Now that the refrains of "Twitter Revolution" and "the first uprising powered by social media" are fading into the distant memory that is 24 hours ago, we can start debating what impact, if any, it had (or is still having) on events in Iran.
Social movements are, well, social, by their very definition; people have been agitating and acting together since the platform tools to do so were quill pens, inkwells, and whispering in one another's ears. Nothing new there. So the first question to ask is whether new media changed the conduct or outcomes of the social event itself (i.e. in Iran).
I'm not sure it did. Residents of Tehran used technology to make one another aware of the protests that emerged last week, but the activities were hardly oblique secrets. If there was a flashmob component to the marches, it was an extension of what could have been accomplished by other communications means; faster, perhaps, but not fundamentally different.
Did real-time posts convince otherwise disinterested people to get involved? Perhaps. Will it have made a long-term impact on perceptions and beliefs among non-participants? Very possibly. But again, these are impacts that could be achieved by any communications medium. There’s nothing interactive or social about it.
It's interesting that despite the use of social media, copycat protests didn't immediately emerge in other Iranian cities. There's no way of assessing that as a failure of social media, the success of the government's clampdown on it, or the simple fact that interest in political disobedience was limited to the folks in Tehran. Those ex-Tehran protests started over the weekend, and could have been prompted by messages carried by donkey.
The thought-experiment riffs on the above are really intriguing, but I'm not sure they reveal anything. So what if George Washington's troops had tweeted about their suffering at Valley Forge, or the Mensheviks had similarly described the cruelty of their Bolshevik brethren. Would subsequent events have turned out differently?
Such analogies are less illustrative tool, and more unanswerable question; there are lots of variables that separate "awareness" from "behavior," and the latest figures on social media usage suggest that the vast majority of people tend to like to watch, not act.
Now, what about the impact social media have had on everyone else's experience?
This is a tougher issue to deconstruct. We all saw the unmediated content of the protests as it was recorded at ground zero, but what did we learn? Without context, they were just snippets from a narrative that escaped us. The "voices" we heard from were qualified by their desire to be heard, and not any other authority; we got first-person opinion, not anything even close to first-hand reporting.
In fact, social media didn't tell as much as it prompted interpretation; what little we learned directly originated in immediacy, and didn't necessarily lead to understanding. We know no more today than we did when the crisis started. We've just known less quicker.
And then there's the question of what we’ve done with that information. Not much, from as far as I can tell. Our participation, as spectators of events in Iran, amounts to a lot of tsk-tsking. Have people patched together imagery, or timelines, or otherwise assemble the bits of information into coherent pictures (literally and figuratively)? Did that information get shared with the folks back in Tehran in truly social give-and-take?
Or is the big idea that we can color our Twitter profile pics green, to better show our support to, er, ourselves, as we watch the show?
If there's something really meaningful going on via social media right now, other than people trying to avoid the very real efforts of a very dangerous totalitarian theocracy that doesn't want its victims tweeting anybody, I want to know.
Ultimately, I'm an optimist, and I hope that social media would make more of a difference. Imagine if we'd had real-time tweets of ethnic cleansing in African or the Balkans, or abductees in our nation's rendition program could narrate their capture and transport. People might actually demand investigations, if not outright action. Or would they? Again, these tidbits of fact are no secret, and have been shared via blogs, web sites, snail mail, and printed agendas for major global meetings.
Here’s one for you: what if it were Florida in 2000? A candidate wins the popular vote (vs. the Iranian pretender losing by 20 million or so), and then a court made up of unelected lifers decides that the other guy won. I wonder if there'd been tweets of the protesters there would have been more protests...or a greater popular uprising?
We can get thrilled about the events in Iran being a social media phenomenon, but they aren't. They were, and are, a reality phenomenon, and waxing poetic on the communications aspect of its description takes away from what's really going on. It could be a minor blip in the history that dictatorship, or a country-changing event.
Social media won't be responsible for either outcome.