When international organizations tweet, who’s listening?

By Martin Edwards
[Crossposted from the Permanent Observer.]

Social media presents new opportunities for interactions between international organizations and civil society. There have already been some interesting works on this front produced by Burson Marsteller and Ilan Manor, and a quick review of the twitter feeds of UN Permanent Representatives reveals some amazing moments of actual discussion. Rather than talk about issues in “twiplomacy” writ large, I want to pose a more micro-level question by looking at one set of exchanges: What do these conversations look like? Are they dialogues or monologues?

To better answer this question, I’ll focus on one brief episode, which was a twitter conversation sponsored by Guardian Development with UNDP Director Helen Clark. This conversation took place on July 25th and lasted about 45 minutes. The Guardian’s Storify record of this twitter conversation is here, and the conversation used the hashtag #askUNDP

I examined data on the twitter conversation based on real time tracking of the #askUNDP hashtag using data from Keyhole from July 24-July 26. This includes the promotion of the conversation by the Guardian prior to the event as well as the remaining use of the hashtag following the end of the live event. Posts using this hashtag reached a total of 3.9 million unique twitter users and more than 10 million twitter impressions. The number of impressions represents the number of times the hashtag appears in tweets in a user’s stream). So, even though the actual conversation was 45 minutes in length, there was still a great deal of reach here. The use of the hashtag is a means to extend the conversation well past the boundaries of the actual event.

There are two key findings from the Keyhole data:

The conversation was shared.

63% of these posts using the hashtag were either retweets or replies. So this meant not only that information about the live chat was disseminated, but also that Helen Clark’s answers (as well as many questions that she didn’t answer) were disseminated. This is not surprising given the nature of the medium and the fact that the Guardian worked to promote the live chat.

The conversation was global.

The regional breakdown of the use of the hashtag over this time period appears here:

Though concerns over the global digital divide are real, this was not a conversation exclusively between individuals in the developed world about the developing world. The high level of engagement by individuals in Africa and Asia (both comprising 1/3 of the total) bodes well for using international organizations using web 2.0 technology to help engage civil society moving forward. Given that the mainstay of IO work is a PDF report, many of which go unread, building different types of connections will turn out to be increasingly important in the years to come. The question is no longer whether to engage civil society, but how, and web 2.0 technology can help point the way. Clark’s team recently remixed her address to the UNDP board into a Storify linking tweets, still photos, and video that helped to underscore the urgent challenges that the organization faces. This might well be a model for other IOs moving forward.

All of this raises the bigger question of what the actual conversation with Helen Clark looked like, and whether we can learn something from observing the actual twitter exchanges surrounding the #askUNDP chat. Analyzing the actual twitter network at an individual level is the subject of a subsequent post.

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