Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Foreign Service Blogging: Tigers Have Teeth, Rather Sharp ... Rawr!!!

Our blog pal, Donna of Email From the Embassy recently posted about trying to figure out "why some State bloggers are allowed to blog, while others are, shall we say, vigorously discouraged."

A while back someone else also wrote to inform me that he/she was "strongly reminded" that blogging can lead to at least pulling the security clearance, forced (involuntary) curtailment, followed by loss of job, arrest, detainment and prosecution.

Understandably, that blog is not here or there, anymore.

The Tigers roared baring fangs, which means the threat of no food on the table, arrest, detainment, well, just about everything, really.  Except they forgot to include non-promotion and career suicide. Of course, if you lose your job, there would be no point worrying about a promotion or a career.

Exactly. See how that works?! Big Rawr! 


They also forgot to mention perpetual detainment at Gitmo. First amendment, my foot! If your blog links to any cable released by WikiLeaks, the Tigers will probably bite you for secondary leaking of classified materials. Or worse, espionage!


Fear as we all know is a great motivator.  And it is probably worth noting that Tigers are stalk-and-ambush hunter, and the stripes are good camouflage in the long grass. Check with the Post Report if your next assignment has long grasses.

In some places, the Foreign Service is now like a scene out of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, only this time, the letter one wears in not "A" for Adultery but "B" for Blogger. You blog at your own risk under the Big House's 21st century statecraft jungle regardless of the nice things they say about freedom and the Internets.

Here are a few things I'm kicking around the campfire concerning the various disappearances of Foreign Service bloggers through the years. A quick caveat: I am talking out loud there, so try not to misconstrue the following as an advice in any shape or form; they're not.  Also please do not write and ask for "real" examples of "Tiger" blog take down.  They are not my stories to tell and I respect the privacy of the bloggers who make no public explanation of their online death.

"Vague" Blogging, More Confusing Than You Think

One of my correspondents write that it seems like "FS bloggers should never mention *anything* about work."  Why? Probably because vague blogging isn't as vague as you think and you never know who's reading your blog?  Even if Diplomatic Security sees no problem with your blog, your regional/functional bureau or post management may have issues with it.  I don't think it has anything to do with what you write per se, it has everything to do with fear and the lack of control. Fear from management that your blog has a ready, captive audience and fear that you might write something out of turn. And there is the notion that you have a direct connection to an audience and your right to self expression has not undergone any sort of vetting by the higher-ups who luv their red pens!

A misplaced fear, for sure. No FS blogger as far as I know has caused any international incident to-date. Can't say the same for our non-blogging diplomats at the US Consulate in Hyderabad, and the US Consulate General in Chennai who both suffered from foot in mouth disease here and here.

You're all smart, of drinking age and can vote, so what's the problem?  Well, I think perhaps the Tiger daddies are wondering -- what if you're like a car with no brakes when it comes to blogging? Thus, FSOs are trusted with classified materials but cannot be trusted to know what they can/cannot write publicly online.  Spouses and partners (aka: Eligible Family Members or EFMs) on the other hand should be seen but not read because they ought not have opinions about anything whatsoever, being just spouses and all with no  logons (no logons = not real people). EFMs have long been declared their own persons under the Big House rules. Apparently, they are their own person but there's no reason why they should have their own opinions!

Borderline idiotic to put it politely.

Blogging About Anything With a C is Bad For Your Health

Another correspondent suggested that maybe folks should never blog anything that could be perceived as critical towards the Foggied Bottom, the Foreign Service, the host country, or ones clients (visa applicants, AmCits, official contacts, etc. etc.), even if you're only complaining about somebody sneezing or snoring loudly.

Concerned about all promotions going to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan hands regardless of actual performance? Okay, but that may not be the best subject to blog about, most especially if you're bidding.

Big House functionaries talking about internet freedom really hurts your ears now? Okay, but it won't do any good to talk about the cause of that ear ache in your blog.

You cannot/cannot blog about the smell you have to endure as you sit in your visa interview window because it's bad form to talk about body odors, period. You cannot/cannot blog and complain about seeing boobies with nursing mommies as you conduct visa interviews because breastfeeding is udderly not optional when you have a screaming infant. Trust me on this.

You cannot make snarky comments in your blog about your Amcit clients no matter how loony and unreasonable their demands might be (they are covered by the Privacy Act of 1974). You cannot complain in your blog that your host country has no sidewalks, it might upset the Tourism Bureau. You cannot complain in your blog about getting Montezuma's Revenge because it might upset the host country's Sanitation Bureau.  And on and on ...you get the drift? Somewhere there's a fill in the blank form in the shared drive on what FSOs should not blog about, but don't look for that list in the FAM.

