This week, the Asian Development Bank embarked on the most tedious hour of interaction ever visited upon the internet.
Via Twitter and an online chat forum, the organisation invited the public to ask its experts questions on trade, financial markets and geopolitical concerns.
It took a full 11 minutes to answer the first question, inquiring after the possibility of an Asian single currency. After an interminable pause, during which one could imagine the wonks feverishly crafting and redrafting their 140 character response, their conclusion, unsurprisingly, was an unequivocal “hell no, no way, not any time soon.”
After more turgid inquiries about food prices and the risk of contagion from the European crisis, as well as speculation about the future of ASEAN, it became clear that the cyber-participants were not young, interested global citizens, but professionals with a deep professional interest in the ideas of the ADB.
Our eager experts at the ADB were not busy inspiring a new generation of budding economists; they were wasting time preaching to the converted.
Once again, a half-baked PR stunt orchestrated to help make an organisation seem in-touch and modern ends up looking lame and inane.
What is it with these institutions? To connect meaningfully with the public, more is required than fumblingly logging into Twitter.
If such attempts at communicating aren’t simply ignored by the target audience, they’re roundly ridiculed by said tech-savvy youngsters, as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, found out to his cost last week.
His monthly Twitter Q&A was hijacked by thousands of wondrously comedic spammers, who eschewed such issues as the upcoming Olympics, London’s decrepit transport system or the astronomical cost of housing in the capital, and went straight for the jugular.
“Which would you prefer? To be attacked by a dozen duck sized horses or attacked by one horse sized duck?” asked one Twitter wit. “Did you ever get ‘crumpeted’ at Eton? Did it make your eyes water?” inquired another.
“How many malteasers can you fit in your mouth at one time?”
“Should the descriptor “hot” be standardised across all chilli-based sauces?”
“Have you ever completed the arcade version of Sega Rally?”
Sadly, Boris dodged these entertaining queries, just as he avoided the few detailed and serious questions about the big issues facing Londoners. The general consensus among followers after the event was that the whole affair was a charade, set up to create a mere illusion of accessibility and transparency.
There are lessons that were hopefully learned by Boris, the ADB and all those watching last week: using a youthful and widely used medium doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be able to effectively communicate with a wide audience of young people about the issues that you want to talk about.
It’s the equivalent of interrupting play the Superbowl with a megaphone to talk about the latest classical album from the Berlin Philharmonic. There’s a time and a place for political and intellectual interaction and unless you’re seriously savvy, Twitter isn’t it.