Monday, June 22, 2009

"Twitter ripped the veil off ‘the other’ – and we saw ourselves" (Updated)

UPDATE: Geov Parrish responds to my P.S.:
As for overestimating, one of the main program areas for the last two years in my day job has been working with the local Iranian-American community on a more peaceful approach to US-Iranian relations.
(Among other things, this effort spawned Rick Steves' Iran trip and show - yes, I was partly responsible for that.) In the context of Iranian politics *and* US policy in the Middle East, Sullivan et al are right on the mark - this is an earthquake, and US legacy media's laziness in covering these protests (when they bother to cover them at all, usually they're getting the main point of the protests spectacularly wrong - it's not about the elections per se, and hasn't been for a week; that simply provided the opening) has been utterly shameful.

Whether this heralds a new age wherein Twitter allows people all over the world to join hands and sing kumbaya, I dunno. I'm not sold yet. But I can attest that people I know who, in the context of US foreign policy, never thought much about the Iranian *people* at all have had their eyes opened. And that's a powerful and good thing.
So if Sullivan is hyperventilating a bit, his basic point, I think, is well taken.
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.

When Ashton Kutcher, the film star and avid tweeter, opined the following in April, I couldn’t stop laughing: “Years from now, when historians reflect on the time we are currently living in, the names Biz Stone and Evan Williams will be referenced side by side with the likes of Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo Marconi, Philo Farnsworth, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs - because the creation of Twitter . . . is as significant and paradigm-shifting as the invention of Morse code, the telephone, radio, television or the personal computer.”
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.

The effect was far more powerful than I had expected. A mix of fact and feeling, rumour and message, here was day one: “It’s worth taking the risk, we’re going. I won’t be able to update until I’m back. Again thanks for your kind support and wish us luck.”

“People were holding signs saying, ‘We are not sheep’.”

“State TV right now: rally is illegal and police will use iron fist against law breakers.”

“Tens of thousands of protesters are chanting ‘No fear, no fear’.”

As the Basiji paramilitaries roamed the streets and dormitories at night, the tweets gained urgency: “People are running in streets outside. There is panic in streets. People going ino [sic] houses to hide.”

“Baseej shooting in Azadi sq - army standing by and watching for now.” “ppl get together in front of our apartment it seems ppl ready for demonstration again in tonight”.

The misspelling, the range of punctuation, the immediacy: it was like overhearing snatches of discourse from police radio. Or it was like reading a million little telegram messages being beamed out like an SOS to the world. Within seconds I could transcribe and broadcast them to hundreds of thousands more.

As I did so, it was impossible not to feel connected to the people on the streets, especially the younger generation, with their blogs and tweets and Facebook messages – all instantly familiar to westerners in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago. This new medium ripped the veil off “the other” and we began to see them as ourselves.

All the accumulated suspicion and fear and alienation from three decades of hostility between Iran and America seemed to slip away. Whatever happens, the ability of this new media to bring people together - to bring the entire world into this revolution on the streets of Iran - has already changed things dramatically.

Of course, the technology also helped to organise and sustain the resistance in ways unavailable during the 1979 Islamic revolution. Here is how Mohsen Makhmalbaf, film-maker and overseas spokesman for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the focal point of the protests, put it in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine: “In the [1979] revolution, there were young people in the streets who were not as modern as the people are today. And they were in the streets following the lead of a leader, a mullah - in those times Ayatollah Khomeini.

“Now the young people in the streets are more modern: they use SMS [text messages]; they use the internet. And they are not being actually led by anyone, but they are connected to each other.”

This was, as Clay Shirky, the internet guru, put it, the “big one”. The unprecedented eruption from below on the streets of Iran was met with an eruption of new media to cover it. Shirky elaborates: “This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the [anti-establishment] Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted ‘the whole world is watching’. Really, that wasn’t true then.

“But this time it’s true . . . and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends and they’re even providing detailed instructions to [allow] internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.”

This rolling, constantly changing, utterly dispersed and devolved event was ideally suited to the blogosphere and social media, who realised the importance of the story while the American mainstream media were still ignoring it.

The blogs also picked up the story sooner than much of the mainstream media because Iran has the third-largest number of bloggers in the world. In a police state theocracy, the internet became an alternative reality for the next generation of Iranians to live in. They are tech-savvy, western-oriented and always broadcasting. “One Person = One Broadcaster” was one tweet from the front line.

We simply became a hub for all this breaking information. This requires journalists getting out of the way of the story rather than attempting to put their own stamp on it and delivering their own version of the truth. I felt last week more like a DJ than a journalist, compiling and sampling and remixing the sounds, sights, events and words streaming out of an ever-shifting drama.

Of course, this model has serious limitations. The tweets themselves were often reporting rumours; by the end of the week the authorities were setting up decoy tweets to lure protesters into traps or to spread disinformation. I could not verify anything.

Yet I could use basic common sense and judgment, provide context and caveats, offer an array of breaking opinion sources and quotes, and let my readers use their own judgment as to what was going on. That meant occasional corrections and revisions – but the point of blogging is a first draft of history, warts and all.

When you review the Twitter stream of the past week, it reads like a stream of constantly shifting consciousness. It is a kind of journalistic pointillism. From a distance it gains heft. It is history rendered in the collective, scattered mind and it has never happened before - millions upon millions of tiny telegram messages sent to the world.
I don’t know where this media revolution is headed any more than I know where the Iranian uprising is headed. What I do know is that something changed last week - something we will not forget and that will transform the way we cover and consume breaking news.

It happened suddenly and from the ground up. No one can control it any more. They can merely stand by and die or join in and create. This was indeed the “big one” - and it is just getting going.
Howie P.S.: My initial reaction was to post this without comment, but after reflecting a bit on Sullivan's piece, I want to add something. I don't mean to to take away from the power of Twitter and other new technologies, but my sense is that Andrew has gotten a little caught up in the powerful energy of the protests and may be over-estimating, along with Ashton Kutcher, the enduring impact of the recent events in Iran.

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