The Squirrels Are Watching

Twitter in Iran

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on June 17, 2009

Currently watching various media personalities pick Jonathan Zittrain’s brain regarding Twitter in Iran. While Twitter has definitely had a powerful impact here, I’m not sure that impact is what people think it is. As I understand it, the main effect of Twitter (and while we’re at it, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, etc. — which I’m going to sum up as TLT — things like Twitter) is to provide semi-real-time communication stream between Iranians and the outside world and between Iranians themselves.

But what exactly does that communication enable?

Communication between Iranians themselves is crucial. It enables them to organize, coordinate, and generate mass movements. I am not really sure how TLTs are to that however. There’s certainly a good case that things like they played an important role in the “pre-game”, e.g. enabling the Mousavi campaign to build momentum and more generally, strengthening relationships and trust through social networking. I’m not so sure that they’re as useful for active organizing now however. My understanding is that Internet and mobile access is currently very unreliable, and that Iranians are actually relying on “traditional” means to communicate — e.g. relying on pronouncements from leadership figures like Mousavi, word of mouth, or cultural symbols like shouting “Allahu Akbar” from the rooftops.

And as for communicating things like “Oh my God — government thugs are shooting at us!”, well, that’s something they’re probably seeing with their own eyes.

There’s a much stronger case that TLTs play an important role in enabling Iranians to communicate with the outside world, even to the point that CNN is reliant on them. Jon Stewart, as always, illustrates it best.

Yet how exactly does that matter? It’s unclear what the outside world can do to help. There’s certainly some psychological value for the protesters to know that they have moral support outside and the “the world is watching”, but so far, there have been relatively few messages asking that this attention or support turns to action. It’s like watching a football game live. Yes, it’s fascinating and exciting and the fans are all riled up, but the viewer can’t actually touch the ball.

If at some point, an opportunity arises for the outside world to make an unambiguously constructive impact, then yeah, all of this will be huge. But as of yet, that opportunity isn’t here yet.

So I guess what I’m saying is : NEED MORE DATA

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