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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."

And just what does Twitter do that it should be ascribed such powers? First, it is called the essential organizing tool, helping the dissidents plan rallies and protests. It's unclear exactly how important a part Twitter played on this score, but there is at least anecdotal evidence to support the claim. Second, Twitter was credited with having spread first-person accounts of the uprising as it unfolded. Here, too, the extent of its success is unclear. Yes, there were hundreds of thousands of "tweets" claiming to be firsthand reports from Tehran. But because the service is anonymous it's impossible for anyone to know which reports were genuine and which were not. As one skeptic joked, "On the Internet, no one knows your revolution is a dog."

Not that it really matters, mind you, because Twitter's signal accomplishment was how it made outsiders feel. Nancy Scola helpfully explained that with Web 2.0, "the [Internet] ethos evolved into do something. We developed an expectation that we could, using our new tools, blur the line between observers and participants." As examples of participation, Scola noted that many Western Twitterers were changing their "default" locations to Tehran. Or, even better,

[S]ome are making a bid at solidarity with protesting Iranians by turning their Twitter and other online icons green, as green is both a color with significance and Islam [sic] and was a symbol adopted by protestors in the early going.

Shirky concurred. "Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement," he noted. "We're seeing everyone desperate to do something to show solidarity, like wear green." Andrew Sullivan showed all sorts of solidarity. "Technology has not just made the world more dangerous; it has also enabled freedom to keep one small step in front of tyranny and lies," he wrote pugnaciously. "One thing you can do is use Twitter to fight the regime yourself. Help bring these fascist bastards down at the end of your modem." Sullivan did his part by turning the logo on his blog from blue to green. Improbably, Ahmadinejad and the mullahs weathered the storm.

This wasn't the first time Web 2.0 proselytizers had tried to give the Internet credit for changing the world. Last December anarchist students in Greece rioted in vague opposition to the police, banking system, unemployment, the government, and what have you. Some of the rioters Twittered the outbursts using the tag "griots." The Economist rushed to give Twitter credit for creating "networked protests" with the power to change the status quo. A few weeks later the riots abated, and Greece went back to its semi-civilized state of perpetual strikes and random demonstrations.

In April there was another attempt to coin a Twitter revolution, this time in Moldova. Communist president Vladimir Voronin had recently won a suspicious election. Students planned to demonstrate in the capital's main square, expecting about 1,000 participants. Ten thousand protestors showed up, sparking days of unrest which some believed would lead to the fall of the regime. Wired called it the "Twitter Revolution," as did Foreign Policy blogger Evgeny Morozov, who asked, "Will we remember the events that are now unfolding in Chisinau not by the color of the flags but by the social-networking technology used?" The next day the New York Times was suckered into running its own story about the "Twitter Revolution."

Only, there was no revolution, and it wasn't clear that Twitter played much of a role in the unrest. Only 70 Twitter users actually listed their locations as being in Moldova. (Though in theory, some Moldovans could have used fake locations to hide their identities.) Demonstrators who did use Twitter later explained that the service was only peripherally helpful and that they had relied on a host of online websites, services, and message boards. Also, it later became clear that large numbers of the demonstrators were actually plants from the government's security service, there to act violently in an attempt to tarnish the demonstrators. And in any case, the revolution never progressed beyond a few days of demonstrations, which quickly petered out.

Yet three months later, Moldova held a follow-up election after the parliament was dissolved. This time the vote was fair and relatively calm. The Communists lost and were ousted with little fanfare and fewer tweets. The New York Times's Twitter revolution story was 1,300 words. The actual fall of the Communists got a grudging 650-word summary. Is it a revolution if no one twitters?

The desire to find some--any--real-world usefulness for social networking persists. This month's Wired carries a story about the State Department bringing a cadre of Internet titans to Iraq to help rebuild the country. Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey went on the trip, as did Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup, the "revolutionary" web-organizing tool that helped Howard Dean carry one state (his home of Vermont) during his ballyhooed 2004 presidential bid. Google sent a pair of reps, along with an executive from YouTube.

The mission was the brainchild of 27-year-old Jared Cohen, a State Department boy-wonder who was profiled by the New Yorker at age 25 when he first came to work for Condoleezza Rice. (Politically transcendent, he has continued to blossom under Hillary Clinton.) "The technology that's second-nature to you is going to be really important to countries like this," Cohen told the Internet gurus at the beginning of their adventure.

He didn't know the half of it. The group met with a representative of the National Museum of Iraq, who told them, "We do not have a security system. We do not have a fire alarm system. We would welcome any idea, any kind of help." "Do you have a website for the museum?" one of the social-networkers offered helpfully. At a meeting with university students Heiferman became distraught that the young Iraqis were more interested in boring government jobs building civil society than in creating tech startups. "You should think of yourselves as social entrepreneurs!" he exhorted them. But the trip's big success came from a meeting with Barham Salih, Iraq's deputy prime minister. They convinced him to start Twittering. He has embraced the medium. On June 9, for instance, he tweeted: "Just did the Colbert Report..First ever appearance for me on this kind of a show..Great fun!"

As the Iranian protests unfolded, PC magazine asked, "How did we have revolutions before Twitter?" At the height of the action, Twitter was logging 220,000 tweets an hour about Iran. Three thousand YouTube videos were uploaded from Iran, along with some 2 million blog posts. Mir-Hussein Mousavi was "friended" by 100,000 people on Facebook. However impolite the comparison, the Iranian radicals of 1979 had none of those advantages, yet managed to bring down the shah. It is worth contemplating what they had that Twitter doesn't.

But whatever its political limits, Twitter works well as a window into a certain kind of mindset. There was something peculiarly Obama-esque about the simultaneous embrace of the Iranian cause through Twitter and the reluctance to back formal support from any Western government. The same people who turned their Twitter icons green found deep wisdom in the West's official hands-off approach to the protestors.

In the end, what matters to social-networkers isn't action or results, but words and feelings and poses. Which is why they become so invested in their own agency, needing to see the effects of their support everywhere around them. Because if turning your website green doesn't help the Iranian cause, then you might as well have just read about it in the New York Times two days later, like all the other saps. It means that whatever your wishes or hopes, the universe is indifferent. For people who believe that they are the ones they've been waiting for, this must be a terrifying prospect.

Fortunately for the Twitterers, there is one sector of the universe that always responds to their attention--the media. On the weekend the Iranian protests began, Twitterers became preoccupied with what they deemed CNN's inadequate coverage of the events. So they set up a designated Twitter feed to criticize the network. By Monday CNN had correspondent Octavia Nasr on the air, reading Tweets aloud as they appeared on her BlackBerry.

Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.