Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Not the Twitter revolution, the Twittered revolution

"[T]his is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media."
So says Clay Shirky, in this timely Q&A on the TED blog.

While the protests in Iran perhaps haven't now turned into a revolution, exactly, or at least not in the sense of a government being overthrown, there is still much to be said about the role social media has played, both in drawing the world's attention to the contested election result, and in the protests themselves - as Shirky alludes to, though, it's a controversial matter. Hopefully, this post can round up a wide spread of the online analysis.

The course of events

- "#IranElection Crisis: A Social Media Timeline" is Mashable's charting of the protests from 12th - 21st June, from a social media perspective.

- Wikipedia's '2009 Iranian election protests' entry expands further, as you'd expect, with the notes and citations also representing a pretty comprehensive source of links for further reading.

- And should you want to go right back and try to understand more about Iran and its history, and perhaps how it all came to this, BBC Radio 4 yesterday began running a three part series on the making of modern Iran, titled 'Iran: A Revolutionary State'. Part 3 is tomorrow morning, but according to the programme information on the iPlayer these should remain available online until 1st January 2099 [sic].

Social Media: help or hindrance?

What more or less every analysis of the Iran protests seems to be agreed on is the significant role that social media - and Twitter in particular - played in breaking news of the protests to the rest of the world, and creating some kind of feeling of connection or commonality between 'ordinary' Iranians and their counterparts elsewhere. But where opinion diverges is around the extent to which Twitter was instrumental in the protests themselves, and around the extent to which the surge of tweets on #iranelection may have had a negative impact.

Potential negative impacts range through: the spreading of misinformation; use of certain hashtags by those outside Iran making actual Iranian tweets difficult to find for those within Iran; the public tweeting of proxy IP addresses inadvertently allowing them to be quickly found and blocked by the Iranian authorities; potential for the mass interest and involvement of the English-speaking world to be spun by the Iranian government as evidence that dissent was largely being driven by the West.

That last link references Distributed Denial of Service cyber attacks on pro-Iranian government sites, but I'd imagine the point applies also (though not quite as forcefully) to simple social media participation, and especially as this appears to be from where these attacks are in part being co-ordinated.

The Twittered revolution?

A blog post that covers pretty much every question I've seen raised, as well as linking to a host of informative articles, is this one by Gaurav Mishra. Primarily, he is rebutting the notion that what we have been seeing is a "Twitter revolution" - a term that first sprang up in April this year, in relation to protests against election results in Moldova. (Opinion on Twitter's role and on an appropriate nomenclature was divided then too: 'The Moldovan Twitter revolution is a myth'; 'No, it isn't'). One of Mishra's main arguments is that, if anything, simple mobile phone and SMS was the principal enabling technology behind the Iran protests, along with word of mouth; Twitter was primarily of information to the rest of the world.


Perhaps, then, the notion that we have been seeing a "Twitter revolution" has been so widely reported simply because the concept of a "Twitter revolution" is a compelling narrative: a good, zeitgeist-y story that, in the end, the media wasn't able to apply to the Moldovan situation so has found another peg to hang it on. Again, however, it seems to have fallen off - perhaps, because ultimately, as many have suggested, Twitter is too public a tool for organising a revolution? Or because the story of a "Twitter revolution" is a meme that will never quite sit comfortably on actual events.

What clearly isn't in doubt, though, is Twitter's power to report major world events. While Iran might not have experienced a Twitter revolution, the news media surely will never be the same again. For a start, they've got a new meme to flog to death, and God help us all.

A few other interesting links not referenced in the above:

- The Twazzup feed of Iran election related Twitter activity.

- Ethan Zuckerman's post on how reporting of the Iran election protests came to be disproportionately focussed on the social media angle.

- A Washington Post Q&A with Evgeny Morozov "to discuss the role of Twitter and other social-networking services and Web sites in coverage of the Iranian elections."

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Fake David Miliband and the future of news

Last week I got into a conversation on Twitter with @freecloud, aka Alan Patrick, co-founder of digital media consultancy Broadsight.

(I don’t know Alan, but the one of the great things about Twitter is that you can end up having interesting conversations with complete strangers.)

