Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitter in Iran

For obvious reasons, there has been tremendous interest in current events in Iran, events which, no matter how they play out, will surely be remembered for generations to come. As the regime has deported non-resident journalists and put resident journalists under strict controls, very little information is getting out through the major media outlets, leaving only good old fashioned samizdat. In days past, the mimeograph was a technology of choice. Today it's Twitter.

This being a geek blog, I'm not going to comment or speculate here on the events in question. However, I did want to comment on the experience of trying to follow the story via Twitter, since it's such a clear real-world test.

A while ago, trying to take on the universal question of "Just what is Twitter?" I concluded it was a lot like a headline crawl. Following every single tweet on a topic like #IranElection is essentially impossible. By the time you even finish the first dozen tweets, dozens more have come in. However, a lot of those are repeats of basically the same message. The net effect if you read a page, refresh and repeat is a list of mostly familiar messages interespersed with the occasional new one, much like the crawl at the bottom of a news channel's screen.

Now, the story all over the headlines, duly echoed back onto Twitter, is that Twitter has been one of the few ways of getting information out, to the point that the US State Department specifically asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenace so as not to interrupt the flow. Evidently State was relying on it as a significant source. Twitter as an information smuggling device is not news. It's been used for such purposes since early on. That level of government involvement and the sheer size of the story are newsworthy.

The slant on such stories, at least as filtered back through Twitter, is that new media such as Twitter (and YouTube, FaceBook, Flickr and others) have supplanted the old. You can't count on old media. New is the only way.

On the one hand, it's undeniable that Twitter and company are providing information not available via other means. But there's a risk here of conflating two independent factors: the news-gathering model and the technology actually used in gathering the news. The "out with the old, in with the new" story line is too simple. In fact, the traditional outlets have been right on top of this story, doing conventional news-gathering but using new technology.

Unfiltered Twitter is a mess. An exuberant and exciting mess, but a mess nonetheless. I've already noted that the feed from a big story is impossible to follow in real time. Compounding this, rumors run rampant and there's no way for a newcomer to tell whether a given tweet is likely to contain information, misinformation or even disinformation. For example, a great many people tweeted that the BBC had "gone green" in support of the Mousavi campaign. In fact, the site had always been themed in green (and it would have been completely out of character, to say the least, for the Beeb to take sides).

It's also nearly impossible to tell in real time whether a particular piece of information is current. For example, one video circulated, of a clash between demonstrators and police, turned out to be two years old. In neither of these examples do I have any reason to believe anything nefarious is going on. In the heat of the moment someone noticed something, passed it on, etc. etc. The self-filtering nature of wikis is not really helpful here. That takes a while to stabilize.  Amidst an ongoing chatter of claims and counterclaims in real time it's not a factor.

This is where the conventional media come in. An experienced reporter sifting through all the volume, collating, extracting, summarizing and verifying turns a mess into a coherent, reliable story. Several major outlets are doing just that, and I've checked several in the course of following this story.

Again, Twitter and company are a crucial part of the process here. My point, part of my general push back against the idea that technology changes everything, is not that they aren't, but that the basic game of government repression, information smuggling and established media outlets digesting the smuggled information is quite old. The technology has changed greatly, the game little.

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