19 June 2009

The revolution will be no reTweet brothers

It is always interesting to follow US media coverage of the political process abroad, both for the rarity of it and for the amusing way in which it always has to be seen through a lens of direct relevancy to an American audience. It isn't enough for there to be elections in Lebanon, the only question anyone is really interested in is how Obama has effected the results (easy answer, he hasn't). Similarly the amazing events occurring daily in Iran are of interest to the US media not because of the intrinsic value of mass demonstrations of direct action by the people, for the people, but because the whole event can be portrayed as having at its heart a good old fashioned American web start-up.

The Revolution may not be televised, but by god will it be Twittered.

Fresh from its debut as Time Magazine's cover star, Twitter is the current glittery object that the media magpies just can't seem to let go. Its easy enough for them to understand, many of them have tried it themselves, and it suits the mass media's approach to communication as essentially a one-way process.

While other micro-blogging services, such as Jaiku, have the concept of a conversation at their core, the very structure of Twitter prevents you from following replies in a threaded, logical fashion, and thus by design you are encouraged to throw you comments out into the wind with no regard for how and where they land. Twitter is radio, Twitter is television, Twitter is communication by post-it notes left randomly on a fridge. Twitter encourages a passive audience of followers and inhibits true dialogue, and that perhaps is why it succeeded in the US and Jaiku, despite the backing of almighty Google, failed.

When I left the world of Web 2.0 over a year ago, my initial plan was to return to academia and look at the use of Web 2.0 tools by social and justice movements. At the time we had just seen the clamp down by China on Tibetan protesters, who still managed to smuggle footage out of Tibet and get it uploaded onto YouTube. During the protests in San Francisco over the Olympic torch relay, Twitter had been used to broadcast details of route changes as they happened allowing demonstrators to move rapidly and block off the new route as it unfolded, in effect creating the first high-profile flash mob peace protests. As a veteran of alter-globalization protests at the turn of the millennium I understood how important access to information was during any confrontation, and saw the potential for online social media as method of empowerment and a tool for change. Alas my path took me away from academia (for now), but it amazes me to think about how topical my thesis would have been right about now.

What annoys me about the media coverage of Twitter though is that in the absence of any visible leaders at the Iranian protests, Twitter has been seized on as the personification of the movement. The US media cannot cope with autonomous collective action, they need a figurehead to interview, to wrap a story around, to deify or to hang. The concept of a non-hierarchical spontaneous movement is alien to a Capitalist culture, which cannot understand how a group might function without clearly defined roles of leaders and followers.

And into the void fits Twitter so very neatly, a tool designed to enable leaders to broadcast to followers, that engenders strict hierarchies and encourages collective passivity. Turning your icon green will not support change in Iran. Tweeting others to twitition Google to Google-Doodle for freedom or update images of Tehran on Google Earth will not save a single life. The only way to effect change is to get off your backside, away from your computer, and go out there and do something.

The revolution will be no reTweet brothers;
The revolution will be live.

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