Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Come on, professor

In a valentine to Twitter on the TED blog, NYU Prof. Clay Shirky declares that social media (especially Twitter) have exposed developments following the Iranian elections as never before.

[T]his is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. I've been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted "the whole world is watching." Really, that wasn't true then. But this time it's true ...

I think it's fantastic that we have TWitter and outher sources, and like cellphones (and faxes before them) social media surely are wonderful tools for self-organizing response.

It takes nothing away from those facts to call "bullshit" on his contention, however.

The 1968 Chicago riots were carried live on all three American television networks for an audience of at least 50 million people in this country alone.

There are about a million Twitter users.

Come on, professor.


  1. Hold on, now, HW -- I don't think anyone is saying that the whole world is following directly on Twitter. It's a relay of information, from Twitter to blogs, TV, newspapers, etc., to the rest of the world. Don't you think there's SOMEthing to that?

  2. Haha...nice one.

  3. Anonymous3:30 PM

    An argument could be made, however, that Twitter and other social media open an American audience to overseas events as never before. The Chicago riots may have been watched by 50 million people, but if the Iranian riots were taking place in 1968, no one would pay any attention. Now, the largely-American Twitter users can watch the Iranian situation unfold in real time.

    In addition, we can't really compare the current world order and national attention-span to that of 1968 - 50 million people watched in part because there were only three channels and they were all showing the same thing. Remarkable, yes, but it is far more difficult now for the whole world to be watching, with so many other things vying for their attention.

    Meanwhile, the Chicago rioters could not communicate to each other beyond the reach of their own voices, while Twitter is allowing the Iranians to coordinate their efforts in front of us. I've never seen this kind of interest in something taking place on the other side of the world among people who rarely pick up a newspaper. That, to me, might qualify as "never before."

  4. I think you're off on your Twitter user count. According to a recent TechCrunch post, had 17.6 million unique visitors in May (which doesn't count app users), and by one count, 11.5 million registered users. Click my name for applicable link.

    True, it's not the 50 million-plus TV audience, but it's growing. It doesn't validate Shirky's argument either, but I'm just sayin'...

  5. I used a quick scan on techmeme myself to cite a million; clearly it's growing very fast and there are surely many more than that. That said, it's a tough number to pin down; for one thing, one study concluded that as many of 60% of the people who register as users never return to Twitter a second time. Whatever the total potential audience, only a fraction of them (I'd guess a small fraction) will follow Iran news. Much of the information is contradictory, and thus at least some of it must be false.

    But 50 million watched live coverage of Chicago 1968.

    Importantly, my point most certainly is NOT that Twitter isn't important, or that it hasn't played a genuine role in Iranian events. I said so above. I love it; I've tweeted more than 3,800 times, follow 200 people and am followed by several times that many.

    I just get tired of sloppy thinking and outrageous claims; the biggest proponents of the hottest Big New Thing at the moment (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter ...) seem to be among the worse abusers.

    Tim, as noted above, I do indeed think there's a great deal to it. But Shirky is the one who wanted to use Chicago 68 vs Iran 2009 as his example, and he's just wrong.

  6. True, but what you have are a million broadcasters. That has never been seen.

  7. I think the point about Twitter is not just the people who read it on their website (approx 17m) but the fact that it is a conduit for the people on the ground to get the word out.

    The main stream media is using the reports from twitter to inform their stories which they then broadcast around the world.

  8. The analogy to live video on TV in '68 is near-live clips on YouTube in '09. Its not everyone seeing the same thing at once any more, its a flood of videos from the streets overwhelming the state censors and propogating round the world in parallel, providing the sources for many newscasts seen by millions.

  9. Is your only issue with Shirky that he said the whole world wasn't watching in '68/is watching now?

    If that's your issue - you're right. "Watching" is a problematic verb here. But the rest of Shirky's argument is spot-on.

    Twitter has a number of things going for it as a medium that, in combination, are allowing for a new set of dynamics - between the Iranian dissidents, the ruling government, the media, and otherwise uninvolved individuals.

    One thing that's very different is the operation of the ambient intimacy that Twitter allows. The level of engagement that otherwise uninvolved Twitterers are feeling is palpably higher than it has seemed to be in similar situations without Twitter. (I'd love to know if someone is measuring/testing this, and how.)

    Another thing that's very different is that Twitter is enabling otherwise uninvolved people to take small but potentially meaningful actions in support of the protesters. We'll be spending a long time debriefing, studying and determining best practices about how to do this - right now it's a giant experiment. But the capacity to take action, from the useless-but-encouraging end of the spectrum (changing your avatar green) to the middle (setting your location/time to Tehran to increase the data set that the ruling government has to sort through to find protesters) to the genuinely helpful (setting up and guarding proxies and other means of support) are new.

    So I agree: watching is the wrong word. People were watching in '68. What's unique here is that the world is moving beyond passive watching. Otherwise non-involved people are engaged in a large-scale experiment in crowdsourcing support for democracy. No matter what happens in Iran (though I care passionately what happens there) a world community is being, for the first time, called to action, educated, trained, engaged, attacked, tested, forced to invent and reinvent itself on the fly, via Twitter.

    There are folks I deeply respect who say the focus on Twitter is inappropriate. Real people in Iran are taking their future into their hands and risking our lives while here in America we are contemplating technology. I can appreciate this viewpoint (and one of the things I most appreciated about the interview was that Shirky said that it feels wrong to be tweeting about anything else right now.) But I don't think I agree. Two very important things are happening here, simultaneously. They're both worthy of our attention. Hopefully, anxiously, I'm following Iranian protesters, sharing information, learning how I can help. And hopefully, excitedly, I'm watching the birth of a new and powerful tool that has the potential to be as influential as the printing press was in its time.

