In 2001, the Second People Power Revolution ousted Philippine President Joseph Estrada not through violence, but text messaging. In a country hamstrung by faulty information and transportation infrastructure, SMS texting protocol hardly represented the cutting edge of electronic activism.
Citizens turned to their cell phones to share outrage and organize demonstration rallies because pretty much everybody had one.
So it is with Twitter. The social network commonly characterized as transmitting narcissism in 140 characters or less is also the go-to source for immediate updates on the events following Iran’s protested presidential election.
Tweets lamenting that flat Diet Coke you had at lunch and tips setting up proxy IPs and trying to confuse Iranian security services aren’t counterintuitive. Electronic activism doesn’t take place on cutting edge technology, but on the stuff that is already blasé. And what’s more blasé than flat Diet Coke?
That’s not to say that any technology will deliver a society under oppression. The Philippines continues its governmental issues after even a Third People Power Revolution. The "Great Firewall of China," meanwhile, is quite good at blocking virtual dissent. Twitter and other social networks were completely blocked in the days surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Following the tidal wave of media and user excitement about Twitter’s role in the Iran protest, something no doubt destined to be known as "Twitter Backlash" (or maybe "Twitter Backlash III") is already beginning. Though to be fair, a buoying of context is always appropriate.
“Heck yeah ... as much as I can,” @msgeek703 responded to an open tweet I sent yesterday asking who was following the Iran protests on social networks. “However, it’s a bit intimidating with the signal to noise ratio and volume so overwhelming.”
Media critic Jack Shafer echoes the same in his Slate story "Doubting Twitter: Let's not get carried away about its role in Iran's demonstrations."
"I'm not saying that there is no signal to be found; I'm just saying that my cognitive colander isn't big enough to strain out Iran information I can rely on." He points to Joshua Kucera’s True/Slant list of erroneous Iranian uprising data circulating on Twitter.
Even social network cheerleader and Internet smarty-pants Clay Shirky made a brave attempt not to crow about the “Iran revolution in 140 characters or less.”
"I'm always a little reticent to draw lessons from things still unfolding, but it seems pretty clear that ... this is it,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Huffington Post’s Diane Tucker. “This is the big one.”
“The big one,” Shirky wrote, is the “first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted ‘the whole world is watching.’ Really, that wasn't true then. But this time it’s true ... and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding.”
Whether this revolution results in monumental change for the people of Iran remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, Twitter’s presence does mark a sea change. While the world wasn't perfected via the use of cell phones in the Second People Power Revolution or the fax machine purchased in 1989 by Chinese students studying in America to get the word out about the Tiananmen Square massacre, the evolution of common technology’s role in activism can’t be discounted.
Much of what we’re hearing about Twitter echoes what was once seen as that brave new world of 1996 during the Serbian uprising. University students christened their anti-government actions "The Internet Revolution." After Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic shuttered dissenting conventional media, students turned to their computers, becoming proto-“citizen journalists” spreading news of government tyranny with the outside world via the Internet.
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