As any history book would infer, each era across different geographic regions is shaped by defining qualities of its age. Some eras may be defined by their shipbuilding, exploration and manufacturing. Still others are defined by their communications technologies: calligraphy, the printing press, radio, television.
When presenting our age to eager students, it is already evident that history books will one day devote a chapter to the so-called "social web." Political and social historians, we imagine, will analyze how the social web impacted public institutions, elected officials, and diplomats by propelling them into conversation-based communications. Students will write essays on how the social web broke down barriers between officials and citizens, enabling anyone anywhere to engage in conversations, submit ideas, and participate in discussions about decisions that affect them. They will study how status updates enhance formal press releases, how research institutions use social media sites to create public study groups to make their findings accessible to anyone, and how government bodies, diplomats, and political leaders engage with each other on public walls so that millions of people can follow their conversations in real time.
According to these yet-to-be-written history books, we imagine that people in the early twenty-first century could -- for the first time -- connect to anything, anyone, anywhere, via the web, and receive information in their news feeds directly from primary sources about things they never even knew they were interested in. Intermingled with updates from their next-door neighbors are stories about a prime minister's visit to foreign country, a journalist's analysis of a changed monetary policy, a local politician's response to the question about whether bus fares would go up or down, and a political movement's appeal to join a public demonstration.
With so many institutions and organizations now on Facebook and other social media outlets, the question is less about being present, for this is self-evident, and more about understanding how we can use meeting places on the web to communicate in more effective ways. Communications technology gives us the distinct privilege to be more open on issues that affect us all, to be more conversational on questions that would benefit from wider citizen commentary, and to be more responsive to and inclusive of the people whose ideas can help us shape our policies.
At first glance, the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Facebook have very little in common to address this question of the changing nature of public communications jointly. Founded in 1949 as a response to the growing threat of the former Soviet Union, NATO has been a hard power player for most of its existence, run by defense officials and secretive generals who felt more strident among themselves than they were comfortable engaging with the broader publics. More than fifty years later, along came Facebook, born out of the ideas of college students in ivy-clad dormitories, and eventually growing into a California-based company that would impact the everyday lives and life-changing events of people from Cairo to Chicago. Yet by 2012, NATO and Facebook are no longer strangers to each other. How is it even possible that two such different organizations could one day meet in the same space, considering simultaneously the impact of engaging and connecting people as part of their respective missions?
At NATO, we have started to undertake a comprehensive re-think of our soft power approach towards the public. As we have established ourselves on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other social media sites, we have come to accept new ways of listening, sharing information and engaging in conversational communications with people who are interested in security and defense, and those who are affected by or curious about our policies and missions.
NATO's Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is the first ever Secretary General who has made extensive use of the social web at NATO. He posts regular updates and video messages: visiting troops, chairing meetings with Foreign Ministers in Brussels, traveling abroad. He wants others to know what he is doing and he wants to know what people everywhere think about transatlantic issues.
Rasmussen has encouraged other top military and civilian officials to follow suit. The commanding generals of our most challenging operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo or elsewhere, well-trained in the sophisticated tactics of modern warfare, now make room as part of their daily duties to post updates, ask people their opinions, and talk about operations on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. NATO Ambassadors and others, including myself, share information and impressions about our day-to-day activities in and outside the headquarters' walls. NATO's online channels are constantly fed with news stories, from official statements to behind-the-scenes videos, which are accessible in English, French and Arabic. All important official NATO meetings and public events are now reported on social media networks, accessible to whomever is interested and wants to learn more.
And we have done more. We have deepened our bonds with bloggers from member countries, as well as from Russia, Ukraine and across the Middle East. We have established ties with eminent digital activists and online journalists. And, through social media sites, we have established direct links to people in Libya, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and far beyond.
We actively support existing online communities, encouraging them to have discussions on NATO's role in Afghanistan, relations with Russia, NATO's past operation in Libya and gender issues in military operations. And we are working with universities across member and partner countries to share their academic research in online study groups.
As we move towards the NATO Summit in Chicago in May this year, digital outreach plays a prominent role in our communications campaign. Our new WE NATO platform or the Digital IReps who we have invited to report from the Summit are testament to this.
