As always happens, first came the hype, followed by the backlash.
After spending a few days talking about the Twitter revolution, reporters began (rightly) calling shenanigans. The tipping point seemed to be this smart post from Joshua Kucera a few days ago. Twitter as a source of disinformation? Tell me about it, bitches. By today there's a full-on backlash. You can tell the tide has turned because Jack Schafer just rowed his boat out past the break and dropped anchor.
Okay, so yes, let's be real: Do you really think hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters have configured proxy servers and other tech-savvy hacks to circumvent the government's blocks on SMS and Websites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in order to organize themselves online? Because that seems about as likely to me as Santa.
On the other hand, Schafer and the new backlash miss an important point: Virtually all of the photos and videos coming out of Iran are surfacing and being disseminated via social media sites. Whether or not Iranians themselves are using these technologies en masse, the rest of the world is staying informed about what's going on there via citizen journalists, because some people have managed to circumvent the blocks. Even as the professional class of cameramen have been confined to their hotel rooms, new photographs and videos are emerging on the Internet hourly. And what's more, this information does seem to be spreading internally in Iran as well, perhaps merely printout to printout--but it's getting out.
Several people have pointed out that Iran has had massive demonstrations in the past, notably 1999. This is meant to cast doubt on Twitter's usefulness as an organizing tool. But you know what else Iran had in 1999? A brutal government crackdown. Ten years later, the Iranian (or any other) government can't pull that off in the dark anymore. It may yet happen, but if it does everyone both inside and outside of the country will know about it. And so while we'll never know, it's certainly possible that Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook--and all the rest of the social media tools that journos have such a love/hate relationship with--may very well be the bulwarks keeping the Evil Men With Guns at bay.
Writing in Mother Jones, Kevin Drum argues that "And if we westerners had to rely on only a single news source to tell us what what going on, I'd still choose the dwindling band of serious outlets that provide real reporting from dangerous (and expensive) places." Word. If I had to choose one or the other, I'd go with a crack squad of BBC reporters over citizen journalists. But what if I don't get to choose? What happens when a nation kicks all those reporters from serious outlets out? Or locks them in hotel rooms? Or simply prevents them from bringing cameras into the street?
I mean, did you watch the news yesterday? Have you read the goddamn paper lately? Those serious outlets are relying largely on footage from amateurs.
Look, I don't know about you, but I have no illusions that changing my icon green or my time zone to Tehran time is going to directly help anyone on the ground in Iran at all. I don't think it's going to confuse Iranian authorities, or bring down the wall, or any other such nonsense. What I do think it accomplishes is to help force a meme, so to speak. It keeps people talking about what's happening in Iran. It's an insignificant act taken alone that in aggregate has quite a bit of power. That's how Twitter works.
So, again, let's be real. Let's have some fucking perspective instead of simply rushing to pimp or tear down the latest conventional wisdom. Get over the organizing tool distraction. (though even if it helps a handful of key people organize, that in itself is something.) But it isn't just about organization.
Thanks to their ability to spread images, videos, and first-person accounts of events on the ground, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Flickr, and other social media platforms are both keeping us aware of what's happening and perhaps just as if not more importantly stimulating global conversations in ways that articles in the New York Times or Slate don't have the power to do. And the Iranian government is well aware of that.