Think Again

Think Again: Twitter

The groundbreaking microblogging service is great for sharing links and communicating with friends. It's not so good at spreading democracy and overthrowing dictatorships.

"Authoritarian regimes should fear Twitter"

Not at all. You can't fear what doesn't exist -- and Twitter barely exists, if it exists at all, in most authoritarian countries. Generally, either they have their own microblogging services or Internet access is too slow and expensive for Twitter to be broadly useful. Furthermore, anyone who does use Twitter probably speaks English, has international contacts, and travels more than the rest of the population -- in other words, they are already lost causes, as far as the regime is concerned.

Combined with other tools - e-mail, social networking, and blogs -- Twitter can certainly be helpful in spreading news about upcoming flashmobs and protests. The demonstrations following Moldova's disputed election earlier this year were a perfect example, where a dozen local Twitter maniacs used the service to spread news about their flashmob. Eventually, their campaign (which went beyond Twitter and included Facebook and LiveJournal as well) attracted thousands of people and spilled into loud protests. While the Moldovan "Twitterati" had very little impact on the events on the ground, they did a great job using Twitter's global, viral reach to keep the protests in the international news.

However, Twitter use in authoritarian countries comes with major drawbacks. Twitter creates an extensive online paper trail that can be easily used against dissidents. In fact, as Twitter use becomes more common, authoritarian governments are likely to exploit Twitter to gather open-source intelligence on the opposition -- not a difficult task for anyone with an Internet hook-up. So Twitter could help authorities identify dissent at very early stages, tracking not just individual activists, but entire activist networks. An online friend list could enable a serious crack-down.

"Twitter was the best source of news about the post-election protests in Iran."

It depends. Twitter was a great resource during the protests -- for people who knew how to use it. If you had spent the previous six months carefully studying the Iranian Twitterverse, you would already know who to trust and who to ignore. Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of the readers around the world who turned to Twitter during the uprising had absolutely no idea what they were looking at.

Most of them relied on particular "keywords" (like #iranelection) to read everything that was being posted about the events in Tehran. After a few days, the #iranelection and #moussavi channels contained so much noise that they became attractive destinations for spammers and marketers. (Many of these spammers are clearly run on some sort of auto-pilot, because #iranelection is still one of the most popular trending topics on Twitter, though very few users seem to still be talking about the election.)

To make things worse, supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began spreading misinformation.  Some of them were quickly ferreted out on sites like Twitspam.org, but the damage was done.

Of course, not everyone was going into the Iranian Twitterworld blind. The best way to read the Iranian tweeters was probably second-hand on the sites of established bloggers like The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan and The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, both of whom did admirable work curating the valuable posts and vetting out the junk. Still, the Iranian protests pointed out some of the dangers of relying on Twitter for breaking news from abroad.

"Twitter is a great organizing tool."

Perhaps. If your objective is to get 500 people to do the Thriller dance in Grand Central Station, Twitter, with its penchant for all things viral, is your best friend. The NYPD (which also Twitters, by the way) might even decide to let you get away with it.  But if you're trying to overthrow a tyrannical government somewhere in the Middle East, you may want to think twice. Members of the local Mukhabarat (secret police) may trail behind the NYPD in their tech-enthusiasm, but chances are they are also reading your feed. You'd be much better off organizing your revolution with more secure tools -- like encrypted e-mail or even instant messaging -- and turning to Twitter only to publicize the protests that are already underway. 

The events in Moldova fell somewhere in between: a flashmob that, rather unexpectedly, grew into a mini-revolution. The events in Iran were part of an organized campaign by the Moussavi camp and, as such, were probably carefully planned offline by a handful of Moussavi's top aides who spread the word using tools they learned as young revolutionaries in 1979. Leaflets, posters, and even fax machines can still be very effective organizing tools, precisely because they are not dependent on the Internet -- which, as Iranians found out during the protests, can suffer from unbearable slowness or equally unbearable censorship. Twitter was instrumental as a publicity tool, but played little role in instigating or coordinating the protests.

"Twitter is replacing blogging."

Not quite. Twitter is surely taking over many of the niches previously reserved for blogging: simple link-sharing, for one. It also seems much better positioned to allow discussions of breaking news -- checking multiple blogs takes an eternity compared with Twitter's instant flow of information. But blogs still have a good chance of survival.  One-hundred-forty characters is not very much; blogs could become a space for longer, more analytical writing, an ironic fate for a medium once mocked for its own brevity and shallowness.

