Thursday, June 25, 2009

Twitter on the Barricades

Chrysa - Χρύσα, originally uploaded by Teacher Dude's BBQ.

I came across this article on twitter by Noam Chomsky on the International Herald Tribune website. It is perhaps one of the most lucid analysis of the microblogging service that allows users to post short messages of 140 characters or less.

When I first saw Twitter last year I have to admit that I was less than impressed. It seemed trite and boring, but when the December riots broke out in Greece it proved to be an excellent way of keeping up with events. Nowadays the mainstream media have caught onto Twitter to the extent that it even made the front page of Time magazine.

Now we can follow what is happening in Iran at the moment via Twitter (#iranelection) and at least have an alternative to the official version of events. I have to agree with Chomsky's idea that Twitter is not a medium of organisation, being too limited to the well off and/or techno-literate, but it is an excellent way of connecting local events with the wider international community.

I saw this with my own eyes in December where the use of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Skype and blogs allowed Greeks to mould the way the riots and protests were seen in the international media and in that way get beyond the local media's message which was that all the trouble was just the work of a few mindless hooligans. As with Iran now the events that shoke Greece following the death of Alexis Grigoropoulos in December were best reported by those on the streets and on the internet.

Likewise a small group of people of no more than a few hundred Twitter users, with a hardcore of less than ten, technically minded users who felt comfortable using English (another big hurdle which those who talk about globalisation seem to forget) were able to get out the news to a global audience. They did not organise or direct what happened but rather were a vital link between the demonstrators on the streets and the rest of the world.

Having seen Twitter in action from street level I do believe that it has the power to change things, however, as a tool, it is liable to manipulation by media literate groups and regimes and that is exactly what I predict will happen soon when Twitter is enlisted in some kind of Wag the Dog scenario in the near future. Imagine the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (which marked the start of America's official involvement in the Vietnam war) using Twitter.

So here is the article;

"Political revolutions are often closely linked to communication tools. The American Revolution wasn’t caused by the proliferation of pamphlets, written to whip colonists into a frenzy against the British. But it sure helped.

Social networking, a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon, has already been credited with aiding protests from the Republic of Georgia to Egypt to Iceland. And Twitter, the newest social-networking tool, has been identified with two mass protests in a matter of months — in Moldova in April and in Iran last week, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the official results of the presidential election.

But does the label Twitter Revolution, which has been slapped on the two most recent events, oversell the technology? Skeptics note that only a small number of people used Twitter to organize protests in Iran and that other means — individual text messaging, old-fashioned word of mouth and Farsi-language Web sites — were more influential. But Twitter did prove to be a crucial tool in the cat-and-mouse game between the opposition and the government over enlisting world opinion.

As the Iranian government restricts journalists’ access to events, the protesters have used Twitter’s agile communication system to direct the public and journalists alike to video, photographs and written material related to the protests. (As has become established custom on Twitter, users have agreed to mark, or “tag,” each of their tweets with the same bit of type — #IranElection — so that users can find them more easily). So maybe there was no Twitter Revolution. But over the last week, we learned a few lessons about the strengths and weaknesses of a technology that is less than three years old and is experiencing explosive growth."

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