Is Iraq Ready for Twitter? New Media in a War Zone

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Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty

Raanan Bar-Cohen of Automatic, left, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Hunter Walk of You-Tube listen on during a press conference at the US Embassy in Baghdad's fortified 'Green Zone' on April 22 2009.

Jack Dorsey, the founder and chairman of Twitter, sees no reason why Iraqis cannot join the growing chorus of global "tweets" appearing on computers and cell phones worldwide every day. "We've always been focused on making sure that the lowest common denominator, the weakest technology, still has a voice," said Dorsey, who was in Baghdad this week with a delegation of high-tech executives at the invitation of the State Department. Cellphone-carrying Iraqis, Dorsey said, could utilize Twitter applications on their current mobiles for a range of things, even without broadband Internet connections, which are still in short supply in Iraq. "In our case that's using Twitter through SMS [text-messaging]," Dorsey added. "What we've found in Iraq is that we have 85% penetration of the mobile market here." (Should the founders of Twitter be among the most influential people in the world? Vote for the TIME 100.)

What Dorsey means is that 85% of people in Iraq carry mobile phones, usually more than one. This is a new reality in a country where roughly six years ago cellphone were virtually nonexistent. For Dorsey and other tech executives visiting Baghdad, the merging of cell technology and the Internet looks like a potential leapfrog move in telecommunications for the country, much in the way cellphone networks lessen the need for traditional landline infrastructure. "We feel that there are some real opportunities here," said Jason Liebman, CEO and founder of Howcast, a website that offers how-to videos. (See the top 10 celebrity twitter feeds.)

The potential for change is there, says Richard Robbins, director of social innovations at AT&T. Pointing to the trend of U.S. elected officials using Twitter to communicate with constituents, he said, "That's something that could just as easily emerge in Iraq." He added: "What we've been seeing in the U.S. as well is it's a completely emerging area where government officials are using [these] tools... to have new ways of interacting with citizens."

However, the everyday problems of Baghdad were evident to even the most ardent of optimists in the delegation, which included executives from Google, YouTube, Meetup and other tech companies. For example, embassy officials had arranged a number of informational meetings in Baghdad, including a conference call with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. "It got disconnected," said Jared Cohen, the State Department official who chaired the delegation. "We had to call back a number of times." (Read about celebrity twittering.)

An unreliable mobile network is but one obstacle for would-be tech growth in Iraq, where outbreaks of violence persist in Baghdad and other parts of the country. Electricity outages still occur every day. A shortage of internet connections and affordable computers leaves many Iraqis outside the wired world. Also, a lack of websites in Arabic poses problems for many in Iraq and the broader Middle East. Ahmed Hamzawi, Google's head of engineering for the Middle East and north Africa, said less than 1% of content on the Internet is in Arabic, even though the language is one of the most widely spoken in the world. "We actually are looking at the lack of Arabic content as an issue across the whole region," said Hamzawi. "One thing that's going to be critical to that is the actual access to the Internet itself."

Still, the new media moguls were by and large upbeat about what they saw and heard in Iraq during their three-day tour, which began Sunday. Arriving in Baghdad, the group flew by helicopter from Baghdad International Airport to the embassy, allowing them a look over the city. They bunked at the huge new U.S. embassy complex by night and toured Baghdad by day in the heavily armored convoys diplomatic delegations use. The group of 10 executives met with government officials face-to-face, talked with students and faculty at Baghdad University and the University of Science and Technology and mingled with U.S. officials at the embassy compound. They even got a tour of the famed Iraqi National Museum, where some in the group saw similarities between the early innovations etched on Sumerian tablets and modern forms of communication such as real-time jottings on Twitter.

No one in the group seemed to think that exploring high-tech business ventures in Iraq was premature, despite the uncertain security situation at the moment and the many unanswered questions surrounding the implications of the coming U.S. troop withdrawal. Cohen, the State Department organizer, said: "I think there is no such thing as arriving too early."

See Pictures of life returns to Iraq's streets.

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