America popularized Madonna, Oprah, and Tiger, but now we are seeing the development of a new brand of single-named celebrities whose local actions result in a global impact. Through free technologies like YouTube and Twitter, a decade’s worth of innovation within the U.S. information technology sector has given the world Neda, an Iranian woman who has come to represent political change for the people of her nation. Like President Obama, few people in the world had heard of Neda two years ago, but nevertheless, like our president, she has emerged as the symbol of a movement.
In the middle of recent heated protests over election results – believed by some to be manipulated by parties loyal to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – Neda Agha-Soltan’s fatal June 20th shooting became a rallying cry. “Neda” has become synonymous with the protest movement, not only in the physical world but also in the virtual one, as she and the events surrounding her were among the most popular topics discussed on the Internet in June.
People have inspired protest movements before, but what has recently shifted in society is the rapidity with which the world receives information, evidenced in the near immediate spread of the news of Neda’s sacrifice. Internet tools like Fickr and Facebook, developed half a world away, brought her tragedy into every household willing to look.
Perhaps equally profound is that this popularized movement represents a minority viewpoint, yet Iran has over a dozen cities of over 500,000 inhabitants. This situation is roughly equivalent to violent protests over the 2000 Bush-Gore election, confined mainly to New York City. As Matt Bigge, the CEO of Strategic Social in Silicon Valley explained, “People all over the [Islamic Republic of] Iran may not be thrilled with the current government, but outside of the capital there is very limited appetite for risking life and limb for regime change… yet this is how a vocal minority can influence the world’s media and leaders while having little in the way of broad national support.” Or, in the words of Washington-based human rights attorney Lily Mazahery, “Technology has proven mightier than the sword.”
Localized minorities can now develop global support because, unlike in the physical world, virtual protest supplements have low transaction costs due to simple, free technologies enabling simultaneous reading, writing, and publishing. One person can become very powerful with a single mobile phone, and social tools like Twitter amplify their textual and visual messages. Though the process of “re-tweeting,” in which messages are iteratively repeated, information about celebrity deaths, natural disasters, and election protests spreads exponentially across national and cultural borders, where it is viewed, debated, and commented on – and then shared again.
Why is Twitter seemingly taking the world by storm just now, despite being founded in 2006? To some degree, this is a question of network science. As a network grows, the number of “soft connections” (acquaintances of interest, talked to infrequently yet still occasionally important) grows as well. More people participating results in more powerful information proliferation.
Noted scholar Andrew McAfee has written that Twitter’s popularity is not due to the invention of a game-changing technology, but rather to the aggregation of many valuable behavioral actions: Users can tweet short bursts of information from the Web, text messages, or special programs, give credit for good ideas, add links to outside information, create categories of data, and share information with many people not necessarily known to the author.
The post-election demonstrations in Iran are not the first time Twitter and other social technologies have been used to globally spread information about local events, offering real-time news-ready bits and bytes. Much like the events in Iran, the Russia-Georgia conflict, the terror attacks in Mumbai, the Israeli incursion into Gaza, and election protests in Moldova simultaneously unfolded in both the physical and virtual worlds. This complicates things for leaders in other countries, particularly oppressive, closed regimes, where there seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition with regard to cracking down on social media tools.
For the State Department and other U.S. government operations, figuring out how social media amplifies local issues into global ones requires more than knowing how to blog. Even as mainstream media sources had difficulties reporting from Tehran, the State Department was successfully reaching out to Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey to delay scheduled maintenance of the site that would have prevented anyone from sending tweets anywhere in the world.
In the “wild west” of social media, low barriers to entry, lack of user authentication, unlimited personal accounts, and lack of penalties for misuse lead to fake accounts spreading propaganda and even arresting people who tweet against authority. But it’s not clear who in the government is in charge of monitoring and influencing this world of information-sharing. While the Pentagon recently set up a “cyber command” for waging digital warfare against unconventional enemies, and the GovTwit directory lists over 1,500 people associated with the government using Twitter, a recent report from the National Defense University points out that policies governing use of such communications technologies for work purposes are often somewhat murky.
Nevertheless, the vibrant Washington technology community employs more people than anywhere else in the country. Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategyLabs in Dupont Circle, commented, “We’ve seen that relatively large events like Twin Tech, Government 2.0 Camp, and the upcoming Gov 2.0 Summit that bring together social technology-savvy individuals for a short period of time actually generate irreversible long term change. In the same way, connections made possible by social technology during the Iranian election demonstrations will persist and change the shape of Iran, with much more important implications.”
There are excellent senior leaders in Washington bridging the gap between the technology and government communities. Colleen Graffy, former deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy at the State Department, used Twitter to network with Washingtonians (I first met her at a “tweet-up” – a gathering organized entirely via Twitter) while preparing to utilize social media on a global tour. And despite U.S. domestic criticisms, mainstream media abroad found that by following Graffy’s thoughts in a virtual space, they felt closer to her when they met her in a physical one. Now, the tradition of strong new media leadership continues in Foggy Bottom with the addition of Alec Ross as senior advisor for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and people like Jack Holt, senior strategist for emerging media at the Department of Defense.