It is, of course, absolutely crucial for NATO to enable others to join the conversation in cyber space. For a few years now, we have been running the 'Afghanistan Silk Highway,' a project that provides internet connectivity to more than a dozen universities in Afghanistan. The reason behind it is pretty simple: we want Afghan students to connect to the rest of the world and participate in these global conversations.
Meanwhile, far from NATO's corridors, those of us representing Facebook around the globe have never been more inspired. As institutions like NATO use Facebook to share more and listen more, we are seeing conversations in real time between people and once-inaccessible or even intimidating institutions in the eyes of most citizens. It is during moments when Aung San Suu Kyi welcomes Foreign Secretary William Hague to Burma on his Facebook page, when local tax authorities in Denmark post pictures on their Facebook pages of perfectly-maintained benches thanks to tax payments, and when General Stavridis announces that NATO successfully terminated its mission in Libya via a Facebook post, that we especially realize the potential the digital world has to transform public communications. Mayors from Budapest to Bologna, members of Parliament from Hannover to Copenhagen, and diplomats from Madrid to London are starting to ask the right questions: what do people care about? What's on their mind? How are we serving their needs, answering their questions, keeping them informed, and taking their collective points of view into consideration when making policy recommendations? It's these questions that transform the institutional use of the social web from a branding tool into a hub of informed opinion, information, and conversation.
And this is only the beginning. Limited only by our imaginations are poised to fundamentally transform our abilities to enable democratic dialogue, no matter how global or how local. This new era of communications begins when public administrations and institutions realize the inherent power of giving people a voice in policy decisions, encouraging transnational dialogue, and tapping into the creative energies of connected societies.
Sharp, thoughtful analysis from policy experts combined with the wisdom of the crowds gives organizations an unprecedented opportunity to make increasingly more informed, more nuanced, and certainly more thoughtful decisions. These decisions may not always be right: the web cannot place a guarantee on sound reasoning and ultimate outcome. But the potential to tap into previously unimaginable resources to inform opinions is staggering and cannot be ignored.
In pursuing our efforts to contribute to this global conservation, we -- two individuals at Facebook and NATO -- have started to collaborate. Because we believe that instruments of diplomacy, no matter how hard or how soft -- or how smart, for that matter -- bring people together.
We believe that successful communications today is not about "shouting out" core messages and hoping, if they are only repeated loud enough, they will eventually be heard and ardently supported. Instead, we are convinced that public communications in the twenty-first century are built around two-way conversations: conversations that level the playing field between the decision-makers and those most affected by decisions made. Conversations that bring us all into one room to hear the feedback, the commentary, the reflections, the argument and the criticism of the people that political and diplomatic leaders are elected or are tasked to represent.
We also share the belief that online meeting places empower people to speak, see, read, hear and act jointly, be it in the Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, North America, Africa, the Arctic, or Asia. Sharing experiences across different cultures, time zones and continents can forge better mutual understanding and trust, promote democratic rights and values, and improve the building and sharing of knowledge.
Yes, our organizations, NATO and Facebook, pursue two very distinct missions. NATO's mission is peace and security. Facebook's mission is to make the world more open and connected. But we both strongly believe that today's policy issues are increasingly global. Internet regulation, climate change, poverty, insecurity, the jobs market and conflict zones represent only some of the most pressing international challenges. More than ever, governments, organizations and other players in the international arena need to work together to address them, in order to find support for solutions and change. No single government, agency, or individual can tackle these expanding number of problems on its own. Solutions cannot simply be plucked off the shelf and implemented. They must be created together by coalitions within and between governments, political leaders, activists, influences, scholars, journalists, and citizens representing different points of view. The social web helps all of them to connect by raising the curtain between the windows that once separated us from each other's outlooks.
Someday, yet-to-be-written history books will tell us whether public institutions and organisations had the vision, foresight, and imagination to take fullest advantage of the many opportunities the connected web offers in these early years of the twenty-first century. They will analyse whether institutions actually tuned into the conversations around them, or whether they blindly and blithely carried on with their own carefully-orchestrated, yet insular, discussions in secure but distant halls.
We sincerely hope today's leaders will not miss this moment, only to look back later and tell future generations that we wish we had all done more in our time.
Dr. Stefanie Babst is NATO's Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy and Elizabeth Linder is Facebook's Politics & Government Specialist for the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions. Their views expressed are solely their own and do not represent the official views of NATO or Facebook.