EFMs must not blog about how every transfer is like a reinvention of wheels at the Big House because it would make the HR Bureau look bad. Gawd lord! They should not blog that their spouse's HR Technician kept messing up their Travel Orders because it makes the HR staff look incompetent (and some of them are). They should blog zilch /nada about housing, because hey, it's free housing and the leaking roof should not be a big deal! They should not blog about the American school because isn't it enough that you are in a country with an American school? EFMs above all should not blog too loudly about the lack of embassy jobs; didn't ya know that 9.1% of Americans in the United States of America are out of work?! Somewhere there's a fill in the blank form about what EFMs should not blog about, but it's a secret until they call you or your spouse for that Talk.  (I'm having a hard time locating my sarcasm off button, sorry!)

Blogging in Lake Wobegon, the International Edition

Still one more correspondent wailed that she only blogged about her life, what's wrong with that?  Well, I don't know what's wrong with that either.  It looks like if you blog about yourself and your hobbies OR your feelings (I had a bad day, I'm lonely in my new country, the singles crowd sucks, I can't use the APO or pouch for my home business, my spouse is too attentive to his FSN, or whatever else is the color, flavor or heartache of the day) the Tigers may do more than growl. Because obviously, if you are not happy in your host country, you are not/not trying hard enough at it. Readers and Tigers may feel you're not a great fit in this lifestyle of the not so famous possible evacuees.  You are the face of Lake Wobegon International, after all; a less than perfect or happy example is not/not a good thing.

5 FAM 790 (Using Social Media): A Lamppost of Discouragement

The Big House makes a big deal about freedom of expression and internet freedom in the public square but in reality those things do not mean a lot inside the big house. Even as the organization tries to project itself as being innovative, it is hindered by its outdated structure, regulations and hierarchy.  5 FAM 790 (Using Social Media) is a pretense of sorts by virtue of its impracticality.  Even in private writings, FSOs are supposed to request permission for their blog posts, tweets and anything they write under the  "of official concern" umbrella.  Which is like the whole world, see from Algeria to Zimbabwe. 

Under the regs, the agency gets at least 30 days to review submissions. Who has the time to do that? More to the point, who has the time to approve such personal writings done outside of work? And if one FS blogger is expressly required to obtain multiple clearances for his/her blog posts/tweets/etc but others are not, what does that mean?  And if  the blog posts are not cleared in 30 days, is the blogger then free to publish all his/her stale blog posts/stale tweets/stale etc. and private ruminations without the Tigers growling?  Most blogs carry the necessary disclaimers required under the regs, but I understand that the Big House can still declare them insufficient.  Which makes me now think that 5 FAM 790 which cites 27 legal authorities is there not really as a guide but as a lamppost of discouragement. 

It's as if it is saying -- you are free to blog/tweet/summersault online in this great free country of ours, but it's best for your own sake, if you don't.

The regs says that "As a general matter, the Department encourages the responsible use of social media consistent with current laws, policies and guidance that govern information and information technology. Department organizations will not arbitrarily ban access to or the use of social media."

I think the key phrase is "responsible use" which is, of course, subject to interpretation but -- not your interpretation of what is "responsible."

"Allowed" to Blog, Much Better for Mini-DipNotes?


I am convinced that some bloggers are "allowed" to blog by default because their bosses have no idea what a blog is. Seriously. 

Some bloggers are "allowed" to blog because maybe they are lucky enough to have adult bosses with no control issues who recognize that warts and all are part and parcel of real life, even in organizations. As long as your blog does not end up in NYT or Al Kamen's column, you're safe. Of course, their bosses may have blogs, too :-) and did not want to be outed!

Some bloggers are "allowed" to blog because no one has yet complained about them, or the blog is obscure enough it does not register on anyone's radar screen.

Some bloggers are "allowed" to blog because their bosses look the other way.  These blogs are usually like mini-DipNotes. What's the harm in letting them PR blog for free? And if they write something nice about their bosses, then that is super great, too.

Finally, I think some bloggers are "allowed" to blog because the Big House has not yet found the right stick to scare them to death and make them stop.  In almost all instances  they eventually find the right stick, so the blog disappears. Unless ... the blog stays .... in which case ... well, that's another story down the road.


