Twittering in Tehran

Like pretty much everyone else, I’ve been wavering between nervous anticipation and cautious optimism, between excitement about the possibilities made available by social media and anger at what appears to be a stolen election, when it comes to Iran.  It’s impossible to predict, of course, what will happen as a result of these massive street protests, and while there are reasons to be excited about the popular expression of opposition to what appears to be manipulated election results, there are also reasons to remain apprehensive.  But it’s also impossible to think about the events of the last few days without thinking about how they have been represented in various media outlets and how these news stories have been relayed to the West via various social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, often at some personal risk to the people who are sending out information when western media outlets have so little access.

I think it’s easy to criticize the cable news channels for paying so little attention to the story–devoting an hour of time this morning to a fleeting crisis in which an airline pilot died while en route from Brussels to Newark seemed to encapsulate these limits–just as its equally easy to celebrate uncritically technological tools such as Twitter and Facebook.  Western news outlets are limited, of course, to filing one news report a day by the Iranian government, so the role of usual news sources is even further complicated.  Similarly, I think it’s important to remain aware that Mir Hussein Mousavi may not be, as Tom Watson argues, a beacon of social change.  Still, as Lance Mannion observes, what’s happening in Iran seems to be less about Mousavi than it is about the actions of the Iranians themselves.  Lance cites this eyewitness report, sent through Juan Cole, from an eyewitness who describes the “orderly disorder” of the marchers and the ease and speed with which information is disseminated.

I’ll admit that I’m still somewhat unsure of where to begin when following these events as they unfold.  Because these events are unfolding essentially in real time, often while many of us in the US are asleep or at work, and because of the sheer volume of information that is out there beyond the majornews outlets, it is impossible to process everything and even more difficult to know what to do other than watch and wait.  PBS’s Media Shift blog, true to its expanded emphasis on social media, has a fairly thorough list of resources on Iran and on the powerful uses of social media out there, including Mark Glaser’s discussion of the #CNNfail and #IranElection hashtags on Twitter (although even these hashtags often become cluttered by overwhelming noise), as well as links to Iran election protest videos and Andrew Sullivan’s blog post arguing that “the revolution will be twittered.”

All of these accounts remind me of the challenges we face in the new social media landscape.  Sullivan, for example, celebrates the ability of people to improvise and get around the traditional filters, declaring that “You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.”  While I think there is something genuinely new here, I do wonder about past precedents: the use of fax machines by students involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or the use of copiers during the Vietnam protests. I do think there is something quantitatively and qualitatively different here when it comes to the speed and spread of information and the ability for amateur reporting to reach mass audiences.  But I think we need to be careful when equating the ability to tweet, blog, and Flickr with political freedom.

At the same time, I find myself thinking about the challenges these social media tolls present to us as readers, viewers, consumers, and in turn, linkers, posters, and interpreters of this information.  Chris O’Brien touches on some of these issues in a broader discussion of social media in his discussion of the “new obligations of readers” and about his own admitted “reluctance” to engage with the comments to stories.  Of course, when we are all potential writers ourselves, these obligations change.  Can we “participate” in what is happening in Iran?  Is it meaningful for millions of Twitterers to color their avatars green in solidarity with the protesters?  How do we filter through these many sources of information?  In the last hour or so, I’ve now heard CNN’s Wolf Blitzer use the phrase “watching history unfold” at least three or four times to describe our relationship to the events in Tehran, and while I feel essentially powerless to do much to change the situation there, that phrase no longer seems adequate to describe how we engage with world events, as we tweet, blog, and forward information and express our support for democratization.  The phrasing is too passive, an echo of televised news.  Something different is happening, and the old, passive terminology seems inadequate to describe it.  But I think the new tools raise thousands of questions as well.  I’ve been writing this post mentally for several days now, and even as I write I find myself pulled in any number of contradictory directions, half listening to CNN, intently checking Twitter and and blogs, trying to make sense not only of Iran but also of the social media tools that have become such an important part of this story.

