If God came down from the heavens today, Twitterers would find a way to take credit for it. So it comes as no surprise that the Twitterati has been patting itself on the back for three days now about its involvement with the Iranian protests in the wake of that country's recent elections. But as Jack Shafer says in this very necessary Slate piece, let's not get carried away folks.
Shafer points out the obvious: There's a whole lot of noise and confusion on Twitter and a whole lot of outright erroneous information. Hell, it puts me in mind of the millions of words of hysterical misinformation spouted by the mainstream media in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina -- rapes, cannibalism, sniper fire (all of which was swept under the rug after the fact while they patted themselves on the back for "keeping them honest").
And, as Len Kendall wonders, how hard is it for the Iranian regime to use Twitter to spread misinformation on the web or to simply, you know, search the Iran hashtags? But as Evgeny Morozov notes, the regime probably isn't overly concerned with Twitter. It knows who the "troublesome" leaders are and tosses bloggers into jail by the wagon-full. (Morozov's piece should be a required read for everyone interested in this story.)
But more important, the Twitterati's self-congratulatory tone shows an abundance of historical ignorance. The narrative almost insinuates that these protests are the first of their kind, brought about by the power of social media or Web 2.0 or something. There were huge uprisings around this time of year in 1999. Somehow, without the benefit of Twitter, students took to the streets. (Poke around that story and you'll see visual evidence of the sort of risks protesters in Iran are taking.) There were grumblings of protests again in 2002 and 2003. I remember that because I was among a bunch of U.S. bloggers adding my voice to the noise from this end of the ocean. I posted a little Iranian flag on my blog. I met with other bloggers -- face to face! -- to see if we could start a movement here in New York. I even dragged my butt to a rally outside the U.N. And we all remember the huge revolution sparked by those protests.
Twitter is fun. Twitter is useful. God knows I'm addicted. And it's uplifting to see more than a handful of bloggers interested in the doings in Iran this time around. And it's great that Twitter can be one of the many channels, along with blogs and Facebook and texting, harnessed to the technology without which none of this journalism would be possible -- the cellphone and the internet.
But it's simply ridiculous to behave as if Twitter is somehow running the protests -- even more so to behave as if it's already somehow won a revolution. Perhaps the stupidest thing I've read on the web in weeks -- and that's saying something -- was a tweet that read, "First Iran, then China."
If there is some sort of revolution in Iran -- a big if -- it will be due to the bravery of the people on the ground, people willing to confront a regime that won't hesitate to kill them. And it's success will have little to do with Twitter.
By all means, change your avatar to green and keep tweeting about Iran. It's good that Iranians know that Americans care (even if they didn't care so much last two times around). And it's good to keep the story alive in traditional and nontraditional media.
But refrain from patting yourselves on the back -- or, worse, trying to twist this into some sort of proof that Twitter is great for business.