From the tumult in Iran, Twitter emerges as a powerful social tool

A supporter of presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi holds a placard reading: 'Ahmadinejad went' during a rally in Tehran, on June 15. Iran's recent elections put a spotlight on Twitter and other social networking tools.

These are heady days for Twitter, a social network once derided as trifling, banal, inconsequential. In early June, Time magazine put the site on its cover, under a sprawling banner headline: "How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live." Around the same time, the media research firm Nielsen reported that even as users turned away from MySpace, they were embracing Twitter in droves – total time logged on the site rose 3,712 percent over the past year.

Millions of Americans have created Twitter accounts, and rumors are swirling that Google may trot out a real-time search option, which would allow users to sift through the reams of tweets accumulated since Twitter's 2006 launch. Even the mainstream media – usually the last ones to catch on to a good thing – have jumped on board, touting their Twitter feeds from high and low. (We plead guilty.)

The microblogging site still has its critics, of course. In a June post, blogger Andrew Heining chronicled Conan O'Brien's apparent snub of Twitter, and invited Monitor readers to submit their thoughts. They did, in droves. Many were dismissive of Twitter, and wondered when it would go the way of MySpace, which has watched its traffic dwindle in recent months. By now, though, I think it's safe to say that Twitter is no passing fad.

A test in Iran

The latest evidence is emerging not from the US – where we're more likely to tweet about our favorite pizza – but from Iran, where thousands of young men and women are loudly protesting the results of this week's contentious presidential election. "In Iran, a religious revolution in decline is confronting a technological revolution in ascendancy," Andrew Rosen noted on the Huffington Post today:

The ascendant technological revolution which we are witnessing is fueled by a younger generation using Facebook, Twitter, SMS, MMS, YouTube, Demotix, and other Web 2.0 tools and services. They are communicating with each other and with strangers, collaborating on organizing protests, and sharing information worldwide. A multitude of unemployed and unhappy voices, once passive, are now active, animated, and eager for change.

Few of these tools, of course, are as effective as Twitter. While critics here have called Twitter a "feeder for the short attention span," it's the terse, frenetic nature of the site that makes it so useful. Users can communicate information quickly and clearly, and with minimal effort. More important, they can reach a much wider audience than with a simple Facebook profile update.


Still, some remain unconvinced. Writing in Business Week, Joel Schectman downplayed the role of Twitter in the post-election protests. Schectman interviewed social media guru Gaurav Mishra, who said he found the concept of a Twitter revolution "suspect... The amount of people who use these tools in Iran is very small and could not support protests that size," he argued.

Although it's true that a relatively small amount of Iranians are actually using Twitter – the service does not yet accommodate Farsi – it's hard to overestimate the role that those few Iranian Twitter feeds have had here in the US. As the Iranian government continues to crack down on foreign journalists covering the post-election chaos, Twitter has emerged a major source of news – a voice from the back rooms, the bedrooms, and the streets.

'I wouldn't know a Twitter from a tweeter'

Just ask Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Today, Clinton defended the US request that Twitter postpone a maintenance shutdown, so Iranians wouldn't lose access – even temporarily – to the site.

"The use of Twitter is a very important one, not only to the Iranian people but now increasingly to people around the world, and most particularly to young people," she said.

"I wouldn't know a twitter from a tweeter," she added, according to the Agence France-Presse. "But apparently it is very important."


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