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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  • Thousands gather to mourn the deaths in Iran. Take a look at this clip with some amazing footage.

  • I spy hyperbole:

    “These protests would not have reached a critical mass without collaborative, electronic, social media.”

    During the last revolution the masses shouted to each other across the rooftops, and they are doing the same thing now. “Critical mass” has been achieved before without “collaborative, electronic, social media.” While it may be useful, Twitter, SMS, and other new shiny toys are in no way a prerequisite for the Iranian people to challenge their government.


  • @Daniel Howard, it is so easy for you to say that, but I wonder, have you spoken to an Iranian with family in the country? Do you know anyone with first hand knowledge of the situation. The people I’ve spoken too, Iranians mind you, have been very explicit about the fact that Twitter, facebook, SMS, have been much more than shiny toys.

    The man who recorded his colleague expiring from a gunshot wound sustained during a protest, do you think YouTube is just a “new shiny toy” to this man? What about the relatives outside of the country who heard from people in Iran only because they were able to break out of the country via an anonymous proxy. Is news of a loved one made less important because it came by way of a “shiny new toy”. It’s so easy to sit back and call this all a distraction.

  • Alex

    “Twitter has accidentally created a system not easily overwhelmed or controlled by authorities”

    As a social force, maybe. As an internet service, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Twitter and the internet at large are incredibly easy for the Iranian government to turn off. The internet infrastructure in the country is very centralized, as described by Renesys:

  • Twitter vs. Mahmud Ahmadineyad.

    And the «Twinner» is…


  • Tim,

    Alas, I rely on the New York Times for my information.[1] Just today:

    While it is easy to get the impression, from following English-language Twitter feeds, that Iranians who are unhappy about the official election results are communicating with each other non-stop through the Web, a source in Iran told The Lede that Twitter may be more important in getting information on events out to the world than as an organizing tool. This source asked 20 people at Thursday’s opposition rally in Tehran how they found out about it and not one of them learned about the rally through Twitter. People at the rally said that they still rely on text messaging and information posted on Farsi-language Web sites, not Twitter, which our source says is “primarily being used to communicate with the outside world.”

    At any rate, my assertion stands that people have been organizing rebellion and revolution against repressive governments for years, and even without these new toys the Iranian people would be and have been just as capable of revolution as anyone else. The current story is not about America, Twitter, Facebook, Web 2.0, or any of that. This story is about the People of Iran attempting to stand up and assert their will in the face of Autocracy.


  • Anonymous

    There is more to the story and the truth about the actual results of the election is very clear. I found it well documented here:

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