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What you need to understand about the riots in Iran and Twitter.

June 17, 2009

The Twitter storm around the riots following the Iranian elections is sure to be seen as Twitter’s real coming-out party. But – what the hell is Twitter, really? How does it work, and does it really matter?

This will be easier to understand if you’ve actually seen Twitter, so check out the stream of Twitter messages on Iran (often called a feed) on Twitter right now.

This is how Twitter mattered for those in Iran and outside – even if I’ve never met you, and I’m in Vancouver and you’re in Tehran, or we’re both in Tehran but a few kilometres apart, you can send me a 140 character message. How? By putting what’s called a hashtag (simply a few words with the pound sign in front of it) into your message (called a “tweet”) using Twitter on your cell phone. So, if I’m on Twitter I can watch every single message being sent using the #iranelection hashtag, and get some idea of what’s going on (if I’m good at filtering things – when I checked yesterday there were more than a thousand messages, some only tangentially related, every few minutes). Or I might want to send a message that says “Riot police approaching Tehran university. Stay away #iranelection” or “Riot police approaching Tehran university. Send reinforcements. #iranelection.”

There really is no other way to enable a vast number of people who don’t know each other (or even those who do) to communicate in this immediate fashion, simply based on a common concern.The potential this creates to organize is wholly new.

Twitter is also important because it’s mobile – because you can use it on your cell phone it’s more difficult for government to shut down or control.

Beyond the immediate benefits of the technology for people on the ground in Tehran, here’s how I see the use of Twitter having been important during this time:

1. Getting messages outside the borders of Iran, allowing people in other countries to have some sense of what was going on in real time. HOWEVER – it’s definitely important to question the representativeness of what you read on Twitter. Remember: your average Iranian Twitter user probably belongs to a very particular demographic. Twitter likely won’t tell you what the urban poor, or people in the countryside (still about a third of the population), are saying about Ahmadinejad. Not having much clue what these people thought contributed greatly to the failure of most Western commentators to predict the overthrow of the Shah in1979.

2. The shaming of the worst of the mainstream media, and another great leap for social media in altering the role of the mainstream media. Another very popular topic on Twitter during the last few days has been the failure of CNN to cover the situation in Iran, using the hashtag #CNNfail. You can see the spike in the use of the #CNNfail hashtag by following it on Twitter had more up-to-date information than most mainstream media outlets. And Twitter wasn’t the only tool being used – if you’re unclear on how social media was providing a lot more information than the (and to the) MSM, check out’s guide to following the Iranian election.

3. A very strong argument for the importance of net neutrality. Every service provided on the Internet, even those that don’t make money (like Twitter) needs equal opportunity to reach users. If Twitter had been slowed down (throttled) its effectiveness would be greatly diminished.

4. Sending a message to a broader audience (delivered, ironically, through the MSM, showing their continued importance) that Twitter isn’t just a place to talk about what you ate for breakfast or how cute your cat is. Social media isn’t just about narcissism – it’s also occasionally about giving more people more ways to share what they (and often only they) know, outside of the control of government. HOWEVER – it’s also sometimes about empowering those who don’t know. So be savvy in deciding what you believe, and don’t trust instant experts on Iran.

Finally, the big message for me is that citizen organization using these new tools — making governing in the traditional manner increasingly difficult — is happening everywhere. We in the west are just fortunate enough to be able to deal with it through sitting in a circle and talking, rather than taking to the street and being greeted by riot police. But it’s a similar confrontation between self-organized citizens with new tools, and institutions that feel their power being threatened, as Shauna explained in her article for The Mark. The big question is: how will institutions respond?

NB: Canadians are at the forefront of the fight to make sure the Internet stays a useful tool for activists. Check out the G&M article on Psiphon at the University of Toronto, or

5 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink*
    June 29, 2009 10:34 pm

    This has certainly opened many people’s eyes to ways Twitter could be used other than inane and narcissistic pursuits. I had begun to recognize its value as a B2B or NPO networking tool, but I never would have imagined the instant and widespread proliferation and common purpose that it attained in this post-election protest.

    I wonder though about the strategic effectiveness of Twitter-like platforms in future protest situations. Sadly, I have to question that with its ease of use and ubiquity, is it not especially vulnerable to being used as a tool for disinformation?

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    June 23, 2009 7:50 pm


    Another superb post – well organized, clear, and invaluable to a luddite, “Twitter” phobe like me (did i get that right?) That you link “Twitter” (i can’t say it straight up, even now – the very name calls forth the insipid) to the shocking complicated and troubling events in Iran is masterful. I needed to read this. I had no idea about “hashtags” and i liked the way you spelled out the tool’s implications for social action. The piece reminded me of this old quote from a luddite’s luddite who actually was probably cutting edge, John Ruskin:

    “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.”

    Hmmm. Not sure why i thought of that but i did. r


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