Alan was asking the kind of question that’s exercising many media types at the moment:

I replied as follows (typo and all):

To which Alan later commented:

It turned out that Alan was thinking specifically about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s recent prognosis that the media industry will never recover financially from the current recession, but at heart it was the same ‘blogging vs journalism’ debate that’s been going on ever since bloggers emerged to challenge the mainstream media’s monopoly over information dissemination.

Once a simple question of professionals vs amateurs, it’s a debate that has grown much more nuanced as the two disciplines have encroached further into each other’s territory. The maturing and thinning-out of the blogosphere has seen the credibility of blogging rise considerably, for example, while the funding crisis in the newspaper industry means that a lot of the old certainties about the superiority of professional journalism are no longer quite so certain.

Despite my belief that professional journalists are still better qualified to report hard news, their ability to do so is rapidly eroding. In an environment in which ever fewer journalists are required to churn out ever more stories at an ever increasing pace to satisfy the second-by-second information needs of an always-on audience, it’s inevitable that serious errors are going to creep in, even at the most professional organisations.

One such serious error occurred yesterday, during the frenzied reporting surrounding Michael Jackson’s untimely death. Along with Sky News and CNN, three of Britain’s quality newspapers – the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times – quoted British foreign secretary David Miliband giving his reaction to the news:

“Never has one soared so high and yet dived so low. RIP Michael.”

An unremarkable enough tribute, but the trouble was that David Miliband never said anything of the sort. His supposed quote was lifted from a Twitter feed purporting to be his, but which was in fact created by an unknown person masquerading as the foreign secretary.

People impersonating other people online for satirical purposes is nothing new – the more accomplished parodies, such as Fake Steve Jobs and Fake Nick Cave, attract whole fanbases of their own – but it’s rare for a professional journalist, let alone a whole swathe of professional journalists, to mistake the fake for the real.

(Reading between the lines of this Guardian blog post, it would seem that the fake quote was first used in a report by the Paris-based AFP newswire, which was then picked up by a number of other news organisations. Anyone who’s read Nick Davies’s excellent book Flat Earth News will know that many journalists accept wire service reports as accurate without feeling they need to be fact-checked.)

Incidents like this make it harder for newspapers to claim factual accuracy as a point in their favour, but that doesn’t automatically mean that blogs and microblogs are more trustworthy sources of news. As the fake David Miliband profile suggests, social media sites can be a riot of misinformation. Yesterday alone, Twitter users merrily passed around made-up reports of the supposed death of Jeff Goldblum, while, in a moment of glorious postmodern silliness, a fabricated rumour about a mass moonwalk at Liverpool Street Station in Michael Jackson’s honour gained so much credence on Twitter and Facebook that it actually took place.

So where does this leave @freecloud’s question about who’s best qualified to reinvent the newspaper? I don’t know the answer, but I think that the ‘journalists or bloggers’ question is increasingly irrelevant, as both are equally good and equally bad at delivering useful information.

What matters now is not the medium by which news arrives, but the trustworthiness of the individual or organisation delivering it. In our new age of ultra-transparency, honesty, openness and a willingness to engage in debate are increasingly important to securing trust. News providers (of any stripe) that publish false information without correcting it risk losing the trust of an audience that can readily find more accurate accounts elsewhere.

The Telegraph and the Guardian’s respective approaches to correcting their fake-Miliband stories may therefore contain clues about the future direction of news. The Telegraph elected to remove the offending article from its website and carry on as though it had never existed – despite it being captured for posterity in screengrabs like this one:

The Guardian, meanwhile, excised the fake-Miliband quote from its article, added a note about why it had been removed, and followed up with a blog post about how several news organisations – including itself – had been duped by the Miliband impersonator.

In doing so, the Guardian has behaved more like a blog than a traditional newspaper. Bloggers tend to make visible corrections to their posts if they discover a factual error after a post has been published, or if a reader points one out. Newspapers, culturally rooted in an age in which an article couldn’t be changed once it had been published, are less inclined to make visible, post-hoc edits to online articles.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that the Guardian will endure while the Telegraph will fade into history; just that the transparency shown by the Guardian in this case is another indicator of how newspapers are borrowing techniques from blogs as they adjust to life in a more democratic media age.

