Last year, Sweden took on an experiment in social media as a form of nation branding by turning over its national Twitter account, @sweden, to a different citizen each week. Citizens are nominated and evaluated by a panel, but their tweets aren’t reviewed or edited, which led some observers to predict the experiment would be a social media disaster.
Those predictions came true, more or less, with the week Sonja Abrahamsson took over the account. She spent the week offending as many people as possible, with offhand observations about Jews, people with AIDS, and the suggestion that her life would be easier if she had Down’s syndrome. In other words, she used @sweden to troll anyone who was paying attention. (Trolls, of course, hail from Scandinavian folklore and may be native to Sweden, so perhaps this behavior is simply part of the national character.)
Nasser has continued on this theme, reacting to some comments from readers and provoking responses from others, like the exchange below.
At the first Global Voices summit, eight years ago, Hossein Derakhshan offered a model for understanding the role social media could play in helping people understand life in another part of the world. Blogs could act as windows, bridges and as cafés, offering us a glimpse into life in another corner of the world, a connection to some place different than where we already are, and, maybe, a space to gather and have a conversation.
Sweden’s experiment proposes to use Twitter as a window. Inviting “ordinary” Swedes to tweet about everyday life promises a picture of life in Sweden that’s likely to be different from impressions we get of the nation through news, through entertainment media or through our interaction with Swedes in our social networks. Ideally, it gives the sort of multifaceted picture we might have of the nation if we had lots of Swedish friends in our social network, including “inbetweeners” like Naseer and trolls like Sonja.
But the Swedish experiment is an attempt at building bridges as well. For one thing, the experiment asks participants to tweet in English rather than Swedish so the conversation is accessible to a wider audience. Nasser’s decision to start his stint representing @sweden by telling his story is a form of bridging as well – by understanding his personal story, we’ve got a better chance of paying attention to the trivia of his everyday existence. And it’s possible that the comments on some of his posts will open a café of sorts, a conversation about what it means to be Swedish, bicultural, racist or nationalist.
I’m interested to see that my neighbors to the north, in Vermont, are trying a similar model, hoping that showing tweets from Vermont will help portray the state as younger and more tech savvy than we might otherwise assume. I’ll be interested to see whether more Swedes or Vermonters use Twitter to tell their personal story and build a relationship while they’re opening a window into their lives.