The mainstream news media also continues to be suspicious of Twitter. It took about five years to convince most newspapers and magazines that blogging was an acceptable medium for reporting news, and many are still catching up. Twitter may take less time to sink in, but don't expect it to happen overnight.

The situation in the developing world is different, particularly in countries where blogging hasn't yet fully taken off or where zany platforms predominate that define what "blogging" is and how it's done. Russians love LiveJournal, Brazilians love Orkut, and the Chinese love QQ; for them, these sites offer a platform not only for blogging, but also for social networking, instant messaging, and other online distractions. Thus, even if they do find Twitter very appealing, their primary digital life happens on other platforms. 

On the other hand, the proliferation of the mobile Internet in Africa might cause millions of new Web users to skip the blogging stage altogether and jump straight to Twitter: After all, it's hard to write an 800-word essay on a cellphone keypad.

"Twitter doesn't have a business model and might go under soon."

Don't worry. First, Twitter is very addictive -- and people are usually eager to pay to keep their addictions going. Second, it's a great intelligence-gathering tool for news organizations, marketers, and even the CIA. As with very good network, its value will rise as more members join. There's still a need for better tools to make sense of all the data generated on Twitter -- but this is not an insurmountable task. Someone will eventually figure out how to unlock Twitter's data reservoirs for the wider public (that is, the wider paying public).

Third, it still makes a very appealing acquisition target for Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft. The problem is that none of them know how to keep its entrepreneurial spirit alive. (Google already has a dismal record of killing similar companies by buying them. Just look at Twitter's early, ill-fated competitor, Jaiku -- or, actually, don't look.) But this problem isn't impossible to solve either.

Finally, the more we talk about "Twitter revolutions," the more American diplomats and policymakers fall in love with the tool. "Twitter diplomacy" might soon replace the expensive efforts of the struggling Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). So what that they would only get 140 characters to express the American position on a given subject? Stripping these messages of the legalese would only add to their appeal, while helping to tap into the otherwise ADD-ed minds of the "digital natives" who might never have heard the radio broadcast of BBG's Voice of America because they don't know what radio is. And given how much U.S. government money has spent to bolster the BBG, even buying Twitter outright would look like a rounding mistake.

"Twitter is brimming with spammers, impostors, and just plain crazy people."

Sure.  But that's also true of the Internet as a whole, and it doesn't stop us from using it. Compared to e-mail, Twitter spam doesn't really look that menacing, and its administrators are beginning to crack down on those who abuse the system to push sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll on unsuspecting tweeters.

Impostors are indeed in vast supply. For instance, I suspect that the funny "Slavoj Zizek" that I am following on Twitter is not really the radical Slovenian philosopher. But this endless guesswork only makes it more fun. Twitter is a very curious universe in which even impostors add value, as long as they share cool and interesting links. (Would the real Zizek have turned me on to the marvelous site "White People Who Study Hegel?") The proliferation of impostors might even present Twitter with an actual business model, something it lacks at the moment: charging celebrities for authenticating their accounts and displaying a proud "I've been authenticated" badge. Successful companies have been built on less.

"Twitter conversations are shallow and serious people should avoid it."

Who cares? Obviously, Twitter is not the letters section of the New York Review of Books. Those looking for deep, long, insightful conversations shouldn't bother. But what attracts so many smart people to Twitter is a chance to follow what other smart people are reading and browsing -- and to do so in real time. What "Twitter virgins" do not understand is that Twitter actually facilitates the discovery of all those long and uber-insightful conversations that are happening elsewhere. As a discovery tool that works for everyone, it beats everything else out there, from syndication services like Delicious and RSS to aggregator blogs like Kottke and BoingBoing.

In the Twitter universe, you are what you follow -- so if you find Twitter boring, you're probably following the wrong people. Figuring out how to sift through all the noise and actually get hold of signal can be a challenging task, of course, requiring time and a fair amount of tinkering. But ultimately it pays off. A carefully maintained Twitter feed can deliver you information that is far more diverse and interesting than it was in the pre-Twitter days. One-hundred-forty characters are more than enough to describe a link or express one idea. 

So far, Twitter's influence on global politics is still very marginal; while it helps to draw public attention to otherwise overlooked problems and places, this will stop as soon as the media discovers yet another digital darling. But despite what you may hear from the overly conservative naysayers, Twitter's cultural impact is far greater. We may currently be at the very dawn of the era of Twitter Renaissance. Avoid it at your own peril.

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