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.