Daniel W. Drezner

Whither Twitter?

Events in Iran have led to a lot of talk about how this is a Twitter revolution, and that Twitter has been the go-to source on real-time developments in Iran.  Stepping onto FP’s Evgeny Morozov’s turf, however, I have to wonder we’re exaggerating its effect juuuuust a wee bit here.  Twitter is serving two different purposes in ...

Events in Iran have led to a lot of talk about how this is a Twitter revolution, and that Twitter has been the go-to source on real-time developments in Iran.  Stepping onto FP’s Evgeny Morozov’s turf, however, I have to wonder we’re exaggerating its effect juuuuust a wee bit here. 

Twitter is serving two different purposes in Iran right now.  Its first role is as a coordination device for Iranian supporters of Mousavi — much like events in Moldova from a couple of months ago.  On this dimension, to be sure, it would seem that Twitter has facilitated coordination. 

Well, except for one thing — the absence of Twitter does the same thing.  According to the press accounts I read, Mousavi wanted to cancel yesterday (Monday’s) demonstration because the Iranian authorities had refused to grant permission and warned of bloodshed.  The thing is, since Twitter and other methods of quick communication were down, there was no way to communicate the cancellation messaage to supporters.  In other words, had Iranian authorities not interruped mobile services and the like when they had, Monday’s demonstration might have fizzled out.  One wonders if the same dynamic will play out today. 

Twitter’s second role is as a source of information for outside observers — indeed, if Dan Nexon’s post is correct, that seems to be the more important function.  It’s not the only or even the primary source, however. Kevin Drum gets at this point

I followed the events of the weekend via three basic sources.  The first was cable news, and as everyone in the world has pointed out, it sucked.  Most TV news outlets have no foreign bureaus anymore; they didn’t know what was going on; and they were too busy producing their usual weekend inanity to care.  Grade: F.

The second was Twitter, mostly as aggregated by various blogs.  This had the opposite problem: there was just too much of it; it was nearly impossible to know who to trust; and the overwhelming surge of intensely local and intensely personal views made it far too easy to get caught up in events and see things happening that just weren’t there.  It was better than cable news, but not exactly the future of news gathering.  Grade: B-.

The third was the small number of traditional news outlets that do still have foreign bureaus and real expertise.  The New York Times.  The BBC.  Al Jazeera.  A few others.  The twitterers were a part of the story that they reported, but they also added real background, real reporting, and real context to everything.  Grade: B+.  Given the extremely difficult reporting circumstances, maybe more like an A-.

This matches my assessment as well. 

Which, again, is not to diss Twitter.  It’s merely to suggest that life is a bit more complex than simple memes of "this new information technology is supplanting all prior forms of information technology!" 

UPDATE:  Over at The Monkey Cage, John Sides and Henry Farrell offer further ruminations on Twitter. 

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola