Thursday, June 18, 2009

Culture Shock 06.18.09: The 'revolution' was Twittered, and I was there

"The revolution will not be televised. It will, apparently, be Twitterized."

With that tweet this past weekend, I achieved my 15 minutes of Twitter fame. I'll be available for autographs.

As protesters demonstrated in the streets of Tehran during the hours following Iran's still-contested national election, the best source of information from the Iranian capital was Twitter. The Iranian government quickly blocked the country's access to some Web sites and social networks like Facebook, but it couldn't completely block Twitter, which allows users to send brief messages to the Internet via the Web and mobile phones.

Lesson learned: If people have access to the right technology, then no government, no matter how authoritarian, can completely cut them off from the rest of the world. If you want to run a totalitarian state, you have to keep your people in the Stone Age, like North Korea does.

Twitter users use hash tags, a # followed by a keyword, to designate tweets on specific topics so that anyone can follow the online conversation. The "#iranelection" tag rose quickly Saturday to be the top "trending topic" on Twitter. As of Tuesday night, it was still No. 1, despite challenges from "Real Housewives," "Taylor Swift" and "WeirdAl" (short for parody musician "Weird Al" Yankovic, who stormed the Web with a Doors-themed music video about Craigslist).

For the first time, the world experienced a social uprising taking place in real time, 140 characters per tweet. That's a definite step up from Twitter's previous claim to fame — Ashton "Mr. Demi Moore" Kutcher's successful bid to become the first person on Twitter with 1 million followers.

In addition to people tweeting from Iran, people from around the world chimed in on Twitter to express their support for the protesters. Twitter users in the United States also tweeted their dismay about the lack of news coverage on the American cable news channels. The general sentiment was, how could CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC stick to their canned weekend programming when there was a "revolution" going on in Iran?

That was when I made my slightly tongue-in-cheek tweet about the revolution being "Twitterized" instead of televised.

As someone in the news business, I recognize as well as anyone the difficulties involved in switching gears to cover a breaking story, especially one on the other side of the globe, in a country that isn't exactly friendly to foreign reporters. But anything is better than the prerecorded fluff that the 24-hour news channels use to fill their weekend schedules. At least give me some think-tank nerds discussing what they think might be going on in Iran. Even if I think they're clueless hacks, I can at least shout at the TV, which is what I do most of the time I watch CNN and FNC, anyway.

Before I knew it, my tweet had been re-tweeted, including by an actual ABC News reporter working in the Middle East. Mine was the tweet re-tweeted around the world. Yay, me!

Inadvertently, I had been swept up in the #iranelection furor, but I have mixed feelings about that. It's not as if the pro-reform side in Iran doesn't have an agenda, too, and who really knows who is on the other side of a tweet? Some early Twitter reports were wrong, and some, probably, were propaganda.

Also, some Twitterers in America are now demanding that the U.S. support the pro-reform backers of Mir Hossein Mousavi against Iran's reactionary President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I suspect, however, that explicit American support would undermine the pro-reformers with the broader Iranian population. Memories of the United States' support of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi run deep.

That's one problem with Twitter. Getting caught up in the moment can get the better of your judgment.

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