Sarah Milstein on Iranian Protests and Twitter

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Interview with Sarah Milstein

In this 10 minute interview with Sarah Milstein, co-author the Twitter Book, she discusses how Twitter is being used by Iranian protesters and how Twitter has accidentally created a system not easily overwhelmed or controlled by authorities. She also talks about the continued evolution of Twitter over the past few months. I ask her to contrast the reaction to Twitter during the Swine Flu with the reaction to Twitter during the recent events in Iran, and it is clear from her answers that as Twitter becomes more familiar to the general public the significance and meaning of the platform are constantly evolving. Milstein comments on whether Twitter is becoming more “serious”, and responds to the continued stream of stories by journalists who feel the need to pass judgment on this still-emerging communications platform. Milstein also discusses this week’s 140 characters conference in New York.

On the Iranian protests, Milstein is very deliberate to say that the powerful aspect of Twitter during the Iranian protests is that Iranians within the country were able to use it to communicate with one another and with those outside of the country. Toward the end of the interview, I ask Milstein to comment on inadvertent transparency in the context of a previous post by Brady Forest. The Iranian protests story this week was as much about facilitating communications as it was about making sure that protesters were not communicating unintended information to the Iranian government.

Another Twitter Backlash

In the continued reaction to the Iranian protests, we’re seeing a new surge of Twitter backlash. The last backlash occurred during the Swine Flu, a few days after the initial surge of Twitter activity, journalists felt obliged to point out Twitter’s uselessness in the face of the flu crisis. It appears that the same cycle is playing itself out this time. The difference this week is that Twitter is much more familiar to The Fourth Estate than it was just a few weeks ago. More journalists are approaching Twitter for what it is, a tool, like email, which allows individuals communicate with one another and less like a popularity contest. As I wrote previously, the often negative reaction of journalists to Twitter has more to do with unfamiliarity with the medium. If you follow the wrong people, Twitter is noise, if you stick with it, you refine your following list and it starts to make much more sense.

Persistent Twitter skeptics such as Morozov at Foreign Policy still regards Twitter as irrelevant to the current Iranian crisis noting that the Iranian regime has more important things to worry about than Twitter protests. Iran’s biggest weakness at this point is the unstoppable force of social media networks and instantaneous communications medium. These protests would not have reached a critical mass without collaborative, electronic, social media. By singling out Twitter, journalists oversimplify the picture making it easier to discount the power of this emerging medium by using a system with a silly name. These protests are facilitated by an entire technology stack which includes Twitter, cell phones with cameras, Facebook, SMS, YouTube, Google, Papillion’s anonymizing PHP Twitter gateway. Iranian colleagues have told me directly that Web 2.0 technologies are allowing them to communicate with other Iranians in way that were impossible a few years ago.

There are still many who think Twitter is a silly joke – a toy. Maybe it is the name that confuses them. The real power of Twitter isn’t the obvious communication it facilitates, it is in the technical success that they have achieved, the ability to support millions of simultaneous and instantaneous many-to-many messages was neither trivial nor obvious just two years ago. It is tempting to equate Twitter with Google, and although I consider them to be functioning on different scales (Twitter is tiny to Google’s massive influence and weight), I do think that both systems present a mirage of simplicity that masks a larger technical revolution within the data center. They’ve made a Herculean task seem so trivial and so easy, it is easy to write them off.

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