A year ago the phrase “Twitter Revolution” might have conjured up images of a big glossy ad campaign with lots of young hip people tweeting the latest gossip, celebrity news, and Groupon discounts with their equally hip and technically elite peers.
Twitter and tweeting and that cute little bluebird of happiness trademark conjure up a feel-good, fun, high-tech, decidedly Western cultural icon. No one would have imagined Twitter and Facebook, or any other popular social media sites, used as a control center for the common man, a tool to organize movements against governments as happened in Tunisia, Iran, Moldova and as feared in Egypt and half a dozen other troubled nations.
If you use Twitter, had you ever envisioned an account being used in this way? Not me. I tweet about socks, grouse about the weather, confess to eating too much candy. I follow my favorite athletes and blogs and all manner of mundane, by comparison insignificant topics and I am not alone. Judging by the tweets I read about, the majority of us hadn’t begun to realize the potential of this or other social networking sites and technologies.
Facebook is great for gathering and organizing support in a community, but the appealing thing about Twitter is that tweets can be sent over both Internet and SMS, the network used by cell phones for text messages—and read on just about anything with a screen and a network connection. Social media makes it possible for citizens of these nations to receive information censored by the state media and communicate and organize themselves. It is possible for governments to block most Internet traffic, but proxies can be set up that bypass those blockades as Iranians in the Diaspora sympathetic to the movement inside Iran did.
In addition, Twitter’s short format makes it easy to rapidly communicate warnings and messages. In Tunisia, while rioters were clashing with police, tweets via cell phone warned of snipers and called for help. “Twitter a ma sauve mi vie”—“Twitter saved my life,” a man told French reporters. Focusing on the cell phones with the latest technology and how connected they are to the Internet and SMS, with a little imagination it becomes clear that in the hands of a large number of highly motivated people, this is a very powerful tool. Powerful enough to, say, topple a government. The concept and implications in dozens of places around the world, particularly now, is staggering.
In North America and Western Europe perhaps we don’t always stretch our imagination beyond what electronics have to offer for commercial and personal use. It’s both an exciting and terrifying realization to see its potential unleashed.