FS Blogs, a Questionable Future...Maybe, Maybe Not

I've lost count the number of FS blogs that have gone dark.  A trend that is both disturbing and sad.  In the end, I think every FS blogger must decide on his/her own comfort level and decide how much grief he/she is willing to put up with in order to blog, tweet or FB.  As long as the Big House considers blogging a "dangerous" hobby or preoccupation even in its employees/family members private capacities, this is also a "livelihood" issue.  When you butt head with city hall, you will get more than a headache.

They presumably can dig up everything "bad" you have done previously (what, you did not recycle in Caracas?). Apparently, they can also yank your security clearance, which would make it almost impossible to do work anywhere in the Foggied Bottom except cleaning latrines, if you're lucky. As to why they are running after spouses who blog, who after all are not employees of the U.S. Government and have long been declared their own persons, I can't say.

Below is a snippet on blogging by Mitch Joel dubbed the "Rock Star of Digital Marketing:"
I had the opportunity to interview Lemmy from Motorhead. Within the rock circle, Lemmy is the equivalent of Jesus. A true pioneer. But, unlike most rock stars, Lemmy has a couple of really big warts on his face, very greasy hair and truly lives the "sex, drugs and rock n' roll lifestyle." Basically, he says and does what he wants and never answers to anyone but himself.
A Blog can't be Bon Jovi. A Blog is much more like Lemmy.

You can get away with mis-spelled words, non-precise grammar and it's supposed to have more of a stream-of-consciousness flow to it. A Blog is the glory of a personal voice - warts and all. That is why people are gravitating toward them.

Just so you know I am not advocating a free for all blog world, please read my post, Secretary Clinton on #NetFreedom ... excuse me for not clapping ...
where I talked about the restrictions that come with being an employee and the trade offs we all make whether in the public sector, the private sector or even my own nowhere place.  The trade-offs, remember? 

The Scaredy World of Blogging


The genie if out of the bottle. It refuses to go back in!

When I started blogging a few years back, there were a few dozen Foreign Service bloggers.  Today, there are close to 500 blogs by Foreign Service officers, specialists and family members. Even as I watch blogs go quietly dark, I have also seen the number of bloggers grow like weeds.   Some blogs go silent especially after a scaredy session at A-100 but others eventually return online. Some blogs get password-protected, others eventually come out in the open.

And as blogs go dark, other blogs soon take their places.  The cycle of life mimics itself even online.

Unless the Big House makes reasonable tweaks and accommodations in its unhelpful regulations on blogging and the use of social media, there will come a time when it'll need be forced to create a new office: the Office of Professional Responsibility in Participatory Media.  The new office obviously would need a new staff just to keep track, and monitor this active writerly group in the Foreign Service community. It would also need new staff to process and clear blog posts, tweets, FB posts, public forum posts, etc. etc. from Foreign Service community members.  It would need new staff to write up pink slips for those who write outside the chalk marks. Above all, it would need an Ombudsman to ensure that the 30 day clearance requirement is adhered to and is not an excuse to derail the scheduled blog post of any member of the community.

I'd like to hear how they'll explain that personnel expansion to Congress.

Truth to tell, I have not seen or heard of Tigers actually yanking anybody's clearance due to an offending blog. I am aware of private sessions of discouragements, issues with onward assignments, and of course, threats of various colors and stripes among FS bloggers.  And as far as I know, they have not technically kicked out anyone who blogs either --  unless you call the "push" to retirement a payback kick.

Fear as we all know is a great motivator.  Sometimes, a Tiger's growl is just that, a growl and enough to do the job. Of course, it does not mean that the Tiger will not also eat you!


Housekeeping
1) If you would rather that I not link to you in my side bar, please send me a quick email at http://www.contactify.com/29ca0. I will promptly remove the link.

2) I have stopped the practice of highlighting FS blogs at DiploPundit. If you write something  interesting that I absolutely must link to, or highlight for my readership, I will send an email request for permission before I do so.

3) Somebody asked if anyone has ever threatened this blog. The answer is no. But if it happens, the threat will be publish in full.

4) Do make a mental note that I do not/not work for the Big House. I monitor the goings on in the Foggied Bottom because, why not?  It's a hard job, somebody's gotta do it.  Please read my disclaimer.




17 comments:

Jill said...

You. Nailed. It.

Delicious article ... everyone should eat this up!

Lovisa said...

I think you bring up a number of misconceptions about the use of social media in the Department of State. We have an internal site called the Social Media Hub (http://socialmedia.state.gov) that provides some great resources to people using social media including blogs. Of course since you are not part of the Federal Government or the Department of State you do not have access to these resources.

The Office of Innovative Engagement also has a support desk called OIESupport where you can ask us any questions related to the professional or personal use of social media or other emerging technologies.

