I’ve been on vacation in Israel for the past two weeks. But even on vacation I’ve discovered that while you can try to run from social media it seems that you just can’t hide. The day after we landed I heard about this video that was spreading rapidly on YouTube featuring Israeli soldiers in full uniform dancing in the streets of Hebron in the occupied West Bank:
Israel is a small country and everyone seems to know everyone else, so within a couple of days I got the back story from a relative who knew one of the commanders of the soldiers who made the video. Turns out that they were within a couple of weeks of ending their tour and wanted to celebrate their impending release in a different way. Added to this was the fact that their mission, guarding a very small number of overly zealous Jewish settlers who had taken root within a major Palestinian city, was very much anathema to their own and many Israelis’ feelings about their role in the Army. So during an early morning patrol along one of Hebron’s most conflicted streets they created their own video memento to 3 years of service. It was meant to be shared just within the group, but after the video was shot and the music edited in did one of the soldiers decide to post it on YouTube as a lark. Within an hour or two he got cold feet and pulled it, but by then it was too late. At least one person had managed to copy it and it was off to the viral races.
Aside from the video's surreal humor, two social media truths stand out for me. The first is that amateurs may do a better job of breaking down communications walls than professionals. Clay Shirky asserts that we are entering a world where more and more media is produced by amateurs for amateurs. Within the context of Middle East conflict amateur communications could lead to much more interesting dialogue than the professional communications between these warring sides. The video has generated a massive amount of comments and while most have been typical of the conflict, there have been many that were more open and accepting of the fact that maybe these soldiers were making the only kind of statement they could make about the ridiculousness of their situation. This was borne out during a regular weekly demonstration in Hebron on the Saturday following the video launch where, according to PPN, Palestinians jokingly challenged Israeli soldiers to dance again, and when they didn’t they did their own reply dance, to Lady Gaga's "Pokerface", to the amusement of the crowd including the assembled soldiers. (Now if only we could turn wars into episodes of "So You Think You Can Dance").
The second truth was demonstrated in the way the Israeli military dealt with the soldiers. While there had been previous episodes of similar videos released on YouTube, these had been shot on bases, not in an open conflict zone. So when the video went viral, the commander of the unit was concerned that they would receive a severe punishment and perhaps jail time on the cusp of their departure from the Army. Instead the Army response was surprisingly intelligent. Recognizing that the social genie was out of the bottle, that it was being well received, (and was perhaps altering perceptions after the Turkish ferry fiasco), they decided to “punish” the soldiers. They made them shoot a video recounting what they had done and what a bad thing it would be if other soldiers did the same thing. This approach, of accepting the potential of the community's role in the communications process is rare in corporations let alone the military and shows good common sense. And for a Brand as complex and controversial as Israel it may be a starting point for more positive perceptions and dialogue.