Twitterpated in Persia

Thursday, 18 June 2009 — 12:04pm | Computing, Journalism

I’m as glued to the fallout from the Iranian “election” as anybody else, and if there was one opinion I wanted to hear, it was Marjane Satrapi’s. More than one outlet has sold the present events in Iran as the 1979 revolution reborn, often with a suggestion that it is the long-concealed expression of the way the revolution ought to have turned out had the fundamentalists not steered it off course and filled the power vacuum themselves.

When I read Satrapi’s superb graphic novel Persepolis, I described it as “an act of remembrance for the promise of an Iran that could have been, had the theocratic powers that govern Iran not shoved that promise in a closet, and had the rest of the world not believed them.” Well, the citizenry sure hasn’t forgotten, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see it. It is as if the silenced middle class of educated moderates decided to speak up all at once and say, enough is enough.

For those of you just catching up: Juan Cole summarizes the top pieces of evidence the election was stolen. Christopher Hitchens highlights the blatancy of the fraud when set against the trends in the rest of the Islamic world. Poll analysis superstar Nate Silver and his colleagues at FiveThirtyEight crunch the data and offer their findings in a comprehensive and, thank goodness, levelheaded series of posts, reminding us of the alternative scenarios and the fact that statistics don’t prove a whole lot to the outside observer who fails to account for the reality of the political climate.

Andrew Sullivan has been on top of things from the beginning, as I knew he would be, and if you like your aggregated updates five to ten minutes apart you’ve already been reading him all along.

And now, for a bucket of cold water.

I am deeply unimpressed at the media, by which I mean both the frumious bandersnatch of the “MSM” and independent bloggers, and their coverage of Twitter.

I only signed up for Twitter two weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to find it useful all of a sudden. Yes, it is newsworthy that it’s our best source of information on the ground when the Iranian government has taken the usual precautionary measures to shut down cell phones, block social networks, restrict bandwidth, arrest and expel journalists, and jam BBC satellites. Yes, it is newsworthy that Twitter shifted its maintenance schedule to accommodate its Iranian users, presumably at the behest of the Obama administration. It is being used to publish eyewitness reports and organize impromptu rallies. And probably the most encouraging thing I’ve seen it do is facilitate the emergence of a mutual understanding between the western and Iranian citizenry: more people know, and the Iranians know they know, that the Iranian people aren’t a rabble of fundie terrorists. (Their state is a different matter entirely.)

But Twitter has taken over the Iranian story to an unconscionable degree. A good proportion of the Twitter traffic about Iran involves people far away from the action feeling important about themselves for using the service, bashing the mainstream media while linking to their stories about Twitter. The peak of involvement among its users was, narcissistically, when Twitter announced its maintenance delay. Sullivan goes so far as to retract his previous mockery of Ashton Kutcher’s pronouncement in that most happily credulous of early-adopter rags, TIME, that “the creation of Twitter […] is as significant and paradigm-shifting as the invention of Morse code, the telephone, radio, television or the personal computer.”

I don’t buy it, and neither should you.

The service was in the right place in the right time, as a well positioned contingency when few other options were available. But there is very little about Twitter that is actually transformative. Up until the Iranian election its social purpose was trivial, and its political utility was as a haven for partisan shilling in the guise of popular opinion. The Internet is notorious for pushing marketing messages through the force of mass psychology, but even more so when apparent expressions of self are reduced to 140-character snippets that leave no room for reasoned analysis.

Twitter is merely the natural extension and conjunction of several trends in personal communication that have been developing for years. It’s instantaneous, public, and easy to search; the data and metadata are openly available for tracking and aggregation; it’s platform-independent and can be accessed by all manners of portable hardware.

Its defining characteristic is the brevity of a “tweet”—a 140-character string that, I presume (without having looked it up), fits neatly into a 256-byte packet with room to spare for metadata like the timestamp and source. Given the methods of network disruption that the Iranian government appears to be using—the main result of which has been the severe restriction of bandwidth, and the slowing of Internet access to the pace of a carrier pigeon service—Twitter is peculiarly optimal, though by no means infallible.

Beyond that, there is nothing intrinsically unique to Twitter that makes it an especially viable tool of social revolution. There have been two revolutionary technologies that have made all the difference in the last ten or twenty years, as the public has come to adopt them en masse: the Internet and the cellular phone. Twitter is merely an application; the platforms were the great leaps forward. The enabling mechanism here is Iran’s own technological infrastructure, which kept apace of the modern world beyond what the state was prepared to control. You would never see this happen in North Korea, which made the firm decision to completely isolate its people from global communications.

As the direct benefactors of the collapse of print and the fracture of the cable news oligopoly, bloggers have a strong incentive to promote the Internet and pronounce the death of the so-called MSM at every opportunity. And in the opposite corner, many sources in the traditional media are working under the delusion that staying relevant with the kids means reporting on how the technology-of-the-month is transforming our lives. (TIME is repeatedly the worst culprit here, and hacks like Lev Grossman have been trying to get us all drunk on the democratizing myth of social media since well before they named “You” as 2006’s Person of the Year.) Make no mistake: the media is not impartial about media. Exercise due caution.

What is happening in Iran is the most significant transformation of the country’s political climate and public face in thirty years. Twitter is a part of this story, but an incidental one in the grand scheme of technological change. Enjoy its finest hour while it lasts.

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3 rejoinders to “Twitterpated in Persia”

  1. Quite right. Fax machines were essential to the Russian revolution of 1989, but that didn’t make them the transformative medium-that-is-message of the 1990s. Indeed, about the only surviving effect is that Russia’s major news wire is called Interfax.

    Thursday, 18 June 2009 at 3:31pm

  2. Jones

    1. See the discussion of Twitter in Belarus and Egypt in Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody”.

    2. The maximum length of a tweet has nothing to do with 256 bytes; it’s actually based on observing the length of SMS texts and concluding that 140 to 150-something characters ought to be enough for everyone.

    3. The social media fad is just that. I’m sure you can guess my thoughts on Twitter (though they’re nowhere nearly as extreme as S. Murray “Steve” Smith’s. Yet.).

    Thursday, 18 June 2009 at 4:59pm

  3. Twitter ← SMS ← this guy

    Twitter chose a silly software stack (Ruby still doesn’t scale well, meaning people get to see the fail whale a little too often.

    Twitter, like Facebook, rewards people for generating informational rabbit droppings; just enough to elicit response from similarly, erm, brief people while managing to contain no real meaningful content at all. If ever there was a technological metaphor for data too enervated even for the metaphorical cecum of our cultural rodent, Twitter is it.

    Like the latest trend in verbal fillers and stops (“he was like, ‘so?'”, “it was, you know, cool”), it’s an organ of communication that allows people to say whatever they want without having to convey anything at all.

    God help us all.

    Sunday, 28 June 2009 at 9:58pm

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