When Iranians used Twitter to get out news about their recent election, people took note in China. Compared with Iran, Twitter played a much smaller role in the recent ethnic clashes in western China. But many Chinese believe Twitter and its Chinese imitators, like Jiwai, have considerable potential to change their media and their society.
First, it was watching retweets of news from Iran in Spanish. Then I slowly started seeing "hashtags" for both Iran and Venezuela in the same tweet. Finally, I saw the Twitter account of a collective. Reading the profile helped me grasp the enormity of what I was witnessing: a student movement like Iran’s is relying on the Internet to inform people of what is happening inside Venezuela.
Before one of the major Iranian protests of the past year, a journalist in Germany showed me a list of three prominent Twitter accounts that were commenting on the events in Tehran and asked me if I knew the identities of the contributors. I told her I did, but she seemed disappointed when I told her that one of them was in the United States, one was in Turkey, and the third -- who specialized in urging people to "take to the streets" -- was based in Switzerland.
It was described as the "Twitter revolution", but almost a year on from Iran's disputed presidential elections, during which the use of social media by the opposition movement made headlines around the world, such claims prompt wry smiles from seasoned observers
The video gave substance to what seemed so far away. We saw the look in her eyes as they went lifeless. We heard the sounds of her friends and family as they begged her to hold on. And she became the personification of the struggle for democracy in a country where voices for freedom are quelled.
At the height of mass post-election protests that took place a year ago this month in Iran, known as the "Green Revolution," Western media outlets were filled with a flurry of reports of protesters using Twitter, e-mail, blogs, and text messages to coordinate rallies, share information, and locate compatriots. Journalists were agape at the sudden influx of information coming out of the country, unusual in light of the Iranian authorities' media blackout.
Warmest congratulations to the Egyptian people, whose truly grassroots revolution has reminded the world what political action is supposed to look like. Although the work is far from done, and reconstituting a government by the people and for the people is perhaps the more difficult phase, it is right that they, and the world, should take a moment to reflect on a job well done.
Some are using that moment to praise the social media tools used by some of the protesters, and the role the internet played in fueling the revolution. While it's plain that these things were part of the process, I think the mindset of the online world creates a risk of overstating their importance, and elevating something useful, even powerful, to the status of essential. The people of Egypt made use of what means they had available, just as every oppressed people has in history.
Twitter and Facebook are indeed useful tools, but they are not tools of revolution — at least, no more than Paul Revere's horse was. People are the tools of revolution, whether their dissent is spread by whisper, by letter, by Facebook, or by some means we haven't yet imagined. What we, and the Egyptians, should justly be proud of, is not just those qualities which set Egypt's revolution apart from the last hundred, but those which are fundamental to all of them.
Reducing activism to online petitions, this breed of marketeering technocrats damage every political movement they touch. A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes.
Ever since Iranians used Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests against the stolen presidential election of June 2009, there has been much discussion of the role of digital activism in authoritarian countries like China. Does Web 2.0 technology imply an analogous role for “Twivolution” in a Chinese democratic transition one day?
Media across the globe have been focusing on a "Twitter Revolution" in Iran as hundreds of thousands of street protestors purportedly mobilized their demonstrations using the microblogging service. So great has the notion of Twitter's role in the Iranian protests become that the U.S. State Dept. reportedly asked the company to defer some maintenance.
Just a quick note on Malcolm Gladwell’s Twitter/Social Change article in The New Yorker: It’s an extremely thought-provoking piece, written with the usual flair. For those who haven’t read it, Gladwell argues that online social networks aren’t suited for “real” social activism, so all the utopian predictions about Twitter and Iran, or Facebook and Obama, will never come to pass. This is because, Gladwell says, online networks are all about weak ties — a weak tie is a friend of a friend, or a casual acquaintance — whereas real activism (he uses the example of the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King) depends on strong ties, or those people you know and trust:
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