Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds

In June 2009, President Obama delivered a speech in Egypt in which he made a call to “create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.” More recently, Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of policy planning at the State Department offered that, “our diplomats are going to need to have skills that are closer to community organizing than traditional reporting and analysis. New connecting technologies will be vital tools in this kind of diplomacy.”

In February 2008, Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts both senior fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs set out on a yearlong quest funded by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation to explore the potential of virtual worlds for cultural dialogue — especially the potential of these spaces to enhance and augment the cultural outreach efforts done by the US State Department (also known as “public diplomacy”). The project, called “Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds” took them across four continents in the physical world and myriad communities and cultures in virtual worlds. The documentary above tells a portion of the story. Policy recommendations and a graphic book were also produced as a part of the study.

The idea for Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project was hatched with a very specific idea in mind: How could people learn about other cultures in an authentic, experiential space — specifically, how could we learn about cultures that self-identified as Muslim? We chose the virtual world of Second Life for many reasons, among them that it is the best international platform — more than 70% of its users are from outside the United States. Our goal was to to see what we could learn about Islam — not by inviting particular people with particular perspectives into Second Life, but rather to follow the trail of what was already happening culturally in the space that might yield new insight about Islam.

Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds” revealed a number of important paradigm shifts, one especially, that cultural and societal leaders are manifesting and creating powerful communities outside traditional physical venues — foreign service officers and others in the work of intercultural dialogue profession, need to be prepared to engage those communities where they live — whether their homes are digital or physical.

The Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project produced the following findings:

Fouts and King also reported their journey real time on their blog, DIP’s Dispatches from the Imagination Age, on which they continue to tell the story of the evolution of a new global culture and society.

On September 8 at the O’Reilly Gov 2.0 Expo, Rita J. King will be discussing “Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds” as part of the Government as Peacekeeper section.

About Joshua Fouts

Joshua S. Fouts (@josholalia) is Chief Global Strategist of Dancing Ink Productions, a company that develops business strategy, compelling storytelling, immersive narrative and mixed-media, mixed-reality content, games, conferences and other events for a new global culture and economy in the Imagination Age. Fouts is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a Senior Fellow for Digital Media and Public Policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency. He is recognized as the world’s leading expert on Digital Diplomacy.

2 Responses

  1. A wonderful and insightful use of the virtual platform, and how I wish I was aware of this on Friday 2nd Oct in London where there was a debate for and against virtual world’s for use in education, which I feel should be added to the tags above.

    Wearing my hat as an interested party with regard the use of all social media to form an informed community so as to do the long awaited bridging the divides of social economic and cultural peoples across this chunk of rock we live on, in the hope that future generations will put aside their intolerances, which has played such a major role in policy/political choices in the past.

    My other hat as an advocate for the platform known as virtual worlds this is the kind of use which is the reason we all do what we do.

    Why bend time and space to go back in time when all historical research in anthropology, archaeology and other disciplines can be converged into a virtual space to create the back to the future experience we dream of? and I for one would have much appreciated during my attempts to gather knowledge in my youth.

    A great bit of work for which we shall all benefit

    Julius Sowu Virtually Linked london

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