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Twittering; or, Where are the Emily Dickinsons at the State Department?

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Twittering, as we all know, is the latest hyped form of communication, the craze of the moment.

Even that bastion of anachronistic "packaged information" journalism, TIME magazine, has "twitter" on its recent cover.

As a child of the Cold War, kept awake worrying about a nuclear holocaust and wanting to "understand" our ideological "enemy", I discovered -- through many pleasurable years studying Russia, its language, culture and civilization -- that this complex, often tormented country was far more than superficial communist slogans and one-liner propaganda.

So forgive me for loving lengthy Russian novels with big, moral themes that go far, far beyond 140 characters: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment.

Reading the Russian classics -- and, yes, many of them are tedious, except as a challenge to your knowledge of the ever-challenging Russian language -- did instill in me a suspicion of brevity in the name of communisti-cation.

This "it-takes-time-to-understand" bias (call it what you will) was reinforced by past conversations with my father, a poet and professor of comparative literature with a deep sense of how multilayered (he would disapprove of this jaw-breaking word) our lives are.

Power-point -- reducing the sharing of ideas to a few "key" items with clean little dots on an all-too-neat screen -- still leaves me cold.

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But then I'll always remember, in my younger days waiting in the lobby of a NYC movie house for my date, hearing the question of those buying tickets to the screen version of F. M. Dostoevsky's on-steroids detective story:

How long is it, how long is this Crime and Punishment?

So going on and on -- forgive me, moi gluboko uvazhaemiy Fedor Mikhaylovich -- is not always the way to go. Maybe there are less verbose ways to make a point(s). Would not your Raskolnikov, in his perverse way, agree?

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And wouldn't the great aphorists have approved of Twitter?

Well, maybe. I can see La Rouchefoucault, true to the 140-character limit, twittering that:

"Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue."

Or, more dramatically and metaphysically, Pascal typing away on his computer:

"Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie..."

How about Plato via Socrates?

Some of his dialogues -- and how wonderfully open-ended they are -- have very short give-and-takes.

And don't forget Oscar Wilde, whose reputed statement about America I, as a flag-waving American, love to quote:

"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

Emerson, conceivably, would twitter, if he were paid for it to his satisfaction.

But not Henry James (do read the wonderful new biography of the dysfunctional James family, House of Wits).

Emily Dickinson? "Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul." Definitely twitterable.

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Meanwhile, the State Department is (at least officially) gung-ho about using Twitter to help ensure that its "public diplomacy" (engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences) can communicate in the 21st century.

The first State official whose use of twittering as a public diplomacy tool was widely publicized is former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Colleen Graffy.

Al Kamen, in the Washington Post (December 10, 2008) provides us with samples of her communications:

• "it's official -- Dipnote announces I'm twittering my trip to Iceland, Croatia and Armenia. Now to pack! http://tiny.cc/CGDipnote1"
• "Dashing in to State Dept to pick up tickets, briefing books -- white knuckle time -- gotta catch that flight!"
• "in Boston now boarding flight to Iceland! forgot gym clothes, forgot bathing suit (possible Blue Lagoon visit). advice: don't pack in 30 min"
• "Arrived at Reflavik airport -- beautiful! Clever -- u can buy duty free AFTER landing -- big shop open while u wait for luggage. quel marketing!" (She probably meant Keflavik airport, or maybe Reykjavik.)
• "met by PAO [public affairs officer] Kathy Eagen at airport. checking into hotel. Photos here: http://tiny.cc/CGflkrIS Click on them to get description"
• "on the 'Blue Lagoon Express' it is only light between 11am and 3pm here in Iceland so better make the most of it -- sleep later"
• "Renting a bathing suit and getting ready to take the plunge into the geothermal hot springs and smear silica mud on my face"
• "Small world -- ran into DCM [deputy chief of mission] Neil Klopfenstein just before plunge into Blue Lagoon. Bathing suit not my sartorial choice for first meet! Ack!"

If this is the future of Twitter at the State Department, good luck, State guys/gals.

People the world over want to know more about the United States, its policies and culture -- and not about (from the likes of the twittering Ms. Gaffy) about "[b]athing suit not my sartorial choice for first meet."

How about Foggy Bottom hiring a few good 21st century Emily Dickinsons?

Posted by John Brown at 2:29 PM