What's happening in Iran now tells us something important about Twitter as a news source and as a tool to help people self-organise, but why are mainstream commentators still struggling to get their heads around it?
My Twitter-feed is abuzz with people tweeting about and linking to stories on what's happening in Iran and what impact Twitter's key role in the uprising is having on mainstream media short-term, and will have for the long-term.
Many are those who are now predicting this will be the big shift in how we view the potential of social media. But just as I had pulled together a few of my favourite links on what was happening for a post at The Norwegian Online News Association's blog Monday morning, some of those less informed arguments against Twitter surfaced in an Op-ed in Norway's newspaper of record -leading to some interesting events and thoughts.
Let me just recap and expand on some of those links I started with Monday morning for my international readers: First, I was taken by Antoine Clarke's thoughts on Tienanmen + Twitter = Teheran, an argument repeated often in the last few days - with Clay Shirky in his evangelic way even saying "This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media".
However, Richard Sambrook, whom I said on Monday has provided some of the most useful links from and about the upheavel in Iran on Twitter, urges us to call it an uprising, not a revolution, as what's happening is led by part of the political establishment in the country. He also provides an extremely useful analysis of using Twitter as a news source from Iran, concluding that it would probably serve only to mislead the average news consumer but would be more useful than mainstream media if you had a reasonable understanding of social media, the political situation in Iran etc.
Journalistic "balance" + Social Media = Toast?
Then, also via Twitter, I was alterted to an Op-Ed that repeated some of the usual logical fallacies about Twitter (in Norwegian). It wasn't a bad Op-Ed, in fact it was in part both fun and interesting, except it brought to court how journalists and politicians only used it to share trivia, and VIPs like the prime minister for oneway-communication, for the billionth time - not as arguments for how the VIPs don't get Twitter but as arguments against signing up to the microblogging service in the first place.
Three things occurred to me, and I'll start with the least scientific:
1) I wondered if the fact that these arguments are brought to court again and again is just a side-effect of (false) journalistic balance - as in: "Hey, we need some counterarguments, what should we say? Oh, yes: lots of people use it to share trivia and the prime minister never talks back." I'm reminded of the second rule journalism:
Be balanced. No matter what anybody says, find somebody to say the opposite. If a scientist claims to have a cure for cancer, find somebody who says cancer does not exist. If a man says "My name is Fred," make sure you find somebody who says "No, your name is Diane." Etc.
2) The Godfather of the Norwegian blogosphere, Hjorthen, put together a parody of the Aftenposten Op-Ed where he just exchanged 'Twitter' for 'Aftenposten' (also in Norwegian)- which threw up some brilliant formulations like how reading Aftenposten can easily become a continuation of garden parties in the posher parts of Oslo.
Demographically, Aftenposten is the Norwegian equivalent of The Times, and if you try exchanging Twitter for The Times next time you read one of those anti-Twitter articles it may lead to surprising insights. For one, Twitter is often accused of being elitist, attracting certain types of users, and for narrowing the users' horizon because they only follow people with similar values to their own - but all of those arguments could just as easily be used against The Times. For my part, I get a much broader pool of sources with much more diverse political agendas on Twitter than I'd ever get from reading newspapers, which leads me to the third argument:
3) I came to really appreciate the second part of this post by my friend Brian: "I’ve said it many times before, but it will bear constant repetition. When some new technique of communication is invented or stumbled upon, you should not judge its impact by picking ten uses of it at random, averaging them all out, and saying: Well that’s a load of trivial crap, isn’t it?!? How will “I am just about to make another slice of toast” change the world? The question to ask is: Of all the thousands of uses already being made of this thing, which one is the most significant? And then: Well, is that very significant? If yes, at all, then forget about the toast nonsense.
Jackie Danicki chips in with a telling anecdote in the comment section of that post:
I witnessed a discussion today in New York between a reporter for CNN, a reporter for Fox News, a reporter/anchor for NBC, and a producer for NBC - moderated by a veteran blogger whose wife happens to be Iranian. The blogger, Robert Scoble, had been taking CNN to task all weekend over their lack of coverage of the Iranian situation, and he and his wife were getting accurate reports (later confirmed by her family) via Twitter.
At the end of the panel - in which the mainstream media people all held their hands up and said that informed Twitter users were beating them at their own game - the CNN guy said, “Well, but if we weren’t doing our jobs, you guys would have nothing to link to. If we disappeared, so would a lot of Twitter content.” The moderator, not missing a beat, replied: “But you DID disappear last weekend, and Twitter filled the gap.” The CNN guy had to concede, and the comment was met with much applause.
Never underestimate the value of any tool which can help people to find solace in one another - like the samizdat during communist rule - let alone pass information which is important. I’m not sure why anyone would object to interest being taken in such a matter, apart from perhaps a general fatigue with all that is good in life. Too bad, so sad for them. :)
Update 19.06.2009, 14:30 CET: Just discovered this post on why journalists write so much rubbish about Twitter via Strange Corante, which explores a different line of reasoning.