Friday, May 15, 2009

What is Democracy? The State Department and YouTube Put it to a Vote

Often when organizations turn to YouTube to run programs, they lack pop. It's become somewhat passe to create an initiative and ask people to "submit a video"... so if you don't get the elements of your program right, you'll be doing good to get even a handful of replies. Which is one reason why the State Department's Democracy Video Challenge on YouTube has been so impressive - they asked a simple question last fall - "What is Democracy?" - and got over 900 entries from around the world.

Today, they've announced their 18 finalists - and you can vote on your favorites through June 15 at We've been proud partners in this initiative along with several civic organizations and NBC Universal.

Things are different at the State Department these days. At the Bureau for International Information Programs (called the IIP - they are the part of State whose job is international public diplomacy) the mission has changed. Their tag line used to be, "Telling America's Story"... now, it's "Engaging the World". Tag lines may seem irrelevant, but the shift here is real: State realizes that just telling the rest of the world how America works isn't enough in an age where information is available from almost infinite sources. "Engaging the World" means starting a conversation, and listening.

So the Democracy Video Challenge program wasn't set up to tell the world what democracy is, but rather to ask the world what democracy is. Turns out there are a lot of different answers - many which wouldn't probably wouldn't mesh with the State Department's official definitions. But the mere fact that the US is asking people what they think is symbol in and of itself of democracy well-practiced.

Just in the past few years, YouTube has opened up a new era of diplomacy. In March, President Obama used YouTube to reach out directly to Iranians during their national holiday, Nowruz, with this special message subtitled in Farsi. A year before that, Tony Blair congratulated Nicolas Sarkozy on his victory in the French Election, with this YouTube hit that he recorded both in English and in French. And Queen Rania of Jordan has been perhaps YouTube's most popular diplomat, using her YouTube channel to fight Arab stereotypes through dialogue with YouTube users.

But no world leader would argue against the power of the citizen-to-citizen communication that the Internet has empowered to cross cultural borders. The power of platforms like YouTube to communicate with people in distant land directly has a strong effect on our vision of who they are, and who we are. It has a humanizing effect. If you know what someone looks like and how they feel about the world around them, it's hard to put them in a box or consider them foreign.


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