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How social media pacified the Davos Forum’s opponents

One-and-a-half million followers on Twitter; 1,562 videos posted and viewed almost 5 million times on YouTube; 5,168 pictures of political and economic stars, copyright free, on Flickr; 13,877 fans on Facebook... Stop, that’s enough!

The World Economic Forum (WEF) came late to the Internet party. But now it is among the more active institutions on a variety of social media platforms. Its first website goes back to 1998, yet it is only since 2004 and its first online “blog”, launched by the famous French blogger Loïc Le Meur, that the organisation in charge of the annual Davos meeting took its activity into Web 2.0. And surfing the social networks wave has proved a real asset to the WEF at various levels – much more so than the conventional Internet.

Last year, the WEF decided to announce on Twitter first that Nicolas Sarkozy would be the first French president to attend the forum in Davos. Even without a formal press release, the news was, according to Google News, quoted in 335 French and 279 English articles. “Today, we consider social networks as part of the official media,” declares Matthias Lüfkens, WEF’s spokesman and social networks architect, at the organisation’s headquarters in Cologny, near Geneva.

“On Twitter, we publish only the headlines. The related articles are then posted on the blog,” explains Lüfkens. Twitter’s extreme broadcast speed serves other ideas. During the summer of 2009, for example, he tested a Twitter interview with Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan. A member of the WEF Foundation Board, the Queen is an enthusiastic user of social networks. She received the first ever YouTube Visionary Award in November 2008 six months after she launched her own YouTube channel. During last year’s Forum, several prominent participants such as Ben Verwaayen, Alcatel-Lucent’s CEO, also took part in an experiment, answering live questions posted on Twitter. Extending the discussion

The forum is attracted not just by the speed of exchanges, but also by the interactive nature of social networks. With a single site, the WEF was only able to show a presence and offer digital web content. From 2000, it looked at technologies that could extend the discussion among the 2,300 participants from the yearly meeting in the Grison Alps out to a year-round debate.

It started with an intranet that within two years became a kind of private Facebook. But owing to the technological challenges of the time, WELCOM (for World Economic Leaders Community), did not reach the WEF’s ultimate goal of involving civil society globally, and if possible in real time. It was only in 2006, with YouTube, that the WEF found a first tool to reach that objective.  Since then, videos of hundreds of sessions of the World Economic Forum in Davos have been available on the site, along with videos of the regional summits in Dalian, Dubai, the Dead Sea, Rio, Cape Town, and so on. And when the think tank posts reports such as the famous one on countries competitiveness, it also posts interviews with its economists on YouTube.

The really big change took place in late 2007. Already on Twitter for some months, the WEF took a new approach to interactivity on YouTube and MySpace: The Davos Debates. “There, the videos don’t come from the organisation any more but from the Internet users themselves.”

They are invited to post a video clip to promote their cause. A jury selects the best one and its producer is offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Davos. Last year, the members of the jury were the writer Paulo Coelho, the editor Arianna Huffington and Muhammad Yunus, the father of the microcredit concept (small loans to poor people). They selected the five finalists, then the Internet users voted to choose the winner. This year’s candidates are invited to upload a minute-long video highlighting their ideas on the importance of inclusive growth – a key theme at this year’s event. The winner with the best video will be selected to attend the Annual Meeting as an informal YouTube community representative and take part in a special panel.

The WEF’s press conferences are now also available on Livestream.com. And while the conferences are being broadcast live, Internet users can ask their questions, as in a chat. Finally, the Swiss-based organisation has been organising pulse surveys on Facebook since last year. “In 2009, during a web broadcast of a Davos session with economists concerning the Obama stimulus plan for the U.S. economy, the opinions of Internet users were solicited. In 45 minutes, up to 120,000 expressed their views. And their average opinion was the opposite of the economists’ analysis: 69% of the people polled expressed a lack of confidence in this plan and its chances,” says Lüfkens.

While exploring these different new technologies, the WEF has encountered setbacks as well. An experiment of interviews with avatars in the virtual world of Second Life fizzled out. Still, when Lüfkens compares the interactivity that social networks offer with the risks, he has no hesitation: “Of course you work without a safety net. There is almost no way to filter the questions and comments. Social media requires more openness and more transparency. But that is precisely what we are looking for.”

And to make sure it happens, the key innovation this year is the Social Media Corner in the Congress Centre, which will serve as the central social hub to reach out to the general public and to discuss a range of topics around the official theme of “Shared Norms for the New Reality”. The Social Media Corner will have two stations for uploading videos to the Davos Debates on YouTube. “We encourage our participants to use the video corner to share their impressions of the Annual Meeting or reply to the videos uploaded by the YouTube community. The aim is to encourage an open and direct dialogue between world leaders and the general public,” says Lüfkens. “The corner will even feature a special Facebook station where we want to conduct live interviews with participants and stream them on the Forum’s Facebook fan page.The risk of getting out of control

Still, Facebook and Twitter posts at the Forum are more likely to come from the participants themselves – more than 200 were active on Twitter this year. So there is nothing to prevent them from spreading rumours during a session. Likewise on social networks, where mobile phone pictures and films could be broadcast live, the risk remains that the next political embarrassment will be put on air live from Davos.

Assessing those risks, the forum has set the same rules that apply to journalists. The WEF invites participants not to trap people and requests that they do not broadcast any material without participants’ consent. Still, Lüfkens confesses, “We have no control. But actually, we never had.” From the Forum’s perspective, these risks do not carry much weight in comparison with the interactivity those social networks provide. As spreading the word and sharing ideas is Davos’s true mission, involving the public is seen as a strategic aim. And there is little doubt that the public is craving to take part.

“The Davos Debates” videos may involve unknowns, but they have been viewed twice as many times (8.5 million) as those posted by the Forum itself. Surveyed by the WEF, its followers on Twitter want more interactivity, that is to say, the opportunity to speak. Thanks to social networks, the highly exclusive WEF is broadening its mind and becoming more democratic. This is certainly good for its image. And the alpine discussions will also make the most of it. What remains to be seen is how the participants might react if one of those slip-ups occurs.

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