The question is not whether we’ll receive news in the future from professionals or amateurs (it’s likely to remain a combination of both), but what techniques and behaviours our future news providers will have to adopt in order to secure the trust of enough people to make their efforts financially viable.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Twitter Revolution?

When it comes to the intersection between social media and the Iranian election protests, green-tinted Twitter avatars are but a tiny side-alley (see previous post). What is truly remarkable is the huge role Twitter, YouTube videos, Facebook accounts and even the status line in Gmail's Chat box appear to have played in the unfolding of events and the near-instant breaking of news. In the next couple of days I'll look to post something more to that effect here, even if it's only a collection of links to people with far more useful things to say than I have. For now, though - and I never thought I'd write this - The Sunday Times has a good piece on just that subject. And all credit to Andrew Sullivan for eating his words:

Twitter ripped the veil off 'the other' – and we saw ourselves

New media allowed the world to connect with the Tehran rebels

Andrew Sullivan

It was not, to put it mildly, a new technology I found impressive. Twitter, the social networking website, allows for only a tiny number of characters to be broadcast in each "tweet", or message, and much of the early tweeting was being done by bored teens or Hollywood celebrities: the illiterate speaking to the impatient.


Well, the last laugh is on me. As I have spent the past week hunched over a laptop, channelling and broadcasting as much information, video and debate about the momentous events in Iran, nothing quite captured the mood and pace of events like the tweets coming from the people of Iran.

With internet speed deliberately slowed to a crawl by the Iranian authorities, brevity and simplicity were essential. To communicate, they tweeted. Within hours of the farcical election result, I tracked down a bunch of live Twitter feeds and started to edit and rebroadcast them as a stream of human consciousness on the verge of revolution.

To go to the full article click here.

[Link included above - to Andrew Sullivan's extensive blogging on Iran, for The Atlantic - not included in original piece].

A couple of other sources:

- As you would expect, Mashable, 'The Social Media Guide', has been providing coverage of the social media angle on Iran's 'Twitter Revolution' and their posts can be found here (the first link in that sentence goes to a New York Times analysis of Twitter's potential as a revolutionary tool).

- A number of the major stories have been covered by the BoingBoing blog, under their CIVLIB, INTERNATIONAL, and POLITICS tags; most of the posts also carry links to previous BoingBoing posts.

N.B. Thanks to @HeidiHigh for most of these links.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Twitter green-out

Anyone stumbling across Twitter for the first time right now could be forgiven for wondering what exactly is wrong: Are people ill? Are they collectively envious of something? Perhaps there's been an outbreak of Incredible-Hulkism? Or maybe everyone's just getting a bit jaded with it all at last?

Actually, Incredible-Hulkism might be the best answer: people got angry and turned green, or at least their Twitter avatars did, in symbolic support of those protesting what is widely being seen as a rigged election in Iran. But, as a number of people have asked, what exactly does this achieve? Anything?

The cynical answers first (since it's always nicer to end on a high): it makes us in the West feel better; it makes us feel like we're doing something; it is (quite literally) the least we can do. Perhaps too it's something along the lines of the theories ventured at the time of the death of Princess Diana: people want to feel connected to something more dramatic, important, or meaningful than their own small, increasingly individual and isolated lives.

Frankly, I have no idea whether it's any of those things, but I can imagine them being suggested by the usual assortment of commentators. Myself, I've actually turned my avatar green, and to be honest I'm not entirely sure why.

At first it started to occur to me that maybe everyone else who'd turned green would (wrongly) assume I was in disagreement with them. Then I decided that just because I couldn't entirely see the point it didn't mean that there wasn't one, and anyway, it's just a couple of mouse clicks, so I might as well do something rather than absolutely nothing. If it achieves anything, great; if not, never mind.

Even so, none of this explains what it was hoped that making Twitter resemble some collective absinthe hallucination might actually achieve.

The first thing of this order that I remember is a day on which everyone was supposed to wear red in support of the Burmese monks and Aung San Suu Kyi. Again, I didn't entirely see the point, but I think the idea was that photos would appear on Flickr and the Burmese would know that the rest of the world was behind them and that we cared about what was happening.

