There are so many facets to the unrest sweeping the heart of Iran, and one of the most important to regional stability has to do with what shakes out -- a dictatorship jointly led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (the religious and legal head of government) and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; a strongly nationalist and slightly more modern (and moderate) government led by a reformed Council of Guardians led by Khamenei's long-time rival Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ; or just another imploded nation-state completing the daisy chain stretching from Iraq to Pakistan.
Of course, this is all one giant leap from where we stand today -- a fledgling series of protests hoping to become a popular revolt, and attempting to throw the lessons of 1979 back in the face of the once-revolutionary government. It is a small wave thus far, but one that not only threatens the current government of Iran but holds some unsettling lessons for other governments in a region facing a demographic tilt that continues to skew heavily toward the young.
And as a young and modern Iranian populace -- I should say Tehranian, since the rural demographics are heavy on the young and less driven by the modern -- flexes its political muscle on the streets of Tehran and as many as a half-dozen other Iranian cities, the eyes of the world are fixated on Twitter.
This is partly because they eyes of the world have been effectively blindfolded by a regime that controls much of the news content flowing across its borders; partly because the student population in Iran is demonstrating some reasonably strong demographic chops; and partly because there is a growing demand on the social media front to prove the merit of street-level, ad-hoc journalism.
And so newspapers and websites across the United States have taken to calling what is happening on the streets of Iran the "Twitter Revolution".
I'm afraid that's only our side of the story.
In this new age of media as a conversation, huge swaths of the world have been invited to take part in what once could have been a private dialogue between an angry regime holding on to power and its wayward, rebellious youth. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have given the Iranian protests an immediacy, an urgency and a sense of personality.
Two things are missing.
First, the pace of the action on the streets is being tweeted and videotaped much faster than organizations -- mainstream media, political think tanks and the like -- can digest, much less provide context for. While this creates an energy for the growing number of people following the action directly (via the social media platforms) or indirectly through The Huffington Post or The Atlantic or The Guardian, it doesn't provide much of a basis for understanding what's really happening, or why it matters.
And so far the connection is loose and surfeit -- it precludes any sort of formal solidarity between the students in Iran and those around the world. Sure, we're giving our avatars a gentle green hue. (And, going back to context, do many of us understand the religious and political significance of the color green in Iran? Does it matter if we do, now that the color has taken on a symbolic meaning?) We're following an Iranian or three on Twitter. But beyond technological gestures, how do we turn solidarity into support -- and how do the Iraninans turn our support into political power? Do they even want to?
Social Media will become a transformational tool when it learns how to consistently connect the dots between the scattered pellet shot generated by the likes of Twitter and YouTube to the more focused analysis and bigger picture approach of individuals and organizations who have been immersed in the story for years. Consistently connect the dots without slowing down the story, I should say.
If Social Media figures that one out, it's game, match and set.
The other missing piece? The old folks. You remember them, don't you? They're the ones calling most of the shots in Iran right now. While students and some elements of the professional class face off against the police and militia in the streets on Tehran, there's some serious behind-the-scenes happening in the Iranian holy city of Qom. If only someone was tweeting what's going on at Rafsanjani's dinner table...
Sysomos Blog has a fascinating bit of analysis about the prevalence of Twitter in Iran -- specifically, about its Tehran-centric nature and the contextual relationship between the dates (before and after the presidential election) and the tweeted conversations.
Sysomos points to the more than doubling of Twitter accounts geographically tagged as being in Iran between May and June. (Commenters on the post note correctly that Sysomos doesn't appear to account for the vast numbers of people outside of Iran who changed their locations to read Tehran to express solidarity or an an attempt to confuse Iranian censors.) Regardless, somewhere south of 9,000 Twitters users tagged themselves in Iran in May and almost 20,000 did the same in mid-June.
And where did these Twitter users reside? Almost totally in Tehran -- 93% of them, in fact.
And who are they talking to?
Simon Owens at Bloggasm decided to take a look at exactly that, sort of. Owens decided to see how much individual tweets purporting to be from Iran were rewteeted -- forwarded or reposted by other Twitter accounts:
To test this, I picked 100 tweets at random that were coming from Twitter users that claimed they were in Iran. I only used tweets that were using one of the many standard hashtags and only included tweets that had been published sometime today (Saturday). I then used search.twitter.com and plugged each one of these tweets into the engine, counting up how many users retweeted it.
Out of the 100 random tweets, each one was retweeted an average of 57.8 times. The tweet that received the highest volume of retweets had 311 retweets. The smallest had only 6 retweets. Most of the tweets I found had between 30 and 50 retweets.
Of course this was done during normal Eastern Time hours, so it may be that the volume fluctuates throughout the day. But it does show that a single tweet coming out of Iran can be seen by a massive volume of Twitter users fairly easily.
A lot of people are listening on Twitter outside of Iran. That's a good thing. But it hasn't proven itself to be an organizing force in Iran itself.
Rather than tell you what I and colleagues have been saying to reporters, I’ll point you to one of the better stories, by Anne-Marie Corley in MIT’s Technology Review - she interviews several of my Berkman and Open Net Initiative colleagues and outlines the argument many of us are making:
- Social media is probably more important as a tool to share the protests with the rest of the world than it is as an organizing tool on the ground.
- Iranians have been accessing social networking sites and blogging platforms despite years of filtering - there’s a cadre of folks who understand how to get around these blocks and are probably teaching others.
- Because so many Iranians use social media tools - often to talk about topics other than politics - they’re a “latent community” that can come to life and have political influence when events on the ground dictate.
Zuckerman goes on to suggest that what social media has done, essentially, is to have created a generally false sense of connection and involvement in the protests.
He goes on to wonder whether a growing media bias toward social media (a new phenom driven largely by traditional media's inability to report from the ground, and the steady stream of YouTube video footage streaming across the border) and the focus on the Twitter feeds of Mousavi supporters has skewed the picture.