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.