Monday, Jun. 15, 2009

The Twitter Revolution

It is either sublime or ridiculous that one of the most important tools available to Iranians protesting the June 12 presidential election is Twitter. A service that broadcasts short (140 characters or less) missives, or tweets, over the Web or via text message, Twitter is basically a toy for flirting and telling people what your cat is doing. But in one of the Internet's great Velveteen Rabbit moments, the toy has become real.

The day after the election, when protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began escalating and the Iranian government moved to suppress dissent, the Twitterverse exploded with tweets in both English and Farsi. While the front pages of Iranian newspapers were full of blank space where censors had whited out news stories, Twitter was delivering information from street level in real time: Woman says ppl knocking on her door 2 AM saying they were intelligence agents, took her daughter and we hear 1dead in shiraz, livefire used in other cities RT.

Why would the citizens of a Middle Eastern nation in political convulsions turn to Twitter? It's free, highly mobile and very quick. It's easy for the average person to use and hard for any central authority to control. And it's loud: tweets are public and readable on many different devices.

Twitter's strengths are also its weaknesses. The vast body of information about Iran circulating on Twitter is chaotic, subjective and totally unverifiable. But here's a measure of its new role in international politics: engineers delayed a planned network upgrade that would have taken the system down at the height of the protests after being asked to wait by the U.S. State Department.

It's tempting to look at Twitter and see a magic anti-dictator bullet, a medium so anarchic and distributed that it can't be stopped. It's not impervious; the Iranian government has already moved to limit access. But Twitter has done its work. The protesters know they aren't alone, and Ahmadinejad now faces judgment not only in Iran but also in the court of world opinion.