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The Tweet Heard ‘Round the World

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Social media are much disdained in some circles. Especially Twitter, where people "follow" you and conversely, you "follow" them, which sounds a lot creepier than it is. You can follow real life friends, celebrities who allow you access. (Although why celebrities, already harassed by the paparazzi, would want to expose themselves even more is beyond me.) Stephen Fry, the venerable British actor/writer/comedian (and long time comedy partner of House's Hugh Laurie) "tweets" with great gusto as his thousands of followers hang on his every tweet, reply to him — and are sometimes pleasantly surprised by a personal response.  

Everyone from photographers to porn-meisters to news outlets to bloggers to Barack Obama's White House tweet away, hoping you'll listen, and learn or buy  — or just say "hi." It's a global, post-modern market square. If you get a tweet that sounds like everyone should know about it, "re-tweet" it and pass it on. If it catches on, the message will spread to every one of your own "followers." And they will  spread it to theirs as the message spreads virally through the ether of Internet. The only hitch: a "tweet" must be no longer than 140 characters. Sound bites of the smallest sort; fragments of conversations heard from across the market square, but worth checking out. Sometimes.

But what if something really important happens on the global stage? Something that is too fluid and too elusive for the more traditional media to track? Like the birth of a revolution.

Three hours after the polls closed in Iran last week, and millions of ballots were cast, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner with a landslide victory over reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Protests sprung out in Tehran and other places throughout Iran. Violence followed, and 140-character micro news reports from the streets began to appear on Twitter. The tweets conveyed the sense of people whose contact with the outside world was imperiled. Vital information about what was happening crept out in tweets coming fast and furious:  hundreds per minute.

The true populist power of Twitter was unleashed. It was the tweet heard 'round the world. The protests continued while much of the mainstream media missed what was really going on last weekend. News blackouts occurred as Internet and phone service went out in many places all over Iran, continuing throughout this week. But Iranians continued to get the message out 140 characters at a time, and mighty little Twitter became the broadside sheet for the Iranian street, compelling the world to take note, re-tweet and follow. The mainstream media (CNN, MSNBC, and the networks) finally began to tell the story, playing catch-up with that little Internet upstart.  Twitter itself, now the conduit for up to the minute news from the streets of Tehran, has become an important story for the mainstream media. Now everybody's following the story on Twitter.

Earlier this week, Twitter announced that a planned site outage for a critical network upgrade had been moved from the wee hours of the morning (in the US) to early afternoon. The "wee hours" for US residents is prime time daylight in Iran. The afternoon outage in the US would inconvenience (or be a mild annoyance) to some, however, Twitter explained, "our network partners … recognize the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran." Who'd have thunk it?

And then the new message went out all across Twitter-land. Show support of the opposition by turning your Twitter avatar green. That, too, went viral as many Twitter-ers (Twits?) have now gone green.

Today, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared the original election results correct, proper, and valid, and he warned protesters to cease their actions on the streets. Undeterred, the micro protests continue, although the tweets don't seem to come as fast and furiously as they had a few days ago. (It is getting increasingly more difficult to acquire safe pipelines out of Iran.) Tweeting (and providing secure access for Iranian Twitter-ers) has become an act of courage as the Iranian government tries very hard to put a halt to the small, but powerful messages.

Text messaging, even video text messaging, cannot convey the urgency of those 140-character sound bites. They almost have the feel of those vital bits of information coming across an those old shortwave radios back in my parents' era, when the networks, and certainly the newspapers were unable to keep up with the fast pace of overseas news.

Twitter (and networks like it) have great power. Far more than a creepy-sounding way to "follow" your friends or favorite celeb, it has the power to change the world, 140 characters at a time.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Barbara S Barnett

    Cindy–fantastic. Nebben, thanks for the link. Forgot to include my own tweet link. Tweet ME!

  • You can view pics from #iranelection alongside tweets containing #iranelection.

  • Barbara S Barnett

    Thanks for your kind words, everyone. I think Twitter, more than the other social media, has real potential. It’s always there, always on (especially if you have an interface like tweetdeck) and can always be part of the conversation, debate–or information spreading community.

  • One of the fascinating challenges using Twitter, to me, is the 140 character limit which is less than what my cell provider allows for non-network texts. To make a point without reverting to the U for you, 2 for two, etc. can be part of the fun in sending out tweets.

    I agree that Twitter can be more powerful than it’s face value. There have been several instances in the US where tweeting has helped people in personal crisis. To follow the impact it’s now made globally breaks down walls and ultimately brings us all closer together.

    Wonderful article, Barbara!

  • irene wagner

    Robert, is there less narcissism, less prostitution of the English language, in blogland than on twitter?

    Worthwhile things are being done on Twitter (this article describes one) and in blogs, and some not-so-worthwhile things are also being done.

  • Barbara,

    Everyone should read this article. Thanks for this wonderful, wonderful analysis.

    Twitter (and networks like it) have great power. Far more than a creepy-sounding way to “follow” your friends or favorite celeb, it has the power to change the world, 140 characters at a time.

    That’s the truth.

  • lol @ Robert

  • Barbara S Barnett

    I like the idea of engaging with people with whom you otherwise would not. I have made a couple of amazing contacts through Twitter and have gotten to know some Internet associates much better through Twitter than, say, through online forums. there is a directness and immediacy to this that is similar to IM’ing and chatting, but with allowing others to join in the conversation. I liken it to being at the local swimming pool, chit-chatting with a couple of people about whatever, and having a couple more join in because they heard something that interests them.

    I never get personal on any level (unless through direct messaging –which is private).

    I had never occurred to me before Iran that the tweet could have so much power.

    Twitter can also be used to pass on immediate information of other sorts. Big storms here yesterday–even a tornado in the area. Someone west of me warned to batten down the hatches, it was heading my way (the storm, not the tornado), the storm hit minutes later. Had I not been alerted by my tweet-er, my puppy would have been hit by giant hailstones.

    My friend wouldn’t have phoned me to tell me a storm is coming, but seeing that bit of info sure helped me.

    A few weeks ago, there had been an earthquake in California near LA, the first info came through via twitter…long before the news had the story as people tweeted to ask if anyone else “felt that.”

    Yes, Robert, there can be a narcissism to it. But I don’t think the English language will be devolved by it (think of all the Haikus that can be written — 140 characters is a perfect length for them. And the form of the message is no less elegant than those secret morse code messages that saved the world a generation or two ago.

  • TO me, this whole concept of twitter is partially narcissistic, partially the devolution of the English Language, and partially the way the world will be saved

  • nc

    It’s been fascinating to watch, hasn’t it. I love your shortwave radio analogy. Reminds me of Morse Code in a way, too, as that medium also discourages lengthiness.

    The only thing I don’t like about Twitter is the sense I have that I’m talking to myself most of the time, and that being able to exchange thoughts with others is like following the popular kids around in junior high. At what following level does it become impossible to engage meaningfully with individuals rather than just absorb the conscience collective?

    Doesn’t stop me from being involved, though.