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Twitter Wins the Week, But Not the War

twitterMy two Sunday colleagues raise the specter of slavery and The Great Depression respectively. My goal is far more modest, it is to point out why Twitter won the week, but is losing the war in Iran. The reality is that Twitter is a top down medium; and it magnifies, rather than challenges, the top down society. Twitter is seeing its rise as a tool precisely because of the nadir of the individual. The goal of the top down organization is to speak transparently to a base without intermediaries, or rather through intermediaries that do nothing but transmit message perfectly. They want a perfect rebound back. In reality, the middle layers never disappear. For all of the buzz about Twitter, the most memorable thing about the week is the hyperbole. Twitter will prevent Rwandas? It can’t even stop Basij in Iran.

What Twitter does is provide the ability to measure the temperature of the user base; and that temperature is, largely, obsessed with products of the top, such as the iPhone and AT&T’s crippling of it; or sports and entertainment – or it is obsessed with creating more traffic and links equivalent; or it is obsessed with money spam. Twitter has difficulty creating a topic other than those created for it. The "Twitter Revolution" is, in fact, a demonstration of the total carnage of the social sector and its replacement by a buzz around the products of the top in sports, entertainment, technology – or violence. 

Is this a criticism of the tool or those who have used it to spread the word with ribbons and cries in cyber-space? Not in the least. But it is a criticism of the overblown nature of the praise. Twitter is a pager for the Web 2.0, and useful in the same way that pagers are. By the same measure, pagers are only as useful as the people on the ends. They do not add to the conversation. The real revolutionary tools of this moment are much less heralded: smartphones and proxies. It was the smartphones that had the cameras that made instant documentation possible – Tweets don’t even have pictures – and the opening of proxies and the "small pieces loosely joined" ethos that David Weinberger, author of the "cluetrain manifesto" put forward. To the extent that Twitter helped create those far loose joins, it was able to rapidly color the internet green.

This created frustration among people of other causes than the Iran crisis, asking why couldn’t the energy be harnessed for something else. This is for the same reason that internal combustion does not directly power a computer: the energy is in the wrong form. 

Twitter’s rise is the web’s fall from grace: an era where we watch other people is now rising, where the era of the world watching us has ended. There is revolution in Iran, and they will make the best of it with bodies and blood. But the twittering part? It is more like worrying about the bulimia of a weather anchor in the wake of Katrina. There is more written about Twitter than the actual pieces of Iran. And that should tell people a great deal, not about Twitter the tool which has been useful, but about the twittering classes, and how they came to be.

The real power from Iran has been the stomach wrenching pictures, and the people who have gone into the jaws of danger to extract them. From the first hand reporting. Twitter’s joining could have been accomplished by other tools. People often talk about talking, without realizing that talking itself is not a substitute for action. 

The Obama administration realizes this, and is acting with extreme restraint. But Obama’s native caution is, here, a great virtue. He realizes that anything he would say would be no more effective than any other tweet. He, and what army, is going to do anything about Iran should he speak? Not the army that is afflicted with stress and binge drinking. Obama’s restraint, his ability to sit and wait while a geo-political rival tears itself apart, is a very clever move. Who ever loses the election, Obama wins. 

Firedoglake is giving a boost to the fantastic and powerful The Stoning of Sonya M. The urge to bear witness to evil, in order to end it, is old and rich. But to paraphrase Lincoln, we cannot hallow this week; the blood of the people protesting, striking, and rioting has done so far beyond our poor power to add or detract. Twittering helps push information to the lowest ends of the media stream, to people who are otherwise slow to see anything. One can track how many days news can take to filter down by the tweets showing up that push out a link that is over 72 hours old. Breaking news indeed. 

What this means is that Twitter is going to compress the time to judgment; and in doing so, give more, not less, power to the images that can drive that judgment. But just like the Boxers of the Boxer Rebellion, it is going to be found that it is not a magic that stops bullets.

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