The Clinton Global Initiative Loosens Its Digital Tie

Midtown Manhattan is in virtual lock-down, as motorcades shut streets and security agents create instant frozen zones to protect the heads of state here in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Cabs are worthless hulks of immobile yellow metal. Buses are very nearly short-stay hotel rooms. And the commuter trains and subways run under extra vigilance, under reputed threat from terrorist explosions.

Here at the Sheraton, security is as tight as the bedsheets in the presidential suite upstairs – President Barack Obama is due this afternoon to help kick off the 5th annual Clinton Global Initiative, the massive who’s who gathering of heads of state, movie stars, philanthropists and corporate titans (if any can be said to exist in 2009).

Yet the word here in the blogger and media bunker a couple of floors below the CEOs and Nobel types is that Bill Clinton’s dizzying annual confab of development and do-gooderism is more “open” than before.

Oh, not in the most obvious ways: you generally still have to be somebody of serious accomplishment or pony up for a large-scale commitment to the developing world or domestic poverty to get a delegate’s badge. At CGI, Brad Pitt’s the leading voice on New Orleans. And that’s no accident – star power drives this show, which is all about bringing attention to the world’s problems. That is succeeds wildly nearly nine years after President Clinton left office is testament to both his contacts and continued energy – and to the people who make this thing run. Super Bowls have fewer moving parts.

So yes, it’s very much a top-down affair from a messaging standpoint. What President Obama says, what Bill Clinton highlights, what Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Ashton Kutcher promote, what Al Gore,  Queen Rania and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comment upon – those items will drive the headlines and the video spots on cable TV.

Yet that summation would ignore a trend that’s as plain as the code on the CGI webcast of the sessions: a Twitter app that allows anyone to ask questions of the participants. It’s a small foot in the door, I think, for a conference that ranks with Davos in high octane policy-making and is unsurpassed in attendance by heads of state from around the world.

This year, you also sense that the Tweetstream – and its ubiquitous #cgi09 tag – isn’t limited to a handful of symbolic tweets from the movie stars and the constant updates from bloggers; many of the delegates are posting as well from their iPhones and Blackberries. Then too, bloggers are now allowed access to some of the smaller speciality sessions – like ‘The Infrastructure of Human Dignity: Protecting the Most Vulnerable’ on Thursday – that we used to have to watch closed-circuit television to listen in on. And last night, President Clinton hosted another late-night roundtable with bloggers; I couldn’t make it this year, but was at last year’s and it’s generally a free-wheeling session on an incredible variety of serious policy topics. This year’s CGI is also streaming video outside the Sheraton more completely than in year’s past – an overt attempt to carry the conversation beyond the hotel walls.

This will never be Bar Camp or Netroots Nation. It’s not exactly the barbarian’s storming the gates, either. Yet despite the wall of hard-nosed security on the way in, CGI is opening up. And given the importance of this gathering to social entrepreneurship and international development, that opening may encourage more bottom-up involvement.


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