Amid Iran's continuing protests, much is being said about the “state of now”—what happens to the speed of change when it’s possible to share real-time information and cellphone videos with anyone around the world about major events as they occur. "Now media"—cellphones, the Web, Facebook and Twitter—are redefining what it means to be civically engaged.
“That a new information technology—[so-called “now media” such as Twitter, cellphones, mobile vlogs]—could be improvised for this purpose so swiftly is a sign of the times,” blogger Andrew Sullivan gushed in his recent post, The Revolution Will be Twittered, about the public demonstrations in Iran challenging the outcome of Iran's June 12 presidential election. “ …You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.” Political blogger Maegan Carberry, meanwhile, told last week’s 140 Character Conference in Manhattan, the nation’s first all-things-Twitter thoughtfest, that “social media are pushing us into an era of post-partisanship,” where political parties become far less important because group-to-group communication helps people to self-identify common goals. Says NYU new media professor Clay Shirky, "We are living through the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.” The surge of Twitterized news reporting out of Iran, he says, has made the Iranian uprising historically unprecedented. “This is it. The big one,” he told TED interviewers. "This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.” [And Twitter, of all social media, is having impact at the moment because authorities have not yet found a way to shut it down completely.]
Iran, of course, isn’t the first world hotspot where social media have been used to focus global attention in a heartbeat. Cell phone videos and text-messaging by on-the-ground activists were instrumental in exposing the government corruption that was blocking foreign aid to victims of Burma's Cyclone Nargis. Social media also helped to leak word out to the world about the 2007 pro-democracy uprising by Burmese monks; the hardline censorship by Chinese authorities during last summer’s Beijing Olympics, and the extent of China's deadly 2008 earthquake —details of which, says Shirky, would have otherwise taken years to go public.
But whoa, Nellie. While Iran is showing us, again, that social media can—in rocket speed—expose the undercurrents of dissent and the underbelly of corruption in sometimes shocking detail, these tools have not yet been able to originate mass dissent, nor drive widespread reforms, at least not yet. For every successful Net-aided protest, such as the Facebook campaign last year against FARC in Colombia, there are at least a dozen more uprisings that end when authorities shut down the Net or—as with the as-yet unmutable Twitter in Iran—track down agitators and "disappear” them, creating a chilling climate of self-censorship that all but cedes power to those abusing it.
More significant, perhaps, is the power of Twitter and other forms of social media to accelerate the rate at which events play out, regardless of outcome, and how that speed can be destabilizing, in and of itself. Jason Calacanis, the social media entrepreneur and CEO of mahalo.com, calls the Internet "the greatest accelerator since the advent of the written word." Speaking on a panel on social media and politics that I convened and moderated at this year's Milken Global Conference in LA, Calacanis said: "Truth gets wrestled away from the rumors more rapidly now; if you’re on the wrong side of society, you get outed in hyperspeed." Further, he said, "When you're on the wrong side of an issue, it’s very hard to be involved in an online discourse because if you are, the quicker you'll get to the inevitability of being wrong.”
Indeed, the challenge now for Web-powered activists is figuring out how to use these new tools to do more. As Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey told the 140 Character Conference's standing-room-only crowd last week: “We have this brand new tool [Twitter] to help us in this experiment in democracy, but where are we taking this? What are we doing with this technology and how are we sustaining these concepts of immediacy, approachability and transparency to open up the process of every social community from families to the largest governments in the world?”
Great question, Jack. For more debate on the power and future of social media, follow next week’s Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan, which likely will include a late-addition workshop on Iran. And for more on how social media may be already shaping the course of political history, see Clay Shirky’s recent TED talk, below:
(This post by Marcia Stepanek)
(YouTube cellphone video of Iran protesters June 20, 2009, above, courtesy BBC)