digital activism, ICT, media, social media

Twitter Revolution?

Image courtesy of TouchTheStars09 on Flickr.

Image courtesy of TouchTheStars09 on Flickr.

“This is it. The big one…. It’s Twitter.”

For those of you who haven’t been following the media hype surrounding Iran’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-a “Twitter Revolution,” that’s Clay Shirky, speaking four days after the June 2009 presidential elections.

Ouch. Awkward.

It’s not that Shirky was alone in his enthusiasm, nor was he the first to champion Twitter as a revolutionary force in Iranian politics. Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic wrote of the protests, “You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before,” and the New York Times chimed in with an article on how “new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions.”

It’s more that…well…nothing much has changed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still in power, and a recent study found that less than one percent of Iranians — 0.027 percent, precisely, though that number likely includes foreigners who changed their profile location last summer — are on Twitter.

Shirky shouldn’t feel too bad, though. Evgeny Morozov, who’s made quite a name for himself bashing “cyber utopians” for their uncritical love of all things social media, is responsible for the phrase “Twitter Revolution,” which he first applied to Moldova in April 2009. Boing Boing‘s Xeni Jardin appropriated the meme in GOOD magazine during Guatemala’s May 2009 political unrest. I myself am guilty of propagating it – on Twitter, no less – in Uganda after the September 2009 riots in Kampala.

Still, despite all the hype (and no matter how much we wish it were so), none of the so-called “revolutions” in Iran, Moldova, Guatemala or Uganda have lead to substantially different governments. Rather than reflecting actual politics, the Twitter Revolution seems to be largely a product of the media, both mainstream and social. “Western journalists shifted their focus from the role of Iranian people to the role of technology,” Ethan Zuckerman says of the June 2009 media coverage. In the October issue of Information Today, Morozov wondered if the emphasis on Twitter took critical focus away from the politics and history behind the event: “It certainly made an impact in how the events were covered in the West…. It probably stole from the protesters, because instead of discussing what was happening, a quarter of American media coverage was devoted to what so-and-so said on Twitter.”

I tend to agree with anthropologist Maximilian Forte, who conducted a study of the election-related tweets and related media coverage between June 13 and 17, 2009. Forte’s research led him to conclude: “This is indeed a ‘revolution’…but it’s for Twitter.”

It turns out Shirky was right. The big one is Twitter, as long as you get a little Clintonian (“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) in your definition of the “one.”

Was Twitter a revolutionary force in Iran? I don’t think so. Was Iran a revolutionary force in how the average American views Twitter? Definitely, unquestionably yes. The Twitter Revolution — or revolutions, if we’re being fair to Moldova, Guatemala and Uganda — is the big one. Just not the one we were hoping for.

Adapted from a paper written for “Social Impact of Mass Media,” a class taught by Andie Tucher at The Journalism School at Columbia University (download “Twitter Revolution?” as a PDF). Crossposted on The Morningside Post.

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