Democratic? Let’s put @Sweden Into Context

The 24-hour rise and fall (and rise again…the feed now has seen a big jump up to 57,000 followers) of the @sweden twitter account — from global PR masterpiece to international diplomatic embarrassment — is an excellent case study in the hyping of the benefits and perils of technology at the expense of contextualization. The account, which had already received a decent amount of press, achieved a global exposure breakthrough with an article in the New York Times entitled, “Swedes’ Twitter Voice: Anyone, Saying (Blush) Almost Anything.” This headline managed to crystallize everything that is misleading and shortsighted about coverage of the @sweden project: (1) the idea that the feed is the “voice” of Swedes; (2) the idea that “anyone” can take part; and (3) an obsessive, uncritical focus on the fact that the feed was/is marked by supposedly non-repressed Swedish sexuality.

I imagine that most people reading this post will by now be aware of what happened only a matter of hours after the New York Times articles came out: the @sweden “curator” sent out a number of tweets about Jews which caused a near-immediate avalanche of global media coverage containing breathless hyperbole about a failed democratic experiment where one person represents an entire country on the world stage. As a media story, of course, this had it all: modern technology, a young blonde Swede using salty language, making risque comments about sex, Jews and AIDS, all framed within a vague understanding of Sweden and Swedishness.

So, what’s the problem? Let’s start with the obvious fact that…

1. @sweden is an exercise in calculated PR and nation branding:

Sweden has been very aggressive in promoting Brand Sweden online, from the rather misguided opening of a virtual Swedish embassy on Second Life, to Foreign Minister Carl Bildt blogging and tweeting his way through international diplomacy, to the current Swedish government taking the lead on providing foreign aid to net activists. In fairness, it has been widely reported that @sweden is the brainchild of the Volontaire advertising agency (who also work for corporations such as Nestle and SonyEricsson), at the behest of the Swedish Institute (a state organization involved in public diplomacy) and Visit Sweden (the Swedish national tourism agency), as a project to increase Swedish exposure on Twitter. Deeper considerations of what this fact means for the @sweden feed, however, are rarely presented.

And, so, something that we might want to think about in relation to this might be that…

2. The selection of @sweden tweeters might be less “democratic” and representative than the rhetoric suggests:

Let’s get to the money quote from the New York Times article:

“Sweden stands for certain values — being progressive, democratic, creative,” Patrick Kampmann, Volontaire’s creative director, said in an interview. “We believed the best way to prove it was to handle the account in a progressive way and give control of it to ordinary Swedes.”

The @Swedens are nominated by others — people are not supposed to put their own name forward — and then selected by a committee of three, including Mr. Kampmann. The qualifications are that they have to be interesting, Twitter-literate and happy to post in English.

So, the @sweden curators are people who are Twitter-literate, can write in English, are nominated by others, are approved by a 3-person panel (including the creative director of the ad agency running the campaign), are deemed to be “interesting” by that panel (whatever that means), and, importantly (though not discussed in a majority of the articles on @sweden), must accept the invitation and be the type of person willing to post their identity, ideas and daily activities to a global audience of 40,000 (a number which can increase dramatically with re-tweets). We are talking a narrow selection, from a narrow selection, from a narrow selection. If we throw the fact that Sweden has a relatively low number of Twitter users per capita (somewhat going against the grain of stats showing Sweden as ultra-cutting edge in terms of tech use) into the mix, then I would suggest that we get a far less “democratic” picture than is painted by ad agencies and journalists.

This is not to say that the @sweden tweeters are dishonest or lying, but rather that the number of “provocative” tweets coming from the account (in terms of subject and language) must be seen in relation to a number of factors far more complex than simply “regular Swedes” just “being themselves.” And, by the same token, the selection process is far more complex than “Sweden” just throwing the keys to the national information car to a citizen passing by on the street. Volontaire describe @sweden as “the world’s most democratic Twitter account.” That’s a hip, sexy statement…but if your nomination has to be green-lit by three people and an ad agency who find you “interesting,” then @sweden might be many things, but democratic isn’t one of them.

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About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

One Response to Democratic? Let’s put @Sweden Into Context

  1. john brown says:

    Thank you for this excellent piece.

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