More recently, there was the Twitter blackout, protesting against draconian internet regulation plans in New Zealand. Apparently, despite much skepticism, this proved successful (or played some part in the resultant climbdown), and maybe that's why the strategy has been revived in the wake of the Iran elections. However, it does seem that applying that same strategy to the present situation is somewhat of a category error; like assuming that because you've found that 2+2 = 4 and 2+3 is also a mathematical problem it must also have the same answer. Just because one government is likely to pay attention to what amounts to an international online petition, doesn't mean another one will.

But I doubt anyone really expects that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will give in to a small army of sickly looking Twitter avatars - unless, perhaps, he assumes them to bear him some kind of virtual swine fever. So I guess the aim here is closer in spirit to the wear-red-for-Burma day: to show any Twitter-engaged protesting Iranians, and their ex-patriate friends and relatives, that there is a wider international support for their cause. Or anyway at least enough that people will click a mouse a couple of times.

But again I veer towards cynicism.

The truth is, I still don't really know exactly what these kind of protests achieve, or exactly why my Twitter avatar is now tinted a misty green. All I can really say is that since the emergence of Twitter, Facebook, et al, it's almost as easy to register at least some small protest as not to, on pretty much any topic, whether it be about the disappearance of your favourite chocolate bar or about the disappearance of civil liberties. What, if any, the impact might be doubtless varies wildly according to the nature of the issue, but at least it allows you to do something, no matter how infinitessimally small - and perhaps it even allows you to take part in proving yourself wrong. I hope so.

A random bit of balance: At least one person isn't so sure Twitter's been a helpful voice in the Iranian situation: yes, it spreads information fast, but what happens when that's false information?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Digital Britain: The Debrief

The government's final Digital Britain White Paper was published on schedule yesterday, despite speculation that it would be delayed due to the mayhem caused by the recent expenses scandal and the surprise resignation last week of its author, Lord Carter.

The main points - and shortcomings - of the report have been well covered in the media, so there's no need to reiterate them here.

Rory Cellan-Jones at the BBC, for example, has a nice, clear analysis of why the actions outlined in the report are very unlikely to put Britain at the top of the global broadband league - despite Gordon Brown's insistence that they will, while Bryan Glick at Computing takes a more positive view.

But I did just want to put on record the debrief that I gave to the Cornwall Social Media Café last night. Last month I co-ordinated the CSMC's response to the interim Digital Britain report and our recommendations for consideration in the final report, as part of the series of Digital Britain Unconferences that took place around the country.

At the time I wasn't confident that our response would have any effect. But as it turns out, it does seem to have helped to make a concrete difference to the government's proposals, and is even explicitly acknowledged on page 10 of the final report itself.

Here's the debrief more or less as I delivered it last night:

The final Digital Britain report – all 245 pages of it – was published today and announced in Parliament by the new culture secretary Ben Bradshaw.

The report takes into account the recommendations made by the twelve Digital Britain Unconferences that took place last month, one of which we had here in Vertigo Bar at our last CSMC meet on the 12th May.

The aim of those conferences was to provide last-minute feedback and recommendations to the government ahead of the final report. Our feedback was based on the recommendations outlined in the Digital Britain interim report published in January.

Our feedback focused mainly on the government’s proposal to deliver 2MB/s broadband to everyone in the country by 2012. We felt that this would put rural areas at a disadvantage as some urban areas already benefit from ‘next-generation’ broadband speeds of 20MB/s or more provided by the likes of BT and Virgin Media.

We said that if the government left it up to the market to provide next generation broadband, rural areas would fall behind as it is unprofitable for BT and Virgin to lay fibre to remoter communities. We urged the government to take a more active role in ensuring that everyone could have access to next-generation speeds.

The good news is that the government has taken this feedback on board, and they no longer plan to leave the rollout of next-gen broadband up to the market.

The bad news (depending on how you look at it) is that it seems we’ve been instrumental in creating a new tax. Everyone with a fixed phone line will pay 50p a month to create a new public fund for the rollout of next-generation broadband across the country. (Vulnerable people will be exempt.)

