This revolution won't be televised -- Twitter, cell phones will take care of it


Media has become a lot like Mother Nature: Like inclement weather, the onslaught of images is relentless and indiscriminate, impervious to our reactions and largely beyond our control. And as with Mother Nature, we really can't live without the media anymore as it has become a running commentary on our lives -- personal and collective.

Just in the past 10 days, we've been treated to some of the most troubling and exhilarating -- and no, I'm not talking about the scenes from Jon and Kate's disintegrating marriage. I'm talking about the protests in Iran, which have provided some of the most riveting media moments in memory.

Whatever happens as the standoff between the Iranian government and the opposition plays out, the events have thrown up one of the most potent images of the decade in the slain young woman Neda. At the same time, they've taken a fledgling media to the next level.

It's not just that the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who had gone out to participate in a demonstration against what likely was a rigged election, was senseless in its own right, but also that the almost instant e-mail of that 40-second bloody video to a handful of media outlets galvanized so many to take up the cause.

For those of us who remember the 1979 revolution in Iran, it was the implacable image of Ayatollah Khomeini that dominated our consciousness. It also was almost exclusively men we saw shaking their fists and shouting anti-American slogans. Were women present, they followed behind, encased in their chadors. They all looked old and angry (mostly at us).

This time around, the democratization of the media by technology has moved the goalposts. Yes, there has been a cat-and-mouse game in which Tehran authorities have tried to limit local Internet access and circumscribe the activities of foreign journalists, so far with only partial success. In 30 years, a new generation has come of age in the region, more open to the rest of the world and less willing to be shackled or shunted aside. This is especially true for women, who, like many of their sister cohorts in the Middle East, are chafing under whatever restrictions remain on their freedom.

Watching those blurry but compelling images from cell phones held up by demonstrators and relayed almost instantly to YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and more traditional news outlets worldwide, it is clear that the control of information has shifted from the few who still fancy themselves in power toward the many, who, with even a modicum of technological wherewithal, in spirit believe more in sharing than hoarding power.

Not to be Pollyanna-ish about it, but however this particular skirmish with authoritarianism ends, the guns of the Revolutionary Guards will count less going forward than the SIM cards in every teenager's phone.

To us here in the West, there is little doubt that Neda, whose name in Farsi means Voice, will be a symbol of liberty lodged in our collective psyche, while the present ayatollah in charge, Ali Khamenei, whose intransigent speech a week ago demonstrated how out of touch he is, will fade as just another grumpy old man in our mental slideshow of superannuated "supreme leaders."

Not that this is the first revolution in which media plays a key role. In 1688, during the so-called Glorious Revolution in England, pamphleteers came into their own and town criers got laryngitis spreading the news. During the so-called Carnations Revolution in Portugal in 1974 that saw the end of the oppressive Salazar regime, European print outlets provided the most insightful accounts; during the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, CNN International and several fledgling European news satcasters flexed their muscles.

But in Iran it mostly has been about Twitter, a medium that I had more or less decided was, as its name suggests, all about chirpiness. Clearly, I've been wrong: As hundreds of thousands of tweets pouring into newsrooms have made clear, this is an empowering medium that has global reach. The uprising in Iran might go down in the end as the Twitterized Revolution.

The tweets amplified the action, bringing more young people worldwide into the discourse than probably any traditional news outlet. U.S. newsrooms had to scramble to verify, or verify with different criteria, what they were receiving from these instantly anointed citizen journalists. The succinctness and immediacy of these reports -- and the technology's ease of use -- encouraged not only the Iranian diaspora but also a larger community to become engaged. It could be argued that the tilt and tone of President Obama's remarks on the protests shifted as a result of this Twitterized interactivity.

More mundanely, the fact that most U.S. TV news anchors are tweeting on air is advertising money can't buy for the privately held, venture-capital-backed social network.

Says analyst Tom Taulli, "If Twitter, which probably makes only a small amount of money, was, say, worth to a prospective buyer $250 million-$300 million a month ago, it wouldn't surprise me if its greater exposure now encourages some entity to step up and pay a billion or so for it."
comments powered by Disqus