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Journalism in a Twitter era

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Ellen Goodman
June 25, 2009
— From time to time, a message pops into my e-mail announcing that someone is “Following You On Twitter.” In fact, I don’t go anywhere on Twitter, having signed up just to get squatter’s rights to my own name. I have enough trouble limiting my thoughts to 750 words, let alone 140 characters. Twittering is just frittering.

Or so I thought before Iran.


I am not going to call this the Twitter Revolution. That’s far too cute a handle for the dramatic and dangerous uprising. It was not tweets that brought Iranians into the street to protest a rigged election.


“Tools don’t drive revolutions,” says even a Netizen like John Palfrey, author of “Born Digital.” “Revolutions happen, and people use any tools they have.”


As for power, there’s a cartoon showing a protester holding his cell phone up to a mullah beating a protester and warning, “Stop or I’ll Tweet.”


If this is a Twitter Revolution, the score so far is Despots 1, Twitter 0.


As Palfrey says, “Bullets are more powerful than bytes.”


And yet, this has been an extraordinary moment for the new media, a coming-out party of sorts. If the searing image of Vietnam was the AP photo of a girl stripped naked by napalm, if the image of Tiananmen Square was a young man facing down tanks, well, the iconic image of Iran is a cell phone video of Neda Agha Soltan dying on the streets of Tehran. And this time the message was in the momentum.


The mournful video was passed from a cell phone in Tehran to an e-mail address in Europe, then to Facebook and YouTube and finally CNN. All in a matter of hours.


Journalism is famously described as “the first rough draft of history.” But the history of this Iranian moment is a first, rough hailstorm of bits and bytes, tweets and texts. In the tweet of Mousavil388: “One Person=One Broadcaster.”


This storm began just as the Iranian government was closing down on foreign and domestic journalists, expelling some, arresting others. