American English: At the Forefront of Digital Diplomacy

A young man from Brazil singing solo, students from Nepal dancing in the Himalayas, a group from the Dominican Republic playing instruments -- the American English, crowdsourced music video to celebrate “3 Million Likes” was truly a global phenomenon. The State Department’s American English program represents digital diplomacy at its best, providing free English language resources for a global audience and encouraging conversations between people from different cultures, religions, and regions. So just how do we successfully engage with an audience from all over the world?

In July 2016, the American English Facebook page surpassed three million “likes”-- a significant achievement for a government-run page. This page is unique not only because of its large audience, but also because of the way it uses English to create community and build bridges among its followers. We encourage the followers not only to engage with our material but also to be a part of our content. As a result, the community becomes emotionally invested in the page; in fact they have become the heart of the page.

Community engagement has been fundamental to the growth of the Facebook page and this initiative demonstrates how we have successfully implemented crowdsourcing as an innovative strategy of digital diplomacy. With such a diverse, global audience, we find that connecting through a common language is instrumental. For example, with our “3 Million Likes” crowdsourced video campaign, we chose two common languages: English and music.

As part of this campaign, we asked our audience to submit videos following the lyrics to our original “3 Million Likes” song. To assist in pronunciation and delivery, we created a “Sing-Along” video which allowed American English followers to become familiar with the song. The sing-along made the video accessible, and the lyrics themselves are universal and likeable. “We like to take selfies...we like to ride bikes” are quite relatable lyrics for a global audience.

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To cater to various levels of English language learners and model the ways in which followers could participate, we also created an instructional video. This video showed our audience that they had the option to sing, dance, or play an instrument along to the “3 Million Likes” song. We anticipated that some of our followers might be hesitant to participate, so we performed in the instructional video ourselves. By including State Department employees in the instructional video, it not only put a face on the American English brand, but it also emphasized the idea that we are all part of the American English community.

This approach also shows that English language learning can be fun and inclusive. Digital diplomacy should not be one-way, but multi-directional. The great benefit of crowdsourcing is that our followers learn from us and we also learn from them. The final video is reflective of the diversity of our participants; from a production-quality video from a large group of participants in the Philippines to a cell phone video from Angola featuring a solo performance of an original song, our followers amazed us with their creativity, innovation, and talent. We were able to see that no matter where our followers are from or what recording device they used, they connected through the American English “3 Million Likes” song.

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We received forty video submissions from seventeen countries that fall within every region of the world, including the United States. The final music video garnered thousands of likes and hundreds of comments that are truly reflective of our goal: to put the public at the heart of public diplomacy. In reaction to the music video on Facebook, an English language learner from Cameroon commented, “We are one. I [am] so proud to be [part of] this Facebook AE English class. We ... continue to grow. I feel that.”  Another from Egypt said, “So happy to take part in the clip and to be one of the American English family.” Those who are a part of our Facebook page know and feel that this engaging environment is not just a community; it is a continually growing family with a heartbeat of its own.

About the authors: Kelsey Brannan serves as Senior Video Producer in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) Office of Public Affairs and Strategic Communications. Heidi Howland serves as a Senior Program Officer in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of English Language Programs.

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July 27, 2016

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