History of Digital Diplomacy and Main Milestones
Digital Diplomacy: A Broad Perspective – Part II
“Technological progress and the resolution of series of conflicts allowed humans to advance from tribal to feudal to industrial society. The next wave of technological disruption will be faster and greater than anything we have ever experienced. But we can and must be ready for it.”
“Every great age is marked by innovation and daring – by the ability to meet unprecedented problems with intelligent solutions.”
John F. Kennedy
After discussing the definitions of digital diplomacy, it is time to look at the facts and people who have contributed to digital diplomacy so far.
Digital diplomacy is a very recent concept, and have a short History. Still, the milestones are relevant: a mix of social media and foreign policy exerted in an original way. Digital diplomacy is at times blatant, at times innovative, and usually disruptive, opening new ways to develop international relations and new forms of citizen engagement.
How digital diplomacy became what it is today:
1984: 1st analysis on public diplomacy in a “computerized world.” Written by Allen C. Hansen, “Public Diplomacy in the Computer Age” explores the public diplomacy exerted by the United States Information Agency (UEIA).
1994: 1st official email exchange between Heads of Government: Carl Bildt and Bill Clinton. It takes place on February 5th, 1994. The messages read as follows:
I appreciate your support for my decision to end the trade embargo on Vietnam and thank you for all that Sweden has done on the question of the POW/MIA’s.
I share your enthusiasm for the potential of emerging communications technologies. This demonstration of electronic communications is an important step toward building a global information superhighway.
Apart from testing this connection on the global Internet system, I want to congratulate you on your decision to end the trade embargo on Vietnam. I am planning to go to Vietnam in April and will certainly use the occasion to take up the question of the MIA’s. From the Swedish side we have tried to be helpful on this issue in the past, and we will continue to use the contacts we might have.
Sweden is—as you know—one of the leading countries in the world in the field of telecommunications, and it is only appropriate that we should be among the first to use the Internet also for political contacts and communications around the globe.
2003: LinkedIn starts. Reid Hoffman recruits a team coming from SocialNet and PayPal and 6 months later, they launch LinkedIn, which soon attracts investment from Sequoia Capital.
2004: Facebook is founded and Flickr is launched. From a Harvard social-networking website to a global internet phenomenon, Facebook is the world’s most popular social media platform; the first social network to surpass 1 billion registered accounts and has 1.71 billion monthly active users as of September 2016.
Flickr is founded by Ludicorp. It soon becomes the world’s leading photo-sharing site and Yahoo acquires it in 2005.
2005: YouTube starts live. The world’s most popular online video site was founded by former PayPal employees Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim. In September 2005, YouTube gets its first one million-hit video and is officially launched out of beta on December 2005.
2006: Twitter begins, YouTube is acquired by Google, WikiLeaks starts. Jack Dorsey’s (@Jack) idea of an SMS-based communications platform becomes the top microblogging site, and the most useful tool in digital diplomacy.
Wikileaks, a self-described “not-for-profit media organization,” has the purpose of disseminating original documents from anonymous sources and leakers.
VK (VKontakte), the most popular site in Russia and the CIS states’ most popular social network (100 million active users), is launched.
2007: 1st virtual embassy. In 2007 Sweden announces it will soon open a virtual embassy in Second Life, the virtual site with a strong online community. Finally, Maldives is the first to create the virtual embassy and Sweden follows shortly after Maldives.
2009: 1st Ambassador to tweet in his ambassadorial capacity: Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican Ambassador to Washington. He personally wrote:
Great to be the 1st Ambassador to the U.S. with a personal Twitter account; a good way to talk directly to America about Mexico!
The White House (@WhiteHouse) becomes the first official Twitter account of a sitting President.
Foursquare, a local search-and-discovery service mobile app, goes live.
Sina Corporation launches Sina Weibo, one of the most popular sites in China (261 million active users in May 2016).
2010: Brian Acton and Jan Koum launch Whatsapp, an app initially created for iPhone to have people’s statuses next to their names. Facebook acquires the app in 2014.
UNDP Administrator Helen Clark (former Prime Minister of New Zealand) becomes the 1st high-rank UN official to open a profile on Twitter.
2012: White House Tweetup (face-to-face meeting of Twitter users for a specific goal). Prime Minister David Cameron arrival for an Official Visit to Washington becomes an open engagement event for the White House Twitter account followers.
Official “Rotation curation” for Swedish citizens at @Sweden (launched by Svenska Institutet and VisitSweden).
Barack Obama’s victory tweet becomes most retweeted ever.
2013: Pope Francis starts tweeting @Pontifex, launched in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Obama’s visit to Israel Trailer.
US Embassy in Pakistan is the 1st diplomatic Facebook Page to reach 1,000,000 fans.
Embassy of Israel in Washington creates and hosts on their website a fake parody LinkedIn profile for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
2014: US State Department launches official Apps to engage with travelers, those interested in nuclear diplomacy and potential interns.
@JohnKerry joins Twitter again and actively informs on US diplomatic activities.
Michelle Obama joins worldwide protest #BringBackOurGirls over missing Nigerian schoolgirls.
Exchange of sharp messages between @CanadaNATO and @natomission_ru in the Twitter “war of the maps”.
Russian Embassy @RusEmbassyUAE mocks NATO with toy tanks on Twitter.
Shimon Peres on Weibo: strengthening ties with China with the fastest growth of a Weibo account for a world leader.
US Embassy on VK, with John F. Tefft as US Ambassador to Moscow.
E-residency in Estonia, 1st country to issue a digital identity for non-residents.
2015: UN Virtual Reality Series launch. Its goal is bringing the world’s most pressing challenges home to decision makers and global citizens around the world, to foster empathy.
Digital Public Square Canada, a project launched to increase “free expression and open political dialogue in places where civil society and citizen participation are under threat”.
Julie Bishop’s Emoji Diplomacy: Australian foreign minister conducted an interview with BuzzFeed News using only emoticons.
Microsoft and US Diplomacy Center partnership to promote interactive and digital diplomacy.
Obama tweets from @POTUS, release his own Spotify list and opens his profile and comments posts in Facebook.
UK Foreign Office is the 1st foreign office to open a Snapchat account.
The UN launches its Snapchat account.
UNICEF uses for the 1st time Snapchat to highlight children missing out on their childhood in Nigeria. UNICEF is the international organization which makes the best use of Snapchat, together with the European Parliament, according to Twiplomacy. According to the study, UNICEF is the best at storytelling on Snapchat, actively engaging with its followers.
2016: The White House launches an official account on Snapchat.
Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson the first Foreign Minister to use Snapchat during his visit to India (April 2016).
Whatsapp takes off as tool for digital diplomacy. Recognized as a very useful and secure application for communication during meetings, according discretely strategies and tactics quickly and effectively, the app has even its own subfield in digital diplomacy: “Whatsapp diplomacy.”
As expected, digital diplomacy development is largely influenced by social media platforms evolution and their ability to engage with citizens. Today’s world is shaped by 4 features, digital, global, connected and fast-changing, which are present in digital diplomacy by its own nature and this will continue to determine its future evolution. This is vital for the survival of an interconnected world, and a strong tool to enable peaceful and prosperous societies.
Fletcher, Tom, Naked Diplomacy. Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age, ed. Tom Fletcher. London: William Collins, 2016.
 Fletcher, Tom, Naked Diplomacy. Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age, ed. Tom Fletcher. London: William Collins, 2016.