Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fishbowl 2.0

At last week's 140 Character Conference in Manhattan, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey told attendees that when he was 15, he tinkered with real-time visualizations of the world; one of his first computer models was of New York City. He plotted the real-time movements of couriers, transit buses, emergency service vehicles, and taxis.

"I followed where they were right at that moment, and what they were doing. As a visualization, it allowed the city of New York to feel very, very small because suddenly, I could see the individual humans that made that city work and function. I never felt closer to a large organization than I did when I saw this on the screen. The next time I felt that was not too long ago, during a speech Barack Obama gave after his first 100 days in office. He was giving a speech and people were updating [their tweets] while he was talking. I never felt closer to my government, never felt it was more approachable, smaller, or more human than in that moment— and it was because I was seeing the inner-most thoughts of people typically placed on top of a pedestal. Those same people suddenly now were on the same level as I was. The transparency that brought to this conversation and to the process of democracy was amazing to me—eye-opening—and it was all unfolding in real-time right in front of me. The transformative power of seeing up close not just how a city works but how government works and how we can participate in the thoughts and actions of the people who comprise our government is huge."

[An hour after Dorsey took the #140conf stage, political blogger Maegan Carberry suggested —much like Andrew Rasiej did a month earlier, at a panel I moderated in Los Angeles about the power of social media—that social media and the self-organized groups they are spawning have begun to destabilize politics-as-usual.]

Can social media help to make a better world—in Iran or anywhere else? Dorsey, for his part, won't speculate. But he urges citizen vigilance as Twitter evolves. “We have this brand new tool and it’s an iteration of many tools we’ve used in the past but now it’s a tool to help us in this experiment in democracy," Dorsey says. "But where are we taking this? What are we doing with this technology? What are we building?"

(Illustration by Tony Soh for

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