Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tweeting Revolutionaries

It's probably fair to say that, as of now, more Americans are aware of Twitter's role in recent Iranian election protests than they are the underlying complaint of many Iranians (btw: that's distrust in the results of their recent election that confirmed the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when many believed his opponent Mousavi would win).

Surfing between radio stations on my ride home, I counted no fewer than five stories about Twitter and other social networking sites and their role in the protests a half a world away.

But what does it all mean? And - can Twitter possibly mean the same thing to and for Americans that we claim it means to and for the Iranians?

What seems to get lost in this story is the story itself. The meta-story - the story of how we get the story is all over the place. Twitter allows Iranians to circumvent government blocked media, getting information out to the world's mainstream media. Mainstream media, left without any other channels, embraces tweets and the like - taking advantage of millions of modern day stringers, all of them freelance and few of them verified.

That's not to say the Iranian tweets are incredible - taken together, they likely paint a mostly accurate picture of the tumult facing the people. But recall for a moment that a few weeks ago, tweets help spread swine flu panic like, well, the flu.

Is it a question of context? Do Iranian tweets mean more because the situation is more important? Do we judge television's potential and power based on its first broadcasts or its best? Or maybe just its current content? I've long said that when discussion the power of blogs, one should simply replace the world blog with the word pencil because a blog is just another writing instrument: the power isn't in the medium, it's in the message conveyed.

Again, however, to compare blogs and tweets: blogs rise to prominence via the mainstream media. More people are drawn to them because of mainstream media, not in spite of it. There's a high percentage of the country that - despite watching the 24-hour cable networks, don't understand Twitter, won't log on to find out what it is, and probably lack internet access anyway. That population will continue to rely on the mainstream media to provide it with information on what is going in Iran (or with swine flu or Ashton Kucher's marital status or how far along in line Miley Cyrus is at Starbucks).

Blog is to pencil as Twitter is to . . . telephone? Maybe that is the best comparison. We're back to party lines and everything old is new again. The largest, operator-free phone line is at the disposal of any movement with the presence of mind to access it. Yesterday, Kucher, today, Iranian's hungry for electoral integrity. I'd give Twitter less credit and Iranian's more. Information wants to be free and will find a way out (uh, except in the DPRK, but there's always an exception).

Had Iran held this election a year ago, it would've been Facebooked; two years, MySpaced; six months from now, it will be broadcast via something only your still-inventing it former roommate and beta-testing-it neighborgeeky teen know about. The revolution will be something-ed from now on, that much is guaranteed.

In the meantime, however, I'd like to know more about what is going on in Iran than how we're coming to know about it.

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