Mr. Ambassador, Meet President Zuckerberg
Facebook is sending diplomats to foreign countries. Now foreign countries should send diplomats to Facebook.
On Sunday, Facebook announced that it would be putting together a global team of quasi-diplomats, called "policy directors," to represent the company in various countries around the globe. The job descriptions for these positions are more or less the same. The envoy to India should "actively promote of the uses of Facebook with policymakers and influencers in both electoral and governing bodies," while the emissary to Italy will "monitor legislation and regulatory matters affecting Facebook and advise company with respect to policy challenges." (A job listing for the digital elephant in the room—China—is conspicuously absent.)
"It's important that we have a presence, so people can have a direct line into Facebook," a Facebook spokeswoman said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News. "You limit the scope for misunderstandings." That article also pointed out that Google did the same thing back in 2006: "Was it useful? Totally," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's director of global public policy from 2004 to 2009. "You literally build a foreign service for the company, people whose mission it is to represent the company outwardly, but also to translate the policy environment back into the company."
When I read heard this, my first thought went back to Lift, an international tech conference I'd attended in Geneva earlier this year. Wired UK editor-at-large Ben Hammersley gave a talk there in which he argued that nation-states—especially the smaller and midsized countries without big-budget foreign ministries—should, instead of sending an ambassador to, for example, the Maldives (sorry, Maldives!), send one to Facebook instead.
"Why should there by an ambassador to Facebook? Because that's where the people are," Hammersley told me this week. And he's absolutely right. Facebook loves to tout the fact that it has "more than 500 million active users." As many people have pointed out, if it were a country, it would be the third largest in the world by population, just above the United States.
In some ways, Facebook already resembles a nation-state. The company, which is moving from Palo Alto to a major complex in Menlo Park, Calif., has assets it wants to protect. Facebook makes money by selling ads against all the data we supply about ourselves. Just as the United States wants to protect American companies so they can pay taxes, hire employees, and contribute to the nation's wealth, Facebook wants to guard its ownership of user data to protect its profits. And it has already essentially recognized Kosovo as a country by listing it as a country for users from the region, despite the fact that two-thirds of the United Nations General Assembly member states haven't.
All the regions and countries that Facebook wants to target, ranging from Scandinavia to New Zealand, should each immediately reciprocate and begin planning to send their own chargé d ' affaires to present their credentials to Mark Zuckerberg. Then they would devote their time to promoting their national interests to the company. An obvious application, for example, would be adapting Facebook's interface into more languages. While the company currently operates in a bunch of languages, ranging from Frisian to Thai, it is still sorely lacking in African languages. Senegal's envoys, for example, could lobby for more Wolof content, while their Haitian counterparts could argue for increased Kreyòl.
"In terms of public diplomacy, why not?" said Christopher Hughes, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, when I proposed the idea. (Hughes is not the Facebook co-founder of the same name.) "In a way, most states are already putting parts of their diplomatic corps to use the Internet and to use technology to promote their own message. […] In a way, this would make it easier for smaller states to do what bigger states are doing."