One major issue of discussion within the federal government is how to harness new media technologies to communicate with the world’s diverse peoples. Decades ago, we created Radio Free Europe for a similar purpose, and to this day it provides independent information to countries where non-state media is generally limited and information flows are stifled. In an era of nearly ubiquitous mobile phones, is the new social technology movement a sign that the U.S. government should found and support a formal “Digital Free Europe” for countries like Iran, China, Georgia, Pakistan, Cuba, and Venezuela?
Thinking more broadly about the impact of social media on the operations of government and society, try to imagine this: What would Americans have done with current social technologies during the Bush vs. Gore controversy on election day November 7, 2000 and the uproar that followed? In the end, things may have turned out exactly the same, or remarkably different – it’s impossible to say. What is certain is that if we had our current tools then, the process by which we reached a national conclusion would have been starkly different. And so it goes for Iran in 2009.
“Twitter’s got all kinds of hustlers on it, you know what I’m sayin’?” So said rock star Wyclef Jean at the recent “140 Character Conference” in Manhattan. It’s not often that a tool like Twitter gets its own conference (Were there cell phone conferences?) but this broadcast text messaging platform from California has taken the country, and indeed some of the world, by virtual storm. There are many kinds of hustling happening not only on the streets of cities like Washington but also within the increasingly complex online social graph. Whether reps from companies marketing products, spam artists, or political operatives, people are using technologies like Twitter to influence what people think, where they go on the Web, and what ads they look at or products they buy when they get there. A new generation of digital “Mad Men” is upon us, and they are affecting you whether you’ve realized it or not, directly or indirectly.
Authenticity of people, companies and brands on Twitter is a current topic of great interest, since the social graph is based on trust among interacting people. There are few rules that govern the use of social technologies, and cybercriminals and other mischief-makers have already taken advantage of this. Ironically, as user networks grow, they become more powerful not just for benign users but malicious ones, too. How do you know who to trust?
Best-selling author of The Alchemist Paulo Coelho, an embracer of emerging communications technologies (he has been using them to get more information about Air France #447) and a supporter of the opposition movement in Iran, dealt with this question recently. As it happens, his friend Dr.Arash Hejazi was directly involved in helping Neda after she was shot, and an acquaintance of the doctor’s was ultimately responsible for sharing the video of what happened with the world. What happened next is intriguing – Coelho was attacked by some bloggers after posting the information on his website, as they claimed that not only he didn’t know the doctor, but also that the nothing actually happened to Neda; they were attacking the authenticity of the information. I spoke withCoelho by email shortly after he posted this, and he told me that the spread of digital misinformation was, “the major danger of the Web.”
Is writing something on Twitter “publishing” in the formal sense of the word? This is an open question whose answer will eventually butt up against concerns about authenticity, attribution,plagarism, and satire. Even relatively un-famous me has an impersonator on Twitter. Right now it’s relatively innocuous and identifies itself as “fake” – but couldn’t it turn on me at any moment? The real issue is not me perse , of course, but the person running for Mayor in a small city, the community activist trying to mobilize people around a cause, and the founder of a new charity that’s requesting your money. When open communication has become globally local, where does one draw the line between famous and infamous, public and private? Who is a “well known individual at risk of impersonation”? I’d argue that to some extent we all are – and ironically, Twitter helped to make that possible.
As I wrote late last year it was inevitable that the media and celebrity elite would start to use – and monopolize popularity on – Twitter. And this prediction has come true – whereas six months ago the top 100 most popular people using the service were mainly “geek heroes” that were early adopters of the service, the same list is now dominated by household celebrity names.
Some, like Ashton Kutcher are personable and connect extremely well with fans. Others, like Lauren Conrad from MTV’s The Hills, are provide some value to followers but not very interactive, and still others like comedian Russell Brand wildly converse in nanobursts but in the end say very little in sum. Some celebs, like Ellen Degeneres have tweets that are almost completely self-interested and they sometimes don’t tweet for days at a time, making it hard to connect with them.
As far as Washington celebrity is concerned, some writers like Chris Cillizza from the Washington Post have gone so far as to advise Members of Congress to avoid the technology entirely, suggesting that the costs of openness can easily outweigh the benefits. At the same time, prominent users like the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq use the service to microshare thoughts on a regular basis, even as their lives are potentially in danger.
For average people who may be successful but less widely known, microcelebrity via the Internet can sometimes seem like little more than narcissism, yet having a “personal brand” presence online can result in getting an unlisted job, being “on the list” for an event, and writing a magazine article in an area of your expertise (case in point: try Googling my name). Utilizing social media tools in an entrepreneurial spirit takes technological skill, social networking savvy, and a bit of uniqueness to stand out in a sea of people. The process is social, which means it’s inherently a give-and-take – you should provide value to others, particularly strangers who might be interested in things you’re doing, and conversely the community should provide some value to you, in an asynchronous, indirect way.
Social technologies are very new, so it’s not too late to start using them. And there’s plenty of free advice for those willing to look for it. Who knows, maybe you too will become “Internet famous.”