The first US diplomatic cable was sent to France on 23 November 1866. It cost $19,540 – three times the annual salary of William Seward (then US Secretary of State). It was probably one of the most expensive communications ever sent. Today, it would cost in the region of $600,000; but today, we have Twitter and Twitter is free!
So, if price distinguishes them, what do they have in common? As communication theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) once said: ‘the medium is the message’. With Twitter, the limitation of 140 characters shapes the message. Back in 1866, the exorbitant cost forced diplomats to write short, concise messages. Both tweeters and nineteenth-century diplomats craft(ed) their messages carefully in order to take advantage of limited space. The resultant communication? Concise, to the point and, in many cases, elegant.
But what’s been happening since 1866? The medium – faxes, e-mail, Internet – provides unlimited space. This fosters verbosity and results in the tendency to write unnecessarily lengthy communications. In diplomacy, thousands of pages are produced every day in international meetings. And sometimes the content is not worth the cost of the paper on which it is written.
Can modern diplomacy impose artificial Twitter-style limitations? Should there be limitations for diplomatic reports, notes, declarations, and international conventions? Would it be possible to have a global agreement on climate change on one page? Answers on a postcard please…