Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman and Angela Trethewey

One year ago, COMOPS Journal ran an analysis of the State Department’s blog Dipnote, which was then a brand new effort. We complimented them for making the foray into Web 2.0, reviewed the content and users’ reactions, and made recommendations for improving the blog.

For reasons that aren’t completely clear to us, that is the most widely-read post ever on this blog. Since so many readers seem interested in the subject, we thought it would be a good idea to take another look at Dipnote one year later. This is the first installment in a four-part followup.

We recently traveled to Foggy Bottom to meet with Heath Kern, Editor in Chief of Dipnote and Director of the State Department’s Digital Media Lab, and Luke Forgerson, managing editor of Dipnote. They were kind enough to to answer a number of questions about the blog and how it operates.

One of the most interesting things we learned was that their blogging effort faces some challenges that are common to all blogging, and some constraints that are unique to its position as an official information source of the State Department. In some ways, these challenges and constraints frame what can be expected of the effort.

One way Dipnote is like a regular blog (at least a multi-author one produced by an organization) is that in the early going it was a challenge getting enough material. According to Kern, it was not uncommon to get responses like “what’s a blog?” when she requested contributions. In fact the blog’s Question of the Week posts were designed as a way to insure there would always be enough content to keep the blog a going concern (ironically, they have become the blog’s most popular feature). Recently, the success of the blog has provided better incentive for people in the Department to do posts, and offers are now coming in unsolicited.

There are also important ways in which Dipnote is unlike a regular blog, The most current research on blogging by Domingo and Heinonen (H/T Dawn Gilpin) doesn’t even include a proper category for blogs run by government agencies. Dipnote is one of about 36 U.S. government blogs that are listed as active. Of these, 15 (including Dipnote) can be described as “public affairs” blogs, designed to provide general information about or from the sponsoring agency to the public. Among the others 11 are “personal” blogs of individuals at various government agencies (often their Directors), and 7 provide information in support of specific programs.

As an aside, 2007 is the year when U.S. government blogging became widespread. Only 6 of the currently active government blogs began posting before that year. Dipnote launched in September 2007, and only 4 of the public affairs blogs started before then.

Regular blogs are known for reflecting the subjective views of their writers. As Domingo and Heinonen put it

Texts, the most common form of weblog posts, tend to be brief, direct, and informal….and are regarded as personal spaces of self-expression. Therefore interpretive and subjective style is the norm in weblog writing.

In contrast, Dipnote is a public space that expresses official communications of the State Department. So although Dipnote writers do seem to write in blog-like prose, they are not free to make the kinds of shoot-from-the-hip comments that you often find in the blogosphere.

Dipnote is also un-bloglike is its approval process for posts. All posts are edited by Kern and Forgerson. They said this usually involves just copy editing rather than control of voice or content of posts. But in some cases when she suspects a post may deal with sensitive policy issues, Kern refers the posts up the chain of command for approval. This sometimes results in significant delays in publication of the posts.

In contrast, regular blogs are known for their quickness, enabled in large part by their lack of an editorial structure and editorial approval chain. It is not unusual to see a blogger post a quick notice of a development in his or her interest area, then edit the post several times to update with and comment on breaking developments. You don’t see these kinds of posts on Dipnote, and you probably never will owing to the need for it to stay in line with official policy.

Another way Dipnote is unlike a regular blog is that it is hamstrung when it comes to learning about its audience and tracking the readership of its posts. Kearn informed us that because they are a government agency, they are prohibited by privacy laws from collecting any personal information that is not critical to the core mission of the Department. Accordingly they do not set cookies or in any other way collect information about individual users of the blog. This means that they lack estimates of how many individuals read their publication. Likewise, they can can only judge the popularity of the site and individual posts according to page views (which overestimate the number of individual readers) or the number comments (which many users do not make).

Normal blogs can take advantage of cookies and more sophisticated tools like Sitemeter or Google Analytics. These tools give bloggers a better picture of their readers, for example whether their audience is expanding, if existing readers are using it more intensely, and so on. Likewise, regular bloggers can judge the popularity and reach of individual posts, allowing them to do a better job of adapting to their audience.

So in important ways and for understandable reasons, Dipnote is not like blogs run by individual citizens, journalists, or media outlets. They can’t avail themselves of many of the advantages of the medium. They can’t be as subjective and reactive, and they sometimes can’t be as timely. they also can’t collect potentially useful data on usage patterns.

Despite these constraints, Dipnote has had a very good first year. According to Kern and Forgerson, the site has logged more than 2 million page views in its first year of operation. They say the usage trend was an initial burst of interest, followed by a plateau, then a recent uptick in views. That bucks a trend of decreasing views for the whole of since June, as reported by Alexa, and mirrors a strong uptick for the whole domain since September.

In a week or so, our colleagues Ed Palazzolo and Dawn Gilpin will post Part 2 of this series, describing the results of a detailed content analysis of Dipnote posts and comments from the last year.