To tweet or not to tweet

I believe in trying everything at least once in my lifetime. So after a failed attempt some months ago to get on to Twitter (I forgot my password and could not get back in), I decided to determinedly try and try again (I had to get a new account, with a new e-mail I-d as Twitter only allows one account per I-d). Usually, I dismiss new-fangled things as generational and beyond my age. But with Shashi Tharoor and my own Editorial Director Vir Sanghvi such hits on Twitter, I thought I had no excuse but to learn how to use the medium (and, yes, I am an avid follower of both!).Of course, I have all of a half-dozen followers (am following five more), which does not say too much about my friendships or networking skills, not just on Internet but in real time as well. But even as I am getting to be familiar with this new medium, I wonder why it is that Tharoor is unable to convince his own ministry to make ample use of Twitter to get across their views to the general public.

After all, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing so. They have recently launched a Department of Digital Diplomacy with one of the centres in New Delhi and their Foreign Secretary David Miliband is as avid a user of Twitter as is our own Minister of State.

I had the occasion to visit the FCO in London recently and I must admit it is that visit that finally got me on to Twitter. I had believed that there could be no one more starchy or stiff-upper-lipped than the British. But they are clearly moving with the times and they are way ahead of our own foreign ministry.

So the FCO is allowing their minister to tweet, even if a couple of those tweets might be a whit too embarrassing. As one of the officers there told me, “Well, he tweets from his phone and that is a bit difficult to control. But we are differentiating between what’s official and what’s personal, so I suppose that’s ok.’’

He showed me one of Miliband’s tweets: “60th anni of Indian Constitution. Shashi Tharoor has said curry’s place in British life shows empire strikes back!’’

Since that was tweeted on India’s Republic Day I was not sure if that was an official or a personal comment as was one on Tharoor’s boss, S M Krishna:  “Glad he could make it to the Afghan conference…’’  for the Indian foreign minister had been given no role at all at that conference! But that tweet mollified at least me – I had been present at the Afghan conference and was outraged that our minister had been allowed no more than a photo-op. I thought that was downright insulting to India when we were the most affected by Talibanic activities in Afghanistan and Miliband’s hemming and hawing when an Indian journalist asked him a question on India’s role in peace in Afghanistan had added insult to the injury.  But now Miliband was tweeting about how much he liked speaking with Mr Krishna and how much he admired the latter’s wisdom (even if that was a personal view and not an official statement) – well, I thought, that is clearly one way to reduce controversies and set things right.

So, even if the odd comment here or there could be embarrassing, as Paul Bute, the Head of Digital Diplomacy at the FCO said, “We believe in putting the technology to good use to reduce the misunderstandings that might develop from some policy decisions (like the recent `stop and search’ orders issued by the British authorities that have the UK’s Muslims up in arms) and be as open about it all as possible.’’

Then again, the Brits have worked out, there are times when it might seem that the government is not taking action (like in our own dealings with Australia over racist attacks Down under) and Twitter could be a good means of clearing the air in situations where silence is obviously not golden but press conferences even more avoidable…

Though there is still classified information that will not be put out in the public domain, as Bute firmly clarified. So there is really no fear that any great secrets will be let out on the Internet: what needs to be secret will stay secret.

Ever since I have been wondering: why does not the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, too, get out of its fuddy-duddy image and make ample use of Tharoor to bring a breath of fresh air to its musty surroundings? There will then be less cause for controversy – Tharoor’s personal opinions could be distinguished from official policy and all of us could tweet along pretty chirpily.

And Shashi Tharoor will no longer need to be exercised over explaining to us the thin wedge of difference between a mediator and an interlocutor!

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