The FAM policy is not perfect. Then again, what policy is? We were forced to use this mechanism becuase currently this is the format of our official policies. We have purposely left certain things vague because they vary by platform, how you are using the tool, your geographic location and/or your specific circumstances. We have Social Media Field Guides on the Social Media Hub to answer the questions you have about specific tools or platforms. And if the guides don't suffice the OIESupport desk is here to help address your specific circumstances, questions and concerns.

We have a number of ambassadors and others who are tweeting and blogging both in their personal and professional capacities. I also blog and tweet in my personal capacity We do encourage the use of social media for your work in the Department and also as way to develop your personal brand. The lines between personal and professional are becoming blurred. It is not easy to make the distinctions between the two and we find where people draw these lines can be subjective.

We believe in teaching people how to be smart about what they post and why vs. dictating to them how to use social media. We know there will be problems and that this is a learning curve for the entire Department. Overall, we look towards working to empower more of our officers in the field who have the cultural, linguistic and "boots on the ground" knowledge of their local communities to make decisions about the use of social media. This is a significant change from the past and just one small example on how we are working to develop the future of the Department.

In order to modernize the work we do and keep up with the expectations of the public, we are required to change how we do business. This is not a fast or easy process and it takes time. We have just started this journey and I hope you and your readers will help us shape how we should be leveraging technology for the diplomacy mission.

Domani Spero said...

Thanks, Jill!

Domani Spero said...

Lovisa - thanks for your very "insightful" comments. Are you speaking in your official capacity on this? And if so, can you provide a contact email that folks can write to?

I am, of course aware of the Social Media Hub, some of my best friends have contributed to it. And since I, obviously are not part of the Federal Government, and have no access to it, it is entirely possible that I have no idea what I'm talking about on what support you provide to your employees. Since EFM-bloggers who have suffered various degrees of harassment, also are not Feds and have limited or no access to your Social Media Hub, how do you propose to help them?

I'm in a rush right now, I'm sure I have other very import questions later that I'm sure you'll have answers to. But just out of curiosity, this Office of Innovative Engagement does it provide an intervention officer if bloggers are "slapped" around by the bureaucracy? Does it provide training to post management on what is acceptable or not, given than the social media policy is imperfect?

I hope you write again. I'm sure my readership has tons of questions for you, including those coming from inside the Big House. Because we can't just call the trunk line at State and ask to speak to Lovisa with No Name.

Also, if you can send me the link to your personal blog, I would appreciate it very much. We'd like to highlight it as an top example of responsible use of social media.

wellthatwasdifferent said...

Good stuff. FYI, I posted a response here: http://wellthatwasdifferent.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/we-interrupt-our-regularly-scheduled-programming/

Domani Spero said...

Thanks, wellthatwasdifferent! Great post you have up. I don't have your email. Let me know if you don't want me to post a snippet here.

And -- srry for the grammatical errors, was in a rush. I mean to say in my comment that Lovisa with No Last Name would be hard to contact thru the State Department telephone trunk line. I am happy to post a contact email, phone number, blog, fax of somebody responsible for the Hub if he/she is able to assist both FSOs/EFMs in the endangered list of bloggers.

Jen said...

Can I *LIKE* your response to Lovisa?!

no1knowwhere said...

It is all very sad, but it could always be worse:
http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2011/09/free-speech-mexico

wellthatwasdifferent said...

You can post any snippet you like, at any time. I don't write anything on my blog I wouldn't be willing to own up to in person if I had to. Hey, that's a good rule of thumb...

Domani Spero said...

@Jen, absolutely!

@no1knowwhere - thanks for the comment and the link. That is awful, awful business over there.

@wellthatwasdifferent - thanks!

Camille said...

FANTASTIC post!

Daniel M. Hirsch said...

DS,

An excellent and comprehensive post.

Daniel

Domani Spero said...

@Camille - Thanks!

@ Daniel H. - Thanks! I'm wondering if AFSA has any plans on seeking better guidance from the State Dept management for FSOs and EFMs on this topic beyond what is available at the Hub?

Nomads By Nature said...

I enjoyed this post very much, including the comments that it has sparked. I wanted to inform you that I linked to your post on my blog. http://webtexans.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/bait/. If you have any objections and would like me to remove it please let me know.

Domani Spero said...

NbyN-thanks for the note and for the link!

Consul-At-Arms said...

Great post!

I've quoted you (with commentary) and linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms2.blogspot.com/2011/12/re-foreign-service-blogging-tigers-have.html

Domani Spero said...

CAA - Thanks for the link! I got a B- in Irony and Sarcasm in my writing school.