6 Comments »

  1. Dylan Said,

    June 18, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    On The Daily Show late last week, they did a story on the New York Times. Jason Jones asked one of the editors, “Why do you think that aged news is the best news?” The editor said, “I wouldn’t call this aged news,” to which Jason Jones hands him a copy of that day’s edition and says, “Show me something in here that happened today.”

    I’ve thought about that a lot as the Iranian events have unfolded. I know this is slightly off the point that you are making in this post about our participation in the communication and the level to which they are or aren’t important, but the immediacy of all the information is what seems transformative about this to me. Do I have a firm grasp on what’s happening inside Iran because of the tweets and the blog coverage? Not really. Do I know more about what’s going on inside Iran than someone who has only comsumed “old media” coverage on the events? Absolutely.

    Maybe what it comes down to is that the “new/social media” construct requires an active approach to consumption where as the old media was rather passive. You turned on the radio or the tv, the paper was delivered to your house, etc. etc. In a lot of ways, it’s like the film vs. tv/alpha state vs. beta state discussion.

    Anyway. I agree that it’s hard to call this social media’s coming out party, but it is most definitely an inflection (like Rather-gate was for blogs).

  2. Chuck Said,

    June 18, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    I vaguely remember seeing that segment, and it seemed to capture part of what is happening. And I do think the information-gathering ability of people using social media tools is pretty astounding, and I’m genuinely amazed at the improvisational skills of Iranians who use proxy servers and other tools to ensure that their message is heard.

    As I wrote this post, I found myself being pulled toward something close to Andrew Sullivan’s rhapsodizing of new/social media, but some elements of that form of utopian language leaves me a little cautious, seeking both historical precedents and potential limits. There is no question that this is a watershed moment, but what it means is less clear. Perhaps it’s a matter of getting some distance from these events before we impose an interpretation on them.

    The active/passive binary has always been a tricky one for me. TV, of course, has never been fully passive. I can turn it off, change the channel, call Bill O’Reilly a jerk, write a letter to the editor, just as I could passively watch and read about Iran on blogs and YouTube.

    You may be right about the immediacy point, and I do think that’s crucial, but I’m also interested in how these events make us aware–hyperaware, in fact–about our need for filters to help us make sense of what is happening.

  3. Joanna Said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 5:38 am

    A lot to think about, for sure. Twitter, flickr and youtube have become “primary sources” as other media have been censored, but we/I still need people to help us make sense of this information: I’ve been turning to the aggregators,such as the live-blogging at HuffPo, and especially those who provide links to “background” sources, to put the “raw’ tweets, etc, in a meaningful context. A lecture from a Google talk last year, a BBC “iran primer”, Juan Cole’s blog, the debates between Iran scholars or “experts” are also part of the mix. And I’m getting access to them through Twitter, for the most part as people retweet links. I am lso cautious about the potential for disinformation via Twitter, and very worried about the danger to citizens getting out the word.

  4. Chuck Said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    Yeah, I forgot to mention the liveblogging at HuffPo, which has been quite good. I try to follow what I can, even as I am aware that much of this “raw” information is still being processed, and perhaps that is my larger point: that what’s happening in Iran represents some new form of multichannel liveness that we’re still in the process of figuring out.

    I think you’re right that for the most part, Twitter has served, for me at least, as a way of receiving links and re-tweets from others.

  5. The Chutry Experiment » Open Video Conference Said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    [...] and practices that will affect how people participate in broader political conversations.  As the events of the last few days in Iran illustrate, online video can be a powerful medium in shaping political discourse, something [...]

  6. The Chutry Experiment » Tuesday Links Said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    [...] been swirling around the events in Iran in recent weeks, a celebration of Twitter and YouTube that sometimes swept me up in its massive scope.  However, as Frieman points out, there are only a small number of Twitter [...]

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