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."

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