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Sept. 22, 2009, 11:24 a.m.

David Pogue on Twitter as a tool of cultural diplomacy

Can Twitter be a tool of cultural diplomacy?

That was the heady topic David Pogue, New York Times technology columnist and CBS News tech correspondent, addressed Monday during a symposium at Syracuse University. He was part of a panel trying to figure out how to transcend conflict through culture.

Now, the way I understood it, cultural diplomacy is just a million-dollar term for a rather simple concept: Sharing culture through the arts, music, etc., as a means to help all of us who live on this earth get along.

Pogue explained that Twitter could be part of this because it has the potential to cut out the traditional separations between groups of people. Regular folks can read tweets from actor Ashton Kutcher or Oprah Winfrey unfiltered by the staffers that generally separate the famed from the fans.

“That’s cool,” Pogue told the audience of several hundred people. “The beauty of Twitter is that…it levels the layers.”

He went on to explain that as he was writing The World According to Twitter he asked his followers, who numbered about a half million at the time, to answer some questions that might end up in the book. He drew responses from around the globe.

“Technology is tearing down those distance barriers,” Pogue said.

Pogue’s point, I think, was that Twitter could be a tool of cultural diplomacy.

Not everyone agreed. One audience member questioned whether a technology out of reach of many in the developing world could really have the power to bring the world together. Panelist Marjane Satrapi, author and illustrator of the Persepolis graphic novels, urged that Twitter is “too fast and furious” to do the slow work of cultural diplomacy.

But I agree with what Pogue was saying. I don’t think his point was that Twitter will solve all the world’s ills. I do think he was saying that any technological tool that helps us see people across the world as less of an “other” is a good thing. Not the only solution. But a small sliver of it.

While news organizations aren’t really in the business of cultural diplomacy, they are (or should be) about connecting people. Connecting people with what they need to make sense of the world. Connecting people with other people. Connecting people with ideas.

And that’s where what Pogue was saying is really relevant for news organizations. Twitter (or Facebook or blogging) can help news organizations connect with their readers down the street or expand their readership across the globe. (That might earn them more money, but it also could make for a better world.)

When I was blogging about parenting for The Post-Standard, I was amazed to “meet” readers from Malaysia, Canada, Taiwan. They were just moms like me trying to figure out the best way to raise their kids, and my posts about whining children or quelling a tantrum somehow resonated with them. There is something beautiful in realizing that a woman half a world away from me feels some of the same things in the same ways.

Wouldn’t it be great if news organizations could lead the way in cultural understanding by connecting people in ways they were never connected before? A shared love of a sports team. A mutual understanding of the frustration of married life. The universal pain of watching a loved one die.

I think that’s what Pogue meant when he explained that Twitter could be part of bridging the gap in understanding. He explained that his daughter’s fourth-grade class has pen pals in Myanmar, an experience that makes those people from a faraway land individuals to the kids. It’s hard to see a group as an “other” when you know someone’s individual name.

Maybe Twitter is just a succinct, high-tech way of having pen pals for grown-ups.

Image of Pogue by Steve Rhodes used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 22, 2009, 11:24 a.m.
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