As I write this, irreverent social web headline service Fark.com 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]
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.”