If this past summer’s controversial presidential election in Iran was any indication, Twitter has fast become a major platform for political discussion and grassroots organization on the global stage. Social media, particularly the micro-blogging service Twitter, flexed its muscles during the opposition protests of the Iranian election results, and, at least for a month or two, it seemed that a global on-line conversation about democracy in Iran might actually help change the political climate of that country. While it appears that the government of Iran eventually succeeded in squelching the unrest and cracking down on protests, it has become pretty clear that the nation of Iran will never be the same – and Twitter is partially to thank for that. Considering the case of Facebook use in Iran, once you’ve got a taste of that sort of social freedom, it’s difficult to turn back.
In light of the above, I took a recent interest in what impact Twitter might be having on developing nations in Africa, where political unrest, tribal warfare, and social upheaval is a way of life. It’s tough to surmise just how many people use Twitter in Africa (as Jason Wojciechowski at Future Media Change recently discovered via Wolfram Alpha), but if Twitter’s 2008 announcement that they would stop their international SMS*** service poses any revelation on the matter, it would be safe to deduce that the number of African Twitterers is not exceptionally high (please correct me if you find data to the contrary!). Of course, Siena Anstis recently reported on the effect of Twitter during the Kampala rioting in September 2009, so we know it’s becoming a viable platform in parts of the continent. Still, while Twitter is fully available to Africans via the Web and a few third-party applications (SARCASM ALERT: because you know everyone in Africa has a Blackberry and an iPhone – d’oh!), SMS messaging is certainly a vastly important gateway for Twitter. And this is not to mention texting’s big impact on global mobile communication as well. The NYT reports that over 2.5 trillion text messages were sent world-wide in 2008, a number that has surely gone up in ’09.
So, what gives? Well, in 2008 Twitter estimated that it would cost them about $1000 USD per user to continue their international SMS services, something of a money drain for a potentially multi-billion dollar business yet to announce their IPO. With a nearly constant stream of bad news about violence, warfare, and genocide flowing from many African nations (including today’s warnings about the major potential for violence during Rwanda’s upcoming elections in August 2010), one has to wonder what role Twitter could have played in many of Africa’s ongoing social and political struggles during the past few years. With status updating stymied by a lack of Twitter SMS, will the world ever feel the immediacy of the African situation when the next major African event unfolds, the way it did this past summer as Iran turned, at least for a moment, in to a focal point for the global social discussion on-line?
Luckily, as it stands, cell-phones are the primary portal to the Web for most Africans, so Twitter will continue to be available via the Web for millions of mobile users in Africa. But, considering how the Iranian government worked so hard to shut off Internet access during the summer’s unrest, surely SMS plays a vital role in Twitter use when the Web is down. By not enabling international Twitter SMS updates, Twitter is forceably creating a window of opportunity that other players will probably ultimately exploit. But, considering the increasing ubiquity of Twitter around the world, let’s hope that’s not the case.
For more on why Twitter is so important for Africa, please see this August 2008 blog post at the White African, who beautifully summarized the impact of Twitter in Africa. His post was partly what inspired this Flip the Media entry – we’ve got to revisit the Twitter question in Africa!
*** – This does not affect users in Canada, India, or the United States.
Matthew Stringer is the blogger at Nerd Acumen, a current student of the MCDM, and a New Media Producer.