  10. Anonymous7:30 PM

    Howard, you are right on.
    What is magical about this moment is *not* those of us who are watching, in whatever numbers.
    What's magical is how people use new tools in new ways to get their message out, despite all manner of obstacles.
    It is, as Howard Rheingold so eloquently Twittered, the "smartmobbery" that makes this a moment to behold.

  11. Mark Paul9:39 PM

    Anonymous doesn't think the world would have paid attention to the Iranian riots in 1968? Maybe not. But only because the world was too glued to its television sets watching the general strike in France and the Soviet tanks roll into Czechoslovakia. (Yes, kiddies, American television actually used to understand there was a world outside Beltway and Hollywood.)

    The new communication platforms with global reach give us the ability to hear individual Iranian voices in a way that wasn't possible with the revolutionaries of 1968. But I don't think it's true that they "open an America audience to overseas events as never before." I suspect that the number of Americans getting overseas information through Facebook and Twitter is more than offset by the loss of broadcast and newspaper coverage of the world. Can more than one American in ten explain the nature of the contest in Iran? Hell, can one in ten even find Iran on the map?

  12. The numbers of tweeters/followers may not be equal to the 1968 Chicago viewer numbers. But viewers in 1968 got only 3 perspectives -- ABC, NBC, and CBS. With Twitter thousands of tweets from thousands of people combine to produce a multi-faceted portrait of an event that 3 networks could not provide if they tried. Plus, network coverage is banned in Iran now, so that is not an option. We saw China cut off CNN before the Tiananmen crackdown. Twitter is harder to kill apparently.

    Shirky may be overly enthusiastic about Twitter vs. network in 1968, but Twitter provides more user input, more perspectives, more feet on the street than network or other news organizations combined could possibly provide. The genius of Twitter is the social net, not just the info.

  13. This is nice link bait, but I don't think it's serious. Maybe Clay Shirky's comparison with 1968 is off ad his language needs to be more precise, but we do have something happening here that's new and really significant.

    1. What we are following is happening in an autocratic society where the government wants to lock down information. They used to be able to succeed at that, they can't now. That's new.

    2. Regular people are following regular people. It's one thing to watch on TV, its another to have someone in the middle of the crowd (in Tehran no less) sending messages to me, in my office. I have a direct link with an actor on a stage in Tehran. That's new.

  14. I concur with L Teo....."what you have is a million broadcasters"....and what you have are 100's of millions of daily viewers of these recent events in Iran tuning in from all over the world. All over the planet people are reading and viewing news directly from the streets of Tehran from actual participants in these historical events. Those who are witness to history are reporting it to a world audience.

    In 1968 I was 16 years old and was watching coverage of the Democratic convention when the camera caught the street crowd chanting. That was turned into a video snippit that played on the nightly news for a few more nights before it ended up in a video tape vault. The population of the country was 185 million in 1968. 50 million was the number of TV sets. Of those how many do you think were tuned to the news for those few nights in 1968? Give me a break. Measure it in millions. Under 15 million on the outside. The vast majority of the country never saw the video. There was no method to re-view the videos. The event was hearsay to the bulk of the country.

    In comparison....a world in tuning into the internet to see and replay the video and text accounts to the history being made in the streets of Tehran as it unfolds. These viewers in turn broadcast what they have seen to friends and associates. Do you truly believe that out of a planet of 6 billion people there are not at least 2% or more of the people aware of these events and/or following the events daily via email, youtube, twitter, facebook, friendfeed, SMS, cellphone reports, and then the subsequent TV coverage......that 2% is120 million...larger than the population of a western Euro nation.

    So I think Shirky is on the right tract. Although, maybe he should have used the nightly news broadcasts of film and commentary from Vietnam as his comparison....7 years of those nightly broadcasts stopped a war and changed a nation. The whole world did see those broadcasts... night after night.

  15. Michael --

    Well, to start with, words matter. What Shirky said was wrong, and he said it forcefully in defense of his main argument. It needs to be called.

    1. Shortwave radios, then satellite TV, direct dial telephones and faxes helped people in the autocratic Soviet Union and east bloc nations through off authoritarian regimes. What's happening today is a refinement of a well-recognized process that has been under way for a couple of decades. It's wonderful -- but it's not new.

    2. Regular people are following regular people AND Iranian secret police masquerading as regular people, and people who don't know anything about what they're talking about and etc etc. Again, I wil applaud the advances represented here, but please don't be naive enough to think you are connecting only with the actors on the stage.

  16. The thing that concerns me about social media is that it's hit-or-miss. Even if there were 50 million Twitter users, only a handful would be likely to use the same sources. It is impossible to channel every voice out there. The major platforms are best for comprehensive interpretations based on the most information possible.

  17. Mark Paul9:24 PM

    Tweetium says only 15 million people saw the video of the police riot at the 1968 Chicago convention. But according to Nielsen ( 16 million homes watched the convention. Figure two people per home, plus all the people who didn't watch the convention but saw the news (and in those days the tape would have played on local news as well as national), and it's likely that tweetium is off by a factor of three, as Howard said. It may not have been true that, as the demonstrators chanted, "the whole world is watching," but far more people watched events in Chicago in 1968 than have seen the events in Tehran.

    I'm a reasonably informed person who uses Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, etc., but I've not seen any pictures or video of the Iran events except in my newspaper. Human attention is a constant. When there were limited channels, huge chunks of the population got the same news about a few things. As the wired world multiplies the number of channels for information, we still take in the same amount of news, but the attention is spread over a much larger array of things. The new technologies help more people communicate about more things, but they also make it less likely that large segments of societies will have a set of common understandings and experiences. Things are different today but not necessarily better.