Posted Tuesday, June 23, 2009, at 9:42 AM
According to the social media analytics company Sysomos, there were 19,235 Twitter users in Iran on Sunday ; this in a country of 70 million. Some 93 percent of those accounts were in Tehran. Presumably those users are young, wealthy, and worldly. As Elizabeth Lazar implies in her solid Double X piece on Guatemala , reading the world off Twitter is like peeking into a Connecticut prep school and claiming to have seen America.
I happen to be in Guatemala at the moment, so it’s pretty easy for me to imagine a place in which the vast majority of people live lives untouched by Google or Facebook. But in general it's pretty hard to imagine one’s way into a different social and technological context; far easier to conjure the college kid texting from Tehran than the family of Ahmadinejad supporters who lack indoor plumbing. From here the discussion over the Twitter Revolution, and the perhaps more fervent discussion over the fact that there is no such thing as the Twitter Revolution, looks to have little to do with actual events in Iran. (Add this post to that pile, I suppose.) Yet even those who acknowledge the conversation to be insular defend its existence. Ethan Zuckerman, one of those Harvard Internet "experts" Dahlia was talking about, says that despite Twitter’s anemic presence in Iran , it’s "helping people globally feel solidarity and it's keeping international attention on what's happening. It's giving people a sense of involvement that they otherwise wouldn't have, and I think that's very important."
But what if that sense of solidarity is built on an incomplete view of the country and a simplistic take on its political economy? And isn't there something childlike-something ever so slightly The Quiet American -about seeking "a sense of involvement" instead of acknowledging that there are limits to what outsiders can accomplish? I’m having trouble seeing the value in an illusory sense of efficacy.
On a different note, nearly every piece I’ve read about Twitter finds room to note how "banal" it is; I’m left wondering to what tweets are being compared. Are people’s water cooler conversations so much more riveting than this? There seems to be a much higher standard for small talk when it's typed rather than spoken.