Twitter Comes of Age With Iranian Election

Tool Has Drawbacks, but Pros Far Outweigh Cons

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Sedef Onder
Sedef Onder
Having watched the unfolding of news and events following the election in Iran, Twitter has won my renewed respect. Simply put, it helped bring truth to power. In a more compelling and impactful way than it's ever done before. And clearly, in a way that no other channel or mouthpiece for information can match -- in both its sheer volume as well as in its eyewitness accuracy of the often-gruesome details. This is true whether considered from a historical perspective, or even in the real-time 24/7 news-cycle that we expect and demand of our media sources today. (Editor's note: Ad Age's Ken Wheaton disagrees.)

Our international neighbors can no longer gain a propaganda advantage by seizing control of traditional media channels to influence or stifle information on activities and developments within their borders. Not with the proliferation of computers and cellphones among the masses, even among those formerly most oppressed. And especially given the ease with which we can broadcast anything and everything, whether text or images and video, from applications readily accessible and available via any desktop or mobile device. Technology trumps ignorance, and in this case, repression and perhaps outright fraud.

Like many, I've questioned the true, measurable value of Twitter, from a marketing and business perspective at minimum. Clearly, some companies are in fact managing to derive significant benefits from the messaging platform. Dell's recent announcement that Twitter users have spurred $2 million to $3 million in sales for the computer manufacturer is a convincing case-in-point. Small businesses have optimized heavily social media such as Twitter to attract new customers (see Naked Pizza). For others, it's a virtual customer-service channel, or effective tool for monitoring buzz and consumer chatter on their brand or products.

But the Iranian election vaulted Twitter's utility as a real-time communications tool to unforeseen heights, and bestowed true credibility for any remaining doubters. Twitter's myriad uses include its evolution into a subversive media channel for distributing or receiving critical information, and much like the growth of the World Wide Web from its infancy, through reliance on an army of grassroots citizenry who sustain and support its use and expansion. A global grassroots communication infrastructure available virtually round-the-clock, at no cost to those who seek to gain or participate in the content exchanged among users. Including for the U.S. government, whose Department of State relied on it as a source of intelligence on post-election developments in Iran. And for traditional media outlets, like CNN, which a recent Daily Show segment parodied for its unfettered use of Twitter feeds to replace actual reporting and investigative content after the Iranian government's crackdown on media.

Unfortunately, Twitter's gains in usage and credibility have unwittingly led to its potential misuse for nefarious purposes. A list of possibly fake Iran election Twitter users was posted online last week, exposing how Iranian security forces and supporters of the existing regime can abuse the information channel just as readily.

Yet, Twitter continues to push the envelope in evolving the role of media in society. In the beginning, its advantage was its immediacy of reporting news events, though the Mumbai bombing and Hudson River plane landing incidents are in the distant past -- in Twitter time anyway. Back then, media and public detractors carped that 140 characters were insufficient to provide a meaningful, or sometimes even factual, account of these significant news events. The reality is, Twitter doesn't have any journalistic integrity; fact-checking or other editorial vetting doesn't scrub the content for readers. In fact, Noam Cohen's piece in The New York Times, "Twitter on the Barricades" does an excellent job of highlighting its vulnerabilities. Despite its downsides, however, Twitter remains a powerful tool for communicating news instantly and from the ground. Who would have thought that in a few months time, the public and media alike would depend on Twitter as the single functioning news source for this defining moment in international politics.

As noted by a panel of reporters and media during the well-attended "140 Characters" Twitter conference in New York last week, even the media concedes that the "Twitter effect" often improves their performance and their final product. If nothing else, it succeeds in getting people to take notice and pay more attention to the world around them.

I daresay Twitter is starting to grow up. And though it's taken some getting used to for a skeptical Twitter user of a couple of years now, I'm feeling a bit like a proud parent. Here's hoping we'll continue to see similarly inspiring uses of social media, whether for more effective marketing to new customers, or for plain ole' communication sake. Tweets have finally come of age.

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Sedef Onder is owner and managing partner of The Halo Project.

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