Twitter to the people

John C. Tanner
24 Jun 2009

Since its inception, Twitter has a favorite whipping boy for dozens of columnists and bloggers who cheerfully blast it as a big fat useless waste of everyone's time and proof that the Web is clogged with people who have absolutely nothing to say - and are saying it in short bursts 24/7.

More recently, that Harvard Business Review study which found 10% of Twitter users account for 90% of tweets, gave Twitter critics further ammo to show that it's not really all that popular anyway, "proving" that it's just another overhyped Web 2.0 fad and you were all fools for ever thinking it was important (especially you, Time magazine).

But now as Iran faces its largest political unrest since 1979 and the government has clamped down on the traditional local media and kicked out most of the foreign media and sequestered the rest in their hotels, it's Twitter people are utilizing to get the word out on what's happening - and it's Twitter that people outside of Iran are turning to in order to find out what\'s going on.

Even CNN is following the #iranelection tweets (although not very well, according to Andrew Sullivan - to say nothing of #cnnfail).

Let's be clear. Anyone who uses this to say that Twitter is the new journalism is wrong - or at least getting carried away. Because it's not. As has already been pointed out, one of Twitter's biggest flaws has been the ease of setting up fake IDs - good for anonymous posting, bad when you're trying to make sense of what's going on and can't tell the official or reliable sources from the fakes (let alone the misinformed and/or the rumormongers), some of whom may be from the opposition feeding disinformation into the system. And journalism relies on reliable sources for its info (at least in principle).

If that's the case, perhaps tapping into the Twitterstream is a matter of filtering out the reliable from the unreliable - which people like Robin Sloan are attempting to do with aggregation sites to help people make sense of it all. That's assuming that aggregators like Sloan know what they're doing.

That's easier said than done, obviously, and may not be much help to people in Iran, where the web is already heavily censored, and even more so right now as the government realizes that protesters are leveraging all sorts of social networking sites to report what they see and post cam-phone pics and videos of it.

Either way, to dismiss the Iranian Twitter phenomenon as bad journalism misses the point. The real point is the power of "crowdsourcing" that we've seen before, from natural disasters like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and Hurricane Katrina to the Mumbai terror attacks last year.

Crowdsourcing has also been seen in less publicized events similar to the current Iran situation like post-election violence in Kenya, which also involved a media blackout. In response to that, volunteers developed the Ushahidi platform that gathers reports by mobile phone, email and the web, and maps them on GoogleMaps.

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