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Tweeting While Tehran Burns

How many divisions does Twitter have?

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Looking back on it, it's hard to understand how the recent Iranian revolution failed. Sure, the mullahs had guns, tanks, an air force, police, the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij, and imported terrorist thugs on their side. But the Iranian protestors had Twitter. Who could have predicted that an authoritarian regime, in control of its military and willing to spill blood, would triumph over the power of social networking?

It is no criticism of the Iranian dissidents to note that in the West there was a wave of absurd, and disquieting, Twitter triumphalism connected with Iran's June post-election protests. And the praise of Twitter was, like Twitter itself, more about narcissism than sympathy with Iran.

The TED project is the propagator of a much-hyped annual, invitation-only technology conference on "ideas worth spreading"--so imagine a club formed by Tony Robbins and Steve Jobs. As the protests began, TED's website ran an interview with NYU new media professor Clay Shirky who proclaimed, "[T]his is it. The big one." The Iranian protests were, Shirky said, "the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media." And because of Twitter, "people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They're engaging with individual participants."

Like all good techno-futurists, Shirky framed his praise of Twitter with an attack on old media. "Traditional media operates as a source of information not as a means of coordination," he explained.

It can't do more than make us sympathize. Twitter makes us empathize. .  .  . Someone tweeted from Tehran today that "the American media may not care, but the American people do." That's a sea-change.

Shirky was wrong, of course, about the American media. They cared quite a lot. The Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder--he's the new media's E.J. Dionne--was on the case immediately. In a post titled "The Revolution Will Be Twittered," he announced that, "when histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast as a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown and information blackout by the ruling authorities."

Ambinder's "protagonal" (it means whatever you want it to) Atlantic colleague Andrew Sullivan was less circumspect. In one of Sullivan's many posts on the subject--also titled "The Revolution Will Be Twittered"--he wrote of Twitter:

That a new information technology could be improvised for this purpose so swiftly is a sign of the times. It reveals in Iran what the Obama campaign revealed in the United States. You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before. .  .  .

The key force behind this is the next generation, the Millennials, who elected Obama in America and may oust Ahmadinejad in Iran. They want freedom; they are sick of lies; they enjoy life and know hope.

This generation will determine if the world can avoid the apocalypse that will come if the fear-ridden establishments continue to dominate global politics, motivated by terror, armed with nukes, and playing old but now far too dangerous games.

On NPR, the Wall Street Journal's Yochi Dreazen explained that "this [revolution] would not happen without Twitter." TechPresident's Nancy Scola speculated that "It's looking possible we'll look back at the last days' events in Iran and see the start of Web 3.0--on-the-ground historic change through social media." In the Christian Science Monitor, Mark Pfeifle suggested--seriously--that Twitter be given the Nobel Peace Prize. "[T]hink about what Twitter has accomplished," he argued.

It has empowered people to attempt to resolve a domestic showdown with international implications--and has enabled the world to stand with them. It laid the foundation to pressure the world to denounce oppression in Iran. .  .  . 140 characters were enough to shine a light on Iranian oppression and elevate Twitter to the level of change agent.

Carried away by all the media talk, a starry-eyed Gordon Brown announced that because of Twitter, "You cannot have Rwanda again."