Thursday, June 18, 2009

If you can't beat 'em, Or the ubiquitous Twitter post

It all started with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

An online event titled "ONLINE DISCOURSE IN THE ARAB WORLD: Dispelling the Myths" was hosted by the US Institute of Peace Center of Innovation for Science, Technology and Peacebuilding, in partnership with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society on June 17th.

The discussion began with a presentation of the Berkman's Center mapping report on the "arabic blogosphere".

Download the Berkman Center's report "Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent" here, if you'd like. An interesting enough idea, but there were limitations on the study that were immediately apparent-- dialects of various arabic languages were not considered for one, and the use of labels such as "arab", "fundamentalist", "radical" and "terrorist", which despite being carefully coded by the Berkman Center, didn't sit well with a large number of the online participants as well as with some of the panelists. The study focused on blogs, leaving out more embedded forms of social media-based interaction such as Facebook, and the still popular use of listservs and mailing groups.

I first logged into the embedded chat applet on the event page, but soon discovered that the real action was on Twitter, with folk using the hashtag #arabblogs to discuss the Eventbrite-based goings on.

In about 3.5 minutes, was born.

Tweeting for the first time was a strangely nostalgic exercise. It reminded me of the good ol' days of downloading music and chatting on WinMx: less words used yes, but the same back-and-forth, the same endorsement, reaction and attribution cycle where multiple players share center stage for short bursts of time.

Those using the chat applet took time developing questions, forged temporary relationships with other users, made introductions and exchanged contact information at the end.

Those tweeting stuck to reacting to the panelists and each other much in the fashion of these lads, and rightly so. There wasn't enough time or a sufficient character limit to establish much more than disapproval or approval of a statement. There were a few points made by folk in their twitter feeds however, which ranged from the angle of the camera used to record and relay the panel discussion to the fact that it was an all-male discussion on blogging in the Arab world, when it is self-evident that a majority of arab bloggers are in fact female. Tweets added biographical information about the panelists and references they made for the edification of others, who then RTed this same information again, and again. The camera angle was righted, but no one got back to the point about the lack of female representation. Perhaps the 140 character limit made it impossible to explain.

On June 21st, Bruce Etling and John Palfrey of the Berkman Center-- speakers at the USIP event-- together with Robert Faris published a WaPo article on the role of twitter in the Iran election protests, stating the following:

... Twitter's own internal architecture puts limits on political activism. There are so many messages streaming through at any moment that any single entry is unlikely to break through the din, and the limit of 140 characters -- part of the service's charm and the secret of its success -- militates against sustained argument and nuance. (Yes, "Give me liberty or give me death" totals just 32 characters, but Patrick Henry's full speech exceeded 1,200 words.) What's most exciting is the aggregate effect of all this speech and what it reveals about the zeitgeist of the moment, but it still reflects a worldwide user population that skews wealthy, English-speaking and well-educated. The same is true of the blogosphere and social networks such as Facebook.

The authors then refer to the USIP event and say--

If dissent is channeled into cyberspace, it can keep protesters off the streets and help state security forces track political activism and new online voices. As Egyptian democracy activist Saad Ibrahim said last week during a
discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, this appears to be part of a long tradition for governments in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, where dissent is channeled into universities and allowed to thrive there, as long as it does not escape the university walls.

It's not a particularly conclusive piece-- All that Etling, Palfrey and Faris say is that revolutions aren't fought online, though attempts at supporting or quelling it can be made online.

Fair enough.

It's interesting to note the roots for the word 'Twitter', etymologically speaking-

to reproach, blame; originally, to observe, see, hence, to observe what is wrong... To vex by bringing to notice, or reminding of, a fault, defect, misfortune, or the like; to revile; to reproach; to upbraid; to taunt; as, he twitted his friend of falsehood.
A whole cyber sky-full of those iconic little blue winged buggers then, worrying and picking at some large issue till even more folk take notice and some "real action" takes place, "on the ground".
Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking - Stephen Hawking. Who also, apparently, tweets.