At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology


As I write this, irreverent social web headline service is on its 8th thread about post-election Iran (“The Revolution will not be televised; it will be Blogged, Twittered, and Farked.”). Twitter feed #iranelection has replaced CNN as the go-to place for breaking news about this dramatic, heart-wrenching story (see #cnnfail).

Just last week, a Harvard study concluded (as breathlessly summed up by the BBC) “Twitter remains the preserve of a few, despite the hype surrounding it.”  Tonight, NBC’s “Chief Foreign Correspondent” Richard Engel is back in network’s NYC studio, banished by Iranian authorities, relegated to monitoring — as we are — firsthand reports on “Twitter…and other online sites.” [p.s. I worked with Richard in Baghdad in 2004]

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So where do we stand?  Can we finally put the social media naysayers to rest, now that traditional journalism is seemingly vanquished on the streets of Tehran?

Yes. No.  I’m having a hard time filtering through #iranelection, beyond the re-tweets and second-hand information passed around by Twitterers outside the country.  The expat Iranian opposition is well organized, and will do what they (as well as others with a vested interest in the downfall of the mullahs) can to keep this political fire burning.  And without a doubt, this thread has attracted a huge amount of commentary from folks who would not normally pay any attention to an overseas story like this — except that it has hit upon that magic, unknowable recipe of universal appeal.

This is social media at its strongest — inspiring, emotional, instantaneous — a seemingly unstoppable force. And as Convergence Culture author Henry Jenkins points out: voluntary, temporary and tactical.  In other words, transitionally powerful.  Is that enough to replace the battle-weary beat reporter?  Yes.  No. Will this army of activists continue to fight for justice once this story is over? Will they seek to start a social news organization and keep exchanging information? Will they even remain friends? Were they friends to begin with?

Right now, it may not matter.  We are witness — and some of us are participating — in a truly awe-inspiring act of political resistance through networked communication.  As Jenkins would say: No one knows everything.  Everyone knows something.  All knowledge resides in humanity.  As imperfect and fickle as we may be.  That extra dose of humanity may be exactly what we need in this crisis.  “Flip The Media’s” muse Jonathan Zittrain, in today’s New York Times might agree:

Twitter [is] particularly resilient to censorship because it [has] so many ways for its posts to originate — from a phone, a Web browser or specialized applications — and so many outlets for those posts to appear.

As each new home for this material becomes a new target for censorship…a repressive system faces a game of whack-a-mole in blocking Internet address after Internet address carrying the subversive material.

“It is easy for Twitter feeds to be echoed everywhere else in the world,” Mr. Zittrain said. “The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what make it so powerful.”

UPDATE 6/15/09 1649 Pacific: NBC: Iran bans cameras, cellphones barely working. CNN: State Dept. asks Twitter to keep it up.

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This post is categorized in: Social Media

11 Responses to #iranelection

  1. Jon Hickey says:

    I’m very interested to see what will come of all this. Watching the #iranelection feed tonight was a very emotional experience – something I would never get from watching CNN.

    I think my favorite quote from that NYT article was: “It is easy for Twitter feeds to be echoed everywhere else in the world,” Mr. Zittrain said. “The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what make it so powerful.”

    Critics often focus on the inane, but this is a great example of how powerful it can be.

  2. Eric Weaver says:

    Hugely insightful. Thank you.

  3. crackerbelly says:

    Exactly right Hanson, #iranelection is the go-to place for news on what’s happening in Tehran. There are others that have done a pretty good job of filtering and featuring the best of what they see coming out of this hashtag channel such as Andrew Sullivan with The Atlantic ( but there is really little doubt that the dissidents themselves are the journalists in this thing and they are using Twitter. I wish I spoke Farsi. I suspect that would make the picture more clear for me.

    I just noticed a tweet via @BoingBoing saying that Twitter has delayed scheduled maintenance to avoid hampering the news flow from Iran ( They will do the scheduled updates at 2 to 3pm Pacific time which is 1:30 to 2:30am in Iran. Nice call on the part of Twitter management.

  4. hrhmedia says:

    Thanks for your comments. TechNewsWorld quoted this post (and interviewed me) in “The Whole World is Watching, Flickering, Tweeting.” Love this notion of “liberation technologies.”

  5. hrhmedia says:

    Despite my social media passion, quoted as naysayer in this afternoon’s story on #iranelection today: I’m on Fox Q13 tonight here in Seattle on both the use of social media in Iran, and on the political situation itself (dusting off my rusty foreign correspondent analyses).

  6. LADunkin says:

    @hrhmedia great post! I had a “discussion” regarding this topic yesterday via Facebook with a friend who was arguing that “news” isn’t “news” unless it comes from “a reputable journalistic organization with a record of fact checking and some accountability against complete bias” otherwise it was just gossip. In response, I tried to explain that when things are moving at that pace (#iranelection) the type of journalism he described doesn’t work. In a closed country, getting facts checked and being unbiased is a very hard thing to come by. Yes, the tweets from the unreputable sources will be biased, but as thinking beings we can use our filters to decipher the information for ourselves, we don’t need to be spoon fed our news. Also, they are using Twitter to get videos and photos out that show the true happenings which can be better than a fact checked article produced by a bureaucracy.
    The whole situation is an interesting phenomenon to “watch” but most importantly above social media tools, journalists vs. tweeters, etc. is that the whole world is watching now, it’s something that has become real and not just a news clip on TV happening many miles away. The story is being told by the people and it’s touching us.

  7. Brook Ellingwood says:

    Reading this made me start thinking about how, even after Mumbai and Iran, Twitter is so easy to make fun of. I came up with this in a comment thread on Facebook and am cross-posting it here:

    Shirky did a nice sidestep: When asked about Iran and Twitter he kept replying about Iran and social media.

    Metaphor alert! The related technologies that power online media are television and Twitter is “I Love Lucy.” Yes, “I Love Lucy” is important and worth study, but it didn’t transform society — television did.

    Too much focus on Twitter as though it was the medium and not just one well-done use of the medium is what people reflexively react to. And by “people” I mean Jon Stewart.

  8. R.S says:

    Please force on Iran,s islamic regim not to ditained and killing ellection protests.

  9. No doubt the other readers were thinking, “With affection beaming out of one eye and calculation shining out of the other..”.

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