It was late at night on Tahrir Square. Egypt's embattled leader, Hosni Mubarak, had just given his bizarre speech vowing not to step down, and I followed an enraged crowd of several hundred protesters over to the state television building along the Nile, where they were gathering to denounce the official media for defaming the revolution. Up front, near the entrance, a fired-up speaker called out from a bullhorn: "Down with Anas al-Fiqi, the lying minister of information! Down with the corrupt regime!" To one side stood a different category of rebel entirely: scruffy guys and gals staring down at their cell phones. They were tweeting.
For days, overzealous headline writers and breathless TV anchors had been gushing about the "Twitter revolution" sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. The Daily Show mocked the hype, trotting out Samantha Bee as its "senior tweet analyst." I also thought it was ridiculous, or at least wildly overblown; anyone who'd seen numbers on Egypt's Internet and smartphone penetration rates could tell you that much. ("The online activist community is tiny," one protest leader reminded me.)
But it was there, in front of the TV building, that it hit me all over again: These weren't revolutionaries so much as they were reporters, translating their struggle for the rest of us.
Since January, I've also been tweeting about the Arab revolutions, pretty much day and night. Does that make me a revolutionary? Not at all. Despite all the sweeping talk about it, Twitter isn't the maker of political revolutions, but the vanguard of a media one. In just a short time, it has become a real-time information stream for international-news junkies. So forget all the extravagant other claims for it. Isn't that one revolutionary enough?
Already, Twitter has become an essential -- no, the essential -- tool for following and understanding the momentous changes sweeping the Arab region. It's surprisingly smart and fast -- if sometimes a little too quick on the draw -- and human where other sources feel impersonal. "I think of it as a giant speech bubble for what's happening in the world," says Riyaad Minty, head of social media at Al Jazeera.
If there is indeed such a thing as a Twitter revolution in the Middle East, it's the way the tool is transforming how the outside world looks at the region. Deen Freelon, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, assembled a massive database of nearly 6 million tweets on the protests in seven Arab countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen. What he found when he filtered the data by location was that Twitter was overwhelmingly a platform for outsiders to discuss big breaking news, be it Mubarak's resignation, one of Muammar al-Qaddafi's insane rants, or the start of a major protest. "It is only when outside attention dies down that local and regional voices even begin to achieve parity with their international peers," he wrote. In other words, Twitter rides the same news wave as everything else, only more intimately.
I must admit to being an initial skeptic of Twitter -- it seemed to be one of those faddish tools like Foursquare or Flattr, just another of those other ubiquitous social media sites that all seem to end in "r." Its advocates tended to be the sort of people who mostly went around the world live-tweeting from conferences about the virtues of Twitter. In the first year or so after I joined, I used it very little.
But five years since its founding, Twitter has hit a critical mass of activists and casual observers on the ground, journalists in the office and in the field, and analysts behind their desks. Twitter today is always buzzing with news, ideas, rumors, speculation, and juicy gossip. (It was Twitter itself that understood this shift from vanity tool to news platform earlier than anyone else, when in November 2009 it changed its prompt from "What are you doing?" to "What's happening?" One of the fastest ways to tell whether someone's not worth following is if they're still answering that first question.)
Facebook and YouTube are obviously essential parts of this new news ecosystem, but mainly as platforms for primary sources from "citizen journalists" -- a fancy name for people with cell-phone cameras. Unsurprisingly, the videos and firsthand accounts they upload are often hard for outsiders to navigate and verify. Twitter is where the good stuff bubbles to the surface. "You can't really hunt through Facebook pages to always know what's going on," says Zeynep Tufekci, who studies social media at the University of Maryland. Much of the online organizing and mobilization that went into the Arab revolutions happened on Facebook, usually in Arabic, she notes, but Twitter is where activists went to get their message out to the world, more often in English. "I see Twitter as a broadcast platform," adds Minty, "as you would a satellite provider or cable provider."
But it also has the power to tap into a collective consciousness, as when Manal al-Sherif, a 32-year-old single mother, was arrested for defying the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. News of her arrest broke first on Twitter, and Arabs from all over the world chimed in. Ironically, that's when following a hashtag -- Twitter-speak for a community-driven topic tag like #FreeManal or #jan25 -- becomes least useful: the more users flood a given story, the more bad information, or repetitive tweets by less sophisticated users, can drown out the good. Fake pictures of a dead Osama bin Laden, for instance, circulated for days after they had already been debunked.
I'm often asked: Is Twitter, or social media in general, a reliable source of information on these revolutions? That's a lot like asking: Is television trustworthy? Are newspapers any good? It's just a tool -- it depends on how you use it. Networks like Al Jazeera and the BBC have developed rigorous checklists for vetting information they get from online sources, from contacting eyewitnesses over Skype to authenticating regional dialects and checking new images and videos against verified geocoded ones. But in the end, like traditional news outlets, social networks rely on trust -- we're more likely to believe information we get from someone whose information has been solid in the past. In any case, most of us don't want to spend our time hunting through Facebook pages, assessing the veracity of videos of people getting slaughtered or beaten by the police or pro-regime thugs. That's what "old media" is for -- now more than ever.