached by scholars/PD practitioners who value life and history above theory and abstraction. Goethe:

Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie

Und gruen des Lebens goldner Baum.

Twitter and other social media can provide an entree into PD discussions, but such discussions should go far beyond 140 characters, as I'm sure most twitterers themselves -- and they are, like this writer, ordinary persons eager to communicate with their fellow human beings -- would agree.