How to Create ‘Wikiplomacy’

U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom says future of diplomacy depends on human networks, not just digital ones.

March 28, 2016

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Ambassador Matthew Barzun. (Oxana Minchenko for Elliott School of International Affairs)

By Ruth Steinhardt

According to Matthew Barzun, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, diplomats in the digital age have a lot to learn from the story of Encarta, Microsoft’s ill-fated digital encyclopedia. 

In the early 2000s, Encarta briefly outsold the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, historically the top seller in the field. But by 2009, despite being backed by the richest company in the world, Encarta had been discontinued. It was unable to compete with Jimmy Wales’ user-generated, user-audited Wikipedia, which had become and remains the predominant model for sharing knowledge.

The reason, Mr. Barzun told an audience at the George Washington University on Thursday, was simple. On a continuum where one axis runs from “hierarchical” to “networked” knowledge-sharing and the other from analog to digital, Encarta beat Britannica by going digital. But it didn’t bother to become networked.

“What Encarta did was go digital, but fully hierarchical. [Editors] still told people what to write, they just put it on CD-ROMS,” said Mr. Barzun, who has been ambassador to the U.K. since 2013. He followed his address, “Public Diplomacy: Networked Engagement,” with a casual, often funny conversation with Sean Aday, director of GW’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.

“What happens a lot in our world of public diplomacy…is we think that the magic is in going digital,” he said. “I want to suggest to you today that digital is neat, but that’s not actually the powerful point.”

When it comes to technology, Mr. Barzun spoke without disparagement and with an insider’s assurance. He was the fourth employee at CNET Networks and launched Download.Com, which would become CNET’s biggest site.

But a myopic focus on digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook as a means of connecting and disseminating information, Mr. Barzun said, can blind diplomats and foreign service officers to the more important global networks those platforms enable.

Instead, he suggested, managing relationships between countries in the 21st century will be most successful when it focuses on “analog diplomacy in a networked world”—what Mr. Barzun jokingly called “Wikiplomacy.”

As an example, he cited his own office’s numerous audiences with small groups of British 18 year olds. At these addresses, Mr. Barzun and his staff distributed blank index cards and pencils to every member of the audience. They asked the teenagers to draw or write something that frustrated them about the United States on one side and something that inspired them on the other.

The embassy collected almost 15,000 of the cards and used them to assemble word clouds that accurately showed what British youth dislike (guns, racism) and admire (opportunities, technology, NASA) about the United States.

Mr. Barzun said he is not afraid of giving communities, even potentially hostile ones, the opportunity to thoughtfully criticize the country he represents. That falls in line with what he called “the best bit of diplomatic advice [he] had ever been given,” which he received from President Barack Obama when he began his diplomatic career in 2008 as ambassador to Sweden. The president offered him just one recommendation: Listen.

“It’s fundamentally a human, analog choice about how you want to spend your time,” he said. “Do you just want to talk, or do you want to listen?”