Monday, June 22, 2009
Noam Cohen wrote in the New York Times this weekend -- Twitter on the Barricades -- analyzing the impact of Twitter on the events of the last several days in Iran. There is no question that Twitter has been influential in transmitting and spreading what is happening on the ground there. But focusing solely on the Twitter-effect misses the larger and more consequential communication story. Any one communication tool in a web of such tools does not act alone in producing tremendous social network effects. What is especially noteworthy in the information transfer that is occurring around the dramatic events in Iran is how utterly dispersed yet interwoven and mutually reinforcing the various expression and transmission outlets are – both analog and digital.
Cohen himself writes that “skeptics note that only a small number of people used Twitter to organize protests in Iran, and that other means — individual text messaging, old-fashioned word of mouth and Farsi-language Web sites — were more influential.” As we try to interpret history - as well as the impact of instant communication tools on history - in real time, it is not particularly useful to rate those tools individually on their degree of “influence.” Rather, in trying to understand the social implications of our 21st century technology, it is more valuable to observe the loose collaboration of all those tools together – from Twitter to YouTube to blogs to broadcast. This collaboration is a potent and powerful system that enables the outside world to get closer to understanding what is really happening and to share that information with others.
On GPS, Fareed Zakaria interviewed Columbia’s Sree Sveenivasan and NYU’s Clay Shirky about the social media implications of what was happening. Shirky, who just gave a TED talk at the State Department about the social effects of emerging technology, made this larger point when he pointed out emphatically that it’s the “ecosystem as a whole that matters here” not any one device or any one tool. He referred to the pattern of distribution and redistribution -- that a message originally distributed via cell phone is then redistributed by computer and so on -- as being an important dynamic in the information handoff. In Sveenivasan’s and Shirky’s minds, the phone is the seminal device on the ground in Iran and the only communication question that matters is whether or not you have connectivity and can send data. Communication is agnostic about the platform.
To that end, Mashable writes about Mousavi’s Facebook post -- “Today you are the media, it is your duty to report and keep the hope alive” -- and the Facebook statement that the “so-called Twitter revolution is also proving itself to be much more than that.”
Today and ever more, individual citizens are not simply tweeters or posters or bloggers -- they are the media. And this has profound implications for governments, for companies, for media outlets, for business and for history. As if transparency were a choice in an environment with an untold numbers of reporters, cameramen and witnesses.
The question is not whether Twitter is the killer app. The question is, as anyone with a background in old-fashioned broadcast journalism knows well -- are you able to transmit?