Tweeting as a revolutionary act

June 21, 2009

 Nevertheless, we can both agree that the open exchange of information is a positive force in the world…”       Tweaked tweet from

35 years ago I met the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his wife,  Empress Farah. It was not an intimate occasion. We were lined up as (temporary) members of the City of Christchurch’s “civic list” on a civic pavement outside the city’s museum, to which generic institution history was soon to consign our visitor.

Each of us had a cursory shake of the imperial hand and a face-to-face view of the Shah’s hawk-like visage (no lowered eyes by egalitarian Kiwis to imperious eagles, just the usual diffidence). Five short years later-no cause and effect you understand-he and his regime had been toppled by revolution.

The crowds demonstrating in Teheran in 1978 and 1979 against the American-engineered regime of the Shah and his secret police were, for the most part, scrupulously non violent, just like the crowds demonstrating in Teheran in the last week. Despite that, hundreds and thousands were shot down in and became the martyrs whose blood sanctified and fuelled the revolution thirty years ago.

The death toll in the last week appears to be in single figures. The conservative Muslim regime does not want a rerun of three decades ago, particularly at a time when, despite the large scale expulsion of foreign journalists since the election, “citizen journalists”  have access to high definition video cellphones and all the electronic paraphernalia of broadband, satellite broadcasting and social networking to spread the word, and more graphically the graphics, at the speed of light.  Twitter and Facebook have been used extensively as tools by many young people to coordinate protests over the election’s outcome.

I had been searching for a serious rationale for my recent Twitter subscription to defend myself against the barbs of the anti-digerati. Just days after I joined last week here it was, on the micro blogger’s own homepage.    

  “Twitter is back and our network capacity is now significantly increased. The planned maintenance that we moved from last night to this afternoon was a success and it took half the time we expected.

When we worked with our network provider yesterday to reschedule this planned maintenance, we did so because events in Iran were tied directly to the growing significance of Twitter as an important communication and information network. Although presumed impossible if not extremely difficult, we decided together to move the date. It made sense for Twitter and for NTT America to keep services active during this highly visible global event.

It’s humbling to think that our two-year old company could be playing such a globally meaningful role that state officials find their way toward highlighting our significance. However, it’s important to note that the State Department does not have access to our decision making process. Nevertheless, we can both agree that the open exchange of information is a positive force in the world.”

Given Hillary Clinton’s comments that she did not wish to comment on the outcome of the Iranian election, while doing just that in the same breath, Twitter’s denial of being influenced by the State Department is interesting. President Obama is very new media savvy and one would expect the new administration to be on the virtual ball.

We can forgive the self-importance of Twitter’s statement (which took up somewhat more than the allocated 140 characters they allow their subscribers). The collective outpouring of Twitter is no mere dawn chorus. According to Wikipedia, in March 2009, Masters blog ranked Twitter as the fastest-growing site in the Member Communities category for February 2009. Twitter had a monthly growth of 1382%, Zimbio of 240%, followed by Facebook with an increase of 228%.

Despite the ornithological tweeness of its title, Twitter is a key part of the instant exchange of information, including most potently, and less banally, hyperlinks to richer content, including photos and videos, which balance state power with the power of networks of networks to engage and mobilise those formerly without power. This is what led to the recent acquittal of the woman accused of murdering the Chinese Communist Party apparatchik.

 For all that, I am not revolutionary enough to have my cellphone Twitter-enabled. The occasional tweet treat via my laptop, not 24×7 connectivity via my phone or PDA, is quite enough for me. 

Just half a gram occasionally is, of course, the epigrammatic emblem of all junkies. I can give it up at any time…