Sunday 28 February 2010

Irish Times Gloriously Missing the Point of Twitter

OK. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, mostly with the wind-down of Net Behaviour it has been necessary to pass my time setting up new businesses, and this has gone very well indeed. I’ll make some announcements to those who don’t already know when the time is right, and the sites are live etc.

Actually, to tell you the truth, I wrote this blog last week, and didn’t publish it. That’s how busy my life has become. And since then there has been the Chile earthquake, which further reinforced some of the points made here. Anyway. Apologies for the silence if you like this blog, and I promise to try harder in future. So, here it goes.

I’ve also been spending my bloggers muse writing for the Belfast Telegraph and Digital Times, so, I have actually been getting my bi-monthly copy out. I’ll tweet and Facebook links those pieces for those who are interested.


400 words, or a 140 character tweet weren’t sufficient to clarify my frustrations at a recent piece in the Irish Times disseminated by excellent @williewhite. I rarely get into Facebook comments banter, but I couldn’t believe how gloriously a recent Irish Times piece ‘The Revolution was Not Tweeted’ by Mary Fitzgerald missed the point of twitter, of the web even. She even missed the power of word of mouth. Ironically, the reason she wrote the piece undermined her argument considerably. You can read it here.

The logic of suffered from two common Irish errors. Dichotomy and exaggeration - Twitter will change the world for everyone, versus it has does not change anything and the hype was wrong. It also suffered from taking too few examples and not taking a sufficiently broad and historical view of change in the world of media and communications. There was also, I felt, a further typically Irish crime of begrudgery at success and fame, or in this manifestation, dislike of technology driven hype.

It was clear to me that Fitzgerald has missed the tectonic shift in social and political communication that twitter has become, not because it is clever programming but because it is simple, easy to use and it’s so popular.

I’ll ask a question. What does it really mean for a world where you cannot stop people from talking and being heard? The question doesn’t seem to make sense even, but just 30 years ago, it did. That’s how far we’ve come. Gone are the days of the power of a state to control the knowledge of that state and their understanding of world beyond. To mould millions of minds into doing dreadful things such as joining the Nazi party or committing genocide. I’m reminded of the fact that during the Falkland’s war, it took 21 days for the sinking of HMS Sheffield to reach the mainstream media in the UK and Ireland. 21 days! And that was only 1982. It would take 21 seconds today, if that, and it would be near impossible to stop the news getting out.

It is this sort of hype, or in my case, excited enthusiasm, that the Irish Times writer doesn’t like, but the facts remain true nevertheless.

The reasons cited for undermining this point of view was that... not everyone in Iran was on twitter during the recent protests against
Ahmadinejad’s ‘election’ and that most of the information shared was carried by word of mouth on telephones. I read this and thought... ‘Oh dear. Luddite alert!’

As I see it, all it takes is a very tiny group of people to have a credible but sharp view on truth, with a picture for example, and the balloon of propaganda will pop. Remember the picture of the naked girl running from the napalm bomb that is credited with bringing an end to the Vietnam war? Can you see the picture? If so, you must acknowledge how sharp was the tip of that pin. Perhaps you remember the picture of the mysterious girl with the green eyes from the front of National Geographic magazine, or the 95 theses (tweets?), or the tale of the girl who refused to leave a bus designated ‘whites only’. Or the picture of the dole queue with the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’ beneath it that swept Thatcher to power in 1979.

All of these single pieces of information consummated a tipping point in public opinion because they manifested an unassailable truth about an injustice. A truth that a million copywriters and spin doctors couldn’t fix. Job done! Truth out! Game over!

The difference between these images and slogans and acts and twitter is that the news that carried all of these pieces of content was carried on mainstream mass media. They had a ready-made audience and word of mouth, education and re-publishing took care of the rest.

This is where twitter and the re-tweet come in. It does not take everyone to be on twitter, or social networks for these to have an effect on a population or public opinion. That is ridiculous. All it takes is one person to write a slogan, or tweet, with perhaps a picture taking on a smartphone for inescapable truth it contains to be retweeted, and within hours the message can be carried the world over. This happened when the Boxing Day Tsunami hit. The pictures and films were amateur. The mainstream media were absent, or drowned, and amateur news became the only source of truth about the scale of the disaster for the mainstream media, and what it looked like. The rest of the job of sharing news and truth is done by word of mouth. ‘Isn’t it terrible’ conversations over a coffee, or ‘did you hear about so-and-so’ chatter over a pint. Phone conversations, texts and even jokes make news travel even quicker and make it some colour of fact. The same happened with Riverbend blogger during the first Gulf War.

So, I’d like to make the point that everyone does not have to be on twitter for twitter to be a total game changer. Every comment, every sentence, every tweet is in fact its own individual webpage, indexable, searchable and findable on search engines and endlessly shareable with thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of people. Word of mouth among social chatting, silly and interesting people is the point, not the instrument used for sharing that word of mouth. Word of mouth takes place online and offline of course, but you have to have something to talk about. Twitter can leak that truth, does and did in the days of the Iranian election.

In George Orwell’s 1984 the news came from a centralised location. This made the concept of ‘thought crime’ credible. Now news and information comes from a million points. The objective view of what happened is now contested. It’s no longer about your news source (twitter, irish Times, word of mouth), but how you use the news you get, like I’m doing here. I’ll tweet and Facebook a link to this blog and, with retweets I may reach a small group of perhaps few thousand. If I mention it the Belfast Telegraph, a few more. But how many of those who hear about this blog use twitter? Does it matter? Nope.

If it was 1982, or 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran, we’d know little or nothing about what happened during the days of the protests, and it would be as simple as it was then for Iranian spin doctors to hide the facts, and for the police to jail protesters. What is more, the protesters probably would not have had the courage that twitter gave those same Iranians in the past few months. Their actions were tweeted around the world, the riots were seen and Iranian injustice was unmasked leaving it open to sanctions, actions and influence. To the court of worldwide public opinion!

When people believe their story might not be heard and their words could get them jailed or killed they tend to be quieter. But when there is the tiniest breath (140 characters) of the oxygen of publicity, they gasp at it and let a roar. Iranians spoke and the world heard. So yes, the Revolution was Tweeted as all revolutions, large and small will be tweeted from here on in.