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?


Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

Good post. I think that when 'registering your protest' is this easy, it also becomes practically meaningless. People may feel they've done something to help, when in fact they've done nothing of any real value.

I just hope that negligible actions like changing the colour of a Twitter avatar won't become a substitute for donating money or providing concrete assistance in situations where people around the world *can* make a positive difference.

Tim Warren said...

Thanks :)

I guess in the present situtation the green avatars might have at least some small value as a gesture of support/solidarity (hence mine still being green, just in case). But yep, I agree, there does seem to be a danger that the avatar changing thing will come to be seen as a *meaningful* response to *any* political situation - as Twitter's version of a petition, and if you're dealing with a government that's likely to listen to that kind of thing, it's probably fine, but otherwise, I'm not sure it doesn't just make people wrongly feel like they're doing something (and because it's so easy to do, not even question it).

Tim Footman said...

It's like red AIDS ribbons and anti-poverty bracelets and, for that matter, poppies. Once they reach a certain critical mass, there's an assumption that anyone *not* wearing them is in favour of AIDS or poverty or war veterans having a bad time. If you don't make your avatar green are you a stooge of Ahmadinejad? Remember Jon Snow getting into trouble when he explained why, as a newsreader, he didn't want to wear a poppy?

Tim Warren said...

And at what point do you revert to *not* being green / wearing an anti-poverty wristband / etc.?

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

At least with the AIDS ribbon and the poppy and the anti-poverty wristband you've given some money, which will be used to make a difference. With the green avatar you've done just about nothing. Or am I just being a curmudgeon?

Tim Warren said...

No, I agree. For some reason, when I wrote the post, I was only trying to think of directly comparable phenomena, so didn't mention the ribbons/wristbands etc. (since they have a definite, tangible point to them). Now I think about it, though, I should have turned that thought into another paragraph suggesting that a) the avatar changing thing probably derives from the wristbands, but b) that in the present instance it's, perhaps, a case of making a similar display but divorced from its original purpose.

Incidentally, I've just seen that you can now pin a green ribbon onto your Twitter avatar... which, if anything, even further emphasises your point.