"The world wants Israel's ideas"

David Saranga on Anat Kam, TEDxTelAviv, and perceptions of Israel.

It's too early to tell for sure, but there's a good chance that the Anat Kam affair, particularly the public debate on whether to publish or censor, has done for social networks in Israel what the disturbances in Iran a few months ago did for Twitter. They have been around a while, but only following this specific incident have the social networks become really big, greater than the sum of their parts.

"I'm grateful that I'm on the side of the talkers and not on the side of the censor," sighs David Saranga, not long since Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Israeli Consulate General in New York, and now a consultant on social networks to the TEDx event in Tel Aviv. "I was in New York when I read what Judith Miller, an icon in her field, a journalist who sat in jail rather than reveal sources, wrote about the Anat Kam affair."

Anat Kam can use the same line of defense.

"Anat Kam is not in the same position; there's no comparison between the two cases. You don't have to steal 2,000 documents to convey an ideological message. There are other, more legitimate, ways."

The news of her house arrest was published on Facebook a long time before it was broadcast on the news. What's the conclusion, to abolish censorship, or to start censoring social networks?

"As far as I'm concerned, social networks are a news medium in every respect. So yes, censorship will have to be reconsidered. Since a new communications medium has arisen, I think those responsible for censorship must find an answer to the new player."

You're well aware that there isn’t enough manpower to go over every post, tweet, and blog to make sure there have been no breaches of field security.

"True. So I presume that, as in many other security matters, in this case too a large part of the solution will be a educating the public. People have to censor themselves as they pass along the messages that seem important to them. When the community understands that the aim is to protect and to prevent a disaster, and not to censor, it voluntarily imposes certain checks on itself. If someone behaves crudely and in an unacceptable manner, the online community will ostracize him. The debate about censorship itself is right and legitimate, but not really connected to social networks and messaging."

When it comes to getting across ideological messages, especially through social networks, Saranga knows what he's talking about. He was the first diplomat who had the wit to read the map of the blogosphere, and to treat Israel like another provincial teenager who considers herself queen of the class. He opened a Facebook profile for Israel (the first ever profile for a country); he was the first to hold a press conference on Israel's behalf on Twitter, at the height of the fighting in Gaza. He even answered surfers' questions, not all of them easy to digest. At the same time, he opened accounts on MySpace, ran daily blogs, and engaged in what he calls "non-conventional warfare."

On April 26, Saranga will take this idea getting messages and ideas across through social networks a step further, when, together with the organizers of the TEDxTelAviv event, he will help to spread a list of Israeli ideas around the world via social networks.

Twitter, as far as he is concerned, is another tool to be used to connect the audience with the message without filters. "Social networks," he stresses, "are more effective than ordinary media. Not just because of the speed of reaction, which beats broadcasting, but because they expose you to completely new audiences mainly young people who don’t read newspapers and don’t watch television. Through social networks," he says, "governments have for the first time received a rare opportunity to speak directly to people, even with frustrated talkbackers, and circumvent undesirable go-betweens."

What's easier, to sell Asaf Avidan and the Mojos on Facebook, or Olmert and his policies in "The New York Times"?

"Both things are challenging. Public diplomacy long ago became part of the world of marketing and branding, and the social networks, like any other communications medium, are the elements and tools we have available for getting across messages to the different segments. The main difference, for Israel at least, is that for the first time we have been given an opportunity to add dimensions of our own to the way the world looks at us. No longer 'the Israel-Palestinian conflict, for and against', but Israel as a multi-layered subject. Conventional media do deal with these layers, but not enough."

Saranga is currently on unpaid lead from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after more than 15 years of service. In his last post he was, as mentioned, Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Israeli Consulate General in New York. Before that, he served in various posts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, among them deputy spokesman for the ministry and foreign press officer. Currently he is a lecturer in the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and an advisor to various industries on branding and marketing through social networks.

He is a genuine patriot, who cries out against the cynical aspects of Israel's problematic branding on the Web and beyond it. "The product is good," he insists, "even though it looks problematic, Israel with all its layers, and Israeli ideas in particular, are easy to market and distribute. In all my years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to be a spokesman for Israel was a pleasure as well as a privilege for me. In the ministry's cadet course, the diplomat's bread and butter is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Today, I know that trainees are also given other tools, wide general knowledge about other sides of Israel, such as culture and architecture, lifestyle and restaurants."

Saranga is excited about the TEDxTelAviv event. During the interview, he receives an e-mail for an initial review of the closed list of speakers at the event, the "TEDsters". Without a doubt, a wonderfully creative list. "There are thousands of TED followers in Israel, and the Israeli branch is very relevant to the world," he says. "Green issues, the environment, for example, will be discussed in presentations that will be simultaneously put onto blogs and global websites on the topic. It's important to stress the way in which Israeli ideas are perceived around the world."

What's your bet for the next big thing in social media?

I think the center of gravity will shift from the message and the content, from the 'what', towards physical location, the 'where;' networks that deal with where people go, and if they are groups with whose priorities and areas of interest you identify, you'll go there too. However, it has to be done credibly, with control where necessary. People love buying, but hate being sold to. That's how it is with everything in life, including on social networks."

To follow TEDxTelAviv - on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TedxTelAviv; and on Twitter: twitter.com/tedxtelaviv.

To follow David Saranga on Twitter:@DavidSaranga.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 14, 2010

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010

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