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Twittering the revolution

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Friday, Apr 10, 2009

This post (via 3QD) from Josh Tucker reminds that my reaction to new media like Twitter is often pretty parochial. I tend to imagine only Americans using it, and then only the sort of urban Americans who are invested in being part of the tech cognoscenti, the sort of people who need to crowdsource their afterparty plans. Tucker points out that Twitter works effectively as a low-cost walkie-talkie server for oppressed people/guerrilla groups organizing social protests.


The events unfolding in Moldova, however, suggest that internet-based social networking tools that were not even present during the original colored revolutions, such as Facebook and especially Twitter, may also be able to play a very valuable role in allowing even loosely organized opposition networks to coordinate protest activity. To the extent that a constant stream of Twitter posts increases any individual’s confidence that there will be more protestors in the street at a particular place at a particular point in time, it should also serve to lower the perceived costs of participation to potential protestors.



  
The more people there are, the less likely you will be singled out for post-unrest beatings—though I would want to make sure my protest-faction Twitter account was pretty solidly anonymized. I suspect repressive governments will get wise to this, and shutting down cellular phones and wi-fi hubs if possible will become fundamental riot-police actions. Could there be a clandestine Twitter? How many Twitter messages are currently in spy code? (“The gray owl flies at dawn. Seek the pale stranger at the cafe with no faces.”)


But this post made me realize how distracted I’d become by the lingo and branding associated with Twitter. It hadn’t occurred to me before that it was essentially an internet walkie-talkie system and nothing more—the business about sharing what you are doing and providing status updates so on is just window dressing, not the essence of the service. I still think Twitter will ultimately reach is apotheosis as a personalized advertising medium, providing us a stream of demographically and geographically targeted information to help us remember to want things. But in its transitionary phase, it works to teach us the joys of nonreciprocal communication with an audience that becomes less and less differentiated as we grow accustomed to the medium and expand our reach. Already I’m slipping away from the revolutionary potential Tucker hints at, back toward Western narcissism—probably because it is hard for me to imagine ordinary people needing walkie-talkies. (Just think of those douchebags who use push-to-talk services when they are on elevators, like they are A.D.‘s on the set of the movie of their life.) I guess Twitter can be used to organize radical activity, but nothing in the medium is likely to radicalize its users. It’s more likely that using the service the way it is designed to be used will coarsen and simplify one’s discourse and encourage a bizarre and unnecessary self-importance.

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