Iceland’s president has embraced social media to retool the country’s economic and tourism industries.

Social media has pervaded everyday life for its users to such an extent that there is an argument that social media actually makes people less social. I can see the logic behind the argument, but I’m not totally convinced, mainly because I also see all of the amazing things people are doing through social media. Like the whole country of Iceland, for example.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is the president of Iceland, and has been for 16 years. In considering the 2012 election, he decided not to run again, believing he could do more good work for the country by not being president. The people of Iceland immediately started an online petition to keep him in office, which gained thousands of signatures. He took the people’s opinions seriously and reversed his decision, announcing his candidacy last week. So obviously he’s doing something right. And it all has to do with social media.

For starters, he lets anyone and everyone come to his house for free for a chat, or pancakes, often both. More than that though, Grímsson has completely embraced modern technology to improve transparency, government accessibility, and tourism in Iceland. The country has an official Tumblr blog called “Iceland Wants to Be Your Friend,” an official Twitter account, and an official Facebook page.

In 2011, the country launched a campaign called “Inspired by Iceland” which encourages citizens to give tourists tours through the country. This was the beginning of citizens and tourists being invited to stop by the president’s house just outside of Reykjavik for pancakes and to meet and talk to the man himself. And the best part of all of this: it’s actually working. Tourism has been growing in Iceland since 2011.

Additionally, the government is really interested in its citizens’ involvement and feedback in the way the country is run. In 2011, the country’s Constitutional Council decided it was time for a new constitution and drafted one up. It then posted the draft online so citizens could read it, make comments, and leave feedback about the actual text and ideas in the proposed constitution. Now that is crowdsourcing at its finest.

Grímsson says this approach to a truly democratic government was inspired by the nation’s 2008 financial crisis. After the economy tanked, officials realized that other aspects of the government were in crisis too, like the social, political and judicial branches. Hence opening the constitution to public scrutiny. The president points out that the origins of Iceland line up perfectly with the openness the country now employs through social media. After the Vikings founded Iceland, the citizens set up a parliament, open courts, and an open assembly. Using social media is almost part of the Icelandic tradition!

As I was researching this, the thought occurred to me that Iceland only has 30,000 citizens, so of course this could only work in a country so small. Grímsson agrees that embracing modern technology to this extent and having it work so effectively is certainly due in part of the size of the country. Regardless, the president hopes that the model Iceland has championed will spread to small communities in bigger countries.

The other thought I had while learned about all of this was that of the president’s safety. Again, the small population probably reduces the chances of danger for the president. More than that though, the president himself prefers to be in contact with his constituents. Greater than the danger of violence from a vigilante, says Grímsson, is the danger of not building relationships and trust with people. “Iceland is a society based on the principle that everyone is a friend until proven otherwise,” says the president.

It’d be hard to implement this model on a country with a larger population, but the notion of a free and open government is certainly inspiring. I definitely want to be friends with Iceland. To read more about the impact of Facebook for other entities like businesses, check out our blog post “Facebook Timeline Helps Companies Such As Pinterest and Myspace.”