On Twitter in Iran

An MIT graduate student I know wrote the following about the Iranian post-election protests, after I asked what he thought of the use of technology there. Money quote:

The crux, I think, is this: twitter et. al. provide more interesting and useful communication tools.  But communication isn’t enough, you have to wield power, and power doesn’t happen on the Internet… Communication is still really important to enable action.  But that communication doesn’t have to be new or fancy, and it may work better if it isn’t.

So what’s next in digital activism technology?  There’s a great quote in this Time article: “The sky is falling, but here we are — millions of us — sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.”  I think there’s something to that, and I think there’s something of a distraction and time sink that the Internet brings to efforts to enact meaningful social change.  I think we might be better served learning about what to say to one another than what incremental improvements we can make to the medium.  Learning how to influence people and change their minds, get them to be more aware of the plight of everyone else.  My personal research goals are around finding out how to get technologists to listen more deeply to communities in need about what their problems are, rather than what seems cool or exciting or technically challenging to the technologist.

Full email after the cut.

I haven’t been super-involved in the Iran goings-on other than a bit of following on twitter and reading news.  It’s interesting to see the number of people claiming both that twitter/facebook are the most important things in this uprising and also inconsequential.  I feel like I’d have to be on the ground in Iran to gauge whether the tools are actually proving valuable to Iranians, or just to foreigners.  Twitter’s proved remarkably proficient in drumming up frenzies, which may not accord with reality.

It seems that activists and technologists have vested interests in believing that twitter et al. are revolutionary.  They seem to have the fervor that tech. geeks have when they talk about operating systems or text editors — extolling virtues, but always from a standpoint of opinion and not from a standpoint of careful detached analysis.  The Internet is clearly becoming very important for politics and social organizing, but it’s also clearly not enough.

Noise on the Internet is not sufficient to bring about social change. Those participating in social media are still a pretty small and pretty self-selected crowd.  To actually bring about social change, one has to get off the Internet and into the places where that change happens: inside the legislature, government offices, board rooms, shareholder meetings, etc.  You have to get at the seats of power.

Even street protests in this country have had negligible impact since the civil rights movement.  When numbers similar to those now protesting in Iran rose up in San Francisco and New York in 2002/2003, this did nothing to stop our march to war.  The streets are also not where decisions are made.  Action in the streets only works when it either changes minds (doesn’t work for strongly divided or stubborn people), or has a substantial economic impact.  It may also be different in a country like Iran where protest is less easy to culturally ignore.  It may be that, unlike the US in 2002, the supporters of the status quo in Iran are not as staunchly determined that they are right, and are more amenable to the peer pressure of their families and friends going to the streets.  Or that there aren’t actually many supporters of the status quo, only people afraid to go out, who have been emboldened by the throngs that are risking violence and arrest.

But in any case, all of these things have NOTHING to do with twitter. At best, twitter is a potentially useful communication tool to help organize.  But in that respect, it’s an incremental improvement over existing tools like SMS, blogs, word of mouth, fliers, etc — it allows easier group participation on more devices and formats.  But it also brings in disadvantages, such as security threats, lowered signal-to-noise ratio, and brittle infrastructure that is prone to censorship.  How does the trade-off look on the ground?  I don’t have enough info to judge.

The use of digital media tech in other uprisings, such as the monks in Burma or Tibet, had a big impact on letting the world see what was going on inside those countries.  But it ultimately was not sufficient to bring about meaningful change, and in both cases was eventually stomped out by the governments in charge.  Burma and Iran are already on the western world’s shit list, so even if the western world does get an intimate perspective on what’s going on inside, it’s hard to get foreign governments to be any more influential.  “The whole world is watching,” but that’s all, just watching and saying “tisk, tisk.”  Even if foreign governments did intervene, the results might not be pretty (see Iraq under both Bushes — the first one in inadequate support of an uprising, the second in invasion and occupation).

The crux, I think, is this: twitter et. al. provide more interesting and useful communication tools.  But communication isn’t enough, you have to wield power, and power doesn’t happen on the Internet, until the Internet is an economic choke point, which it isn’t pretty much anywhere yet, and even then you’d succeed via attacks on infrastructure (e.g. DoS) and not communication. Communication is still really important to enable action.  But that communication doesn’t have to be new or fancy, and it may work better if it isn’t.

So what’s next in digital activism technology?  There’s a great quote in this Time article: “The sky is falling, but here we are — millions of us — sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.”  I think there’s something to that, and I think there’s something of a distraction and time sink that the Internet brings to efforts to enact meaningful social change.  I think we might be better served learning about what to say to one another than what incremental improvements we can make to the medium.  Learning how to influence people and change their minds, get them to be more aware of the plight of everyone else.  My personal research goals are around finding out how to get technologists to listen more deeply to communities in need about what their problems are, rather than what seems cool or exciting or technically challenging to the technologist.