Personally I think 50p a month is a small price to pay to ensure that rural communities and other ‘notspots’ can keep pace with urban centres. Others may not agree! And some people think that the funds will take a long time to raise, and rural areas may not see their super-fast broadband till 2017 by some estimates.

But the bottom line is that we provided feedback and the government listened. Because of that, the rollout of next-gen broadband across the whole country should be faster and more extensive than it would have been had we not provided our input as part of the Digital Britain Unconferences. So I think we can all be quite proud of ourselves.

Further Resources

Full text of the Cornwall Social Media Café's response to the Digital Britain Interim Report

Summary of the amalgamated reports from all 12 Digital Britain Unconferences

Full collated reports from all 12 Digital Britain Unconferences

The full, final Digital Britain White Paper


Thanks go to Kathryn Corrick, Tom de Grunwald, Bill Thompson and Alastair Duncan for instigating and co-ordinating the Unconferences and editing and submitting the collated report, and to Aren Grimshaw and Laura McKay for agreeing to hold a Digital Britain Unconference during the May CSMC meet and for allowing me the time to deliver the debrief last night.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Twitter: inspiring underinformed journalism throughout the land

Twitter, much like Jonathan Ross, seems to have quite a knack for annoying certain people. Cue inevitable snooty article in The Independent's Friday Review section, then, upon the news of @wossy's Twitter based Book Club. "The very idea!" you can almost hear Boyd Tonkin snorting, while failing to properly research his article. In fact, what he actually said was

It sounds like some belated April Fool's gag designed to tickle every exposed nerve of anxiety, greed and fashion-victimhood in the palsied frame of the book business.

But that phrasing probably came a bit later.

It's not the choice of the first book to be read that seems to have got his goat (sorry); or even entirely that Jonathan Ross was behind it; rather, his main issue seems to be that Pan MacMillan were craven and obsequious enough to make it "alarmingly for authors, briefly available as a free download".

The thing is, they actually didn't. And nor did Jon Ronson appear at all alarmed (or no more than usual).

What actually happened was: on the back of Ross's recommendation a paper copy of The Men Who Stare At Goats became almost impossible to get hold of; to meet the demand an e-book was swiftly made available as a paid for download, on Exact Editions; and only for the hour during which the @atwossybookclub Twittering was to take place was a copy available for free, though even then only to read and refer to online, not to download. Which all strikes me as, in fact, a commendably quick reaction; one that for the participants of the book club at least might have actually put the book industry into quite a decent light.

As for the suitability of Twitter as a venue for book club discussion, even Jonathan Ross isn't claiming it's ideal - at least not unextended.

Tonkin's real beef, though, it seems, is with the British publishing industry; which he seems to think is focusing too much on the gadgets on which we will be reading our books, rather than on creating the readers who will read them - the way Pan MacMillan pandered to the Ross book club (or at least that was the story as Tonkin understood it) is just another example of their short-termism; a quick fix. But even here his argument seems to have got a bit confused: doubtless British publishers do need to think about how to "nurture fresh readerships", especially in certain genres, but surely the proliferation of different reading devices, from the Kindle to mobile phones, is a big part of the answer, rather than a distraction?

Imagine, for instance, this article on the humourous bits of Haydn - but read on a device that could supply in-context MP3s. At present, it alienates anyone lacking a certain level of understanding of musical theory, but being able to instantly hear what's being described would bring a whole new reading experience; perhaps a whole new readership - the until now only Classically-curious.

Moreover, the Exact Editions e-book platform mentioned above, which makes it possible to link to and cite individual pages of the text, is if anything evidence of the publishing industry trying to nurture new readerships - for people who might be unable to attend an offline book group, Exact Editions could be used as a common edition, then a forum set up, and problem solved. Indeed other e-book platforms, as demonstrated by the Golden Notebook Project, go even further towards enabling communal reading online.

Whether there are enough of such initiatives, however, Tonkin I'm sure knows better than me, and there's doubtless a valuable article to be written on the matter. But harumphing about a book club on Twitter, that boosts sales and brings fresh readers to a work like Leaves of Grass, or indeed to graphic novels, really isn't the way to start it.