Facebook allows State to connect to the world

Agency seeks to gain mutual understanding

The State Department is using Facebook to connect to the world, and it appears the world is responding.

The department is using live multimedia Web chats to link audiences around the world with U.S. experts — both inside and outside government — in a variety of fields. State officials say the goal is to gain mutual understanding on a range of important topics.

The department hosts weekly chats on a range of topics on the CO.NX Facebook page. Topics so far have included issues such as international piracy, relations with Indonesia, the economic downturn and its impact on journalism worldwide, and, most recently, a chat with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, hosted by the U.S. embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria.

CO.NX streamed webcasts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she traveled to Mexico and Brussels, Belgium, where she held a town hall meeting with future European leaders. President Barack Obama’s speech from Cairo, Egypt, was streamed live on the page. Participants could watch the president’s speech, interact in a real-time chat with other participants from around the world, and take live polls.

Because the chats require only Internet access to reach people in their homes or offices, even audiences in low-bandwidth countries can participate in CO.NX programs, said Timothy Receveur, a foreign affairs officer at the State Department. 

State is using a variety of social-networking media, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Receveur said.  Facebook and Twitter fans conduct weekly policy discussions before and after U.S. expert guest appearances, he said.

The Facebook page was launched on election night in November 2008 and now has 7,000 fans, who interact on the page’s wall and discussion forums and receive daily updates from CO.NX, Receveur said.

“Our most popular chats so far have been our election night event with 5,000 participants, President Obama in Cairo with 3,800 participants, and Secretary Clinton in Brussels with over 2,500 participants," he said.

The top 10 countries with chat participants via Facebook are Indonesia, Egypt, France, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco, Maldives, Pakistan, Tunisia and Greece.

The CO.NX Facebook site is based on Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional, an online collaboration tool designed for uses such as online meetings, virtual training and on-demand presentations.

“The secret to the success of the product is that it leverages the Flash platform, which is installed on 90 percent of the world’s computers that are connected to the Internet today,” said Bobby Caudill, solutions architect for global government at Adobe.

The Flash player is a multimedia and application player created by Macromedia and now developed and distributed by Adobe after its acquisition. It is part of the Adobe Flash platform, an integrated set of technologies that let users create and deliver applications, content and video to the widest possible audience.

Most people’s experience with collaboration technologies is that they show up 15 minutes before a meeting and do some downloading of software and, maybe, configuration of networks, Caudill said. Because most computers already have the Flash player, that initial barrier is eliminated, he said.

The people at State have done a good job of creating custom templates that are easy for users to understand, Caudill said. Visitors click on the link to the Web chat they want to attend and type in their name, or they can attend anonymously. They can then submit questions during the chats.

Increasing numbers of overseas posts conduct Web chats without Washington support, including Kabul, Afghanistan; Mexico City; New Delhi, India; Abidjan, Ivory Coast; and Jerusalem, officials said.

Embassies can adapt to local technology by gathering Web chat participants around one Internet connection, receiving questions from participants by phone and distributing hard copies of transcripts to remote audiences, they said.

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