These past days have been a fascinating time for those studying social media. Even as Iranian authorities continue to prevent most mainstream journalists from reporting on citizen protests, Twittering citizen reporters have been able to bypass government censorship to share events on the ground as they unfold. Many of their rapid-fire, 140-character dispatches are uncommonly empathetic, hyper-personal, and unforgiving, prompting even some of the more sober and astute observers of the Net’s impact on society to recently wax hyperbolic.
“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 a post titled, “The Revolution Will be Twittered.” “ …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.”
Meanwhile, political blogger Maegan Carberry told last week’s 140 characters 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 as wider and more personal communication among groups start to blur the political distinctions that authoritarian institutions of government have previously used to divide us and mute our penchant for dissent.
That statement followed remarks by NYU new media scholar Clay Shirky to TED interviewers earlier in the week that “we are living through the the largest increase in expressive capability in human history” and that the surge of Twitterized news reporting out of Iran has made the Iranian uprising historically unprecedented. “This is it. The big one,” he told TED. “This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.”
Iran, of course, isn’t the first world hotspot where social media have played an abrupt and interventionist role in focusing the world’s attention to urgent social causes and events happening on the ground. Text-messaging and vlogging (video-blogging) was instrumental in revealing government corruption around foreign aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis in Burma last year. Social media also helped to leak word out to the world about the pro-democracy uprising by Burmese monks, hardline censorship by Chinese authorities during last summer’s Beijing Olympics, and the extent of the devastation of the Chinese earthquake —details of which, says Shirky, would have otherwise taken months to go public.
But whoa, Nellie. Indeed, while Twitter with its velocity to spit out information can expose the undercurrents of dissent and the underbelly of corruption, hunger, and the abuse of power in often shocking detail, social media haven’t been able to drive those undercurrents of dissent, nor bring about widespread reforms—at least not yet. For every successful social media-fueled protest, such as the Facebook-fueled protests last year to destabilize FARC in Colombia, there are at least a dozen more digitized uprisings that end when authorities shut down the Net or, as in the case of the as-yet unmutable Twitter in Iran, track down the people whose tweets have been most prominent and revealing and “disappear” them, creating a chilling climate of self-censorship that all but cedes power to those abusing it.
More significant, perhaps, is how Twitter and other forms of social media are accelerating the rate at which events play out, regardless of outcome, and how that speed can be potentially destabilizing, in and of itself. Jason Calacanis, a social media entrepreneur and cofounder and CEO of mahalo.com, speaking on a panel I convened and moderated for the recent Milken Global Conference 2009 on social media and politics, said: “The good news is that the Internet is an accelerator, probably the greatest accelerator since the advent of the written word. 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 says, activists are better at the conversations spawned by social media because “those on the right side of society are the most willing to engage in conversation; when you’re on the wrong side of an issue, it’s very hard to be involved in a discourse because if you are involved in one, the quicker you get to the inevitability of being wrong.”
Just how much power, ultimately, social media can have will be debated again widely at next week’s Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan, which opens Monday with a late-addition workshop entitled “Social Media and Iran.” Such debates are likely to go on for months, if not years.
As Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey queried the a standing-room-only crowd of Twitterati at the 140 characters conference: “We have this brand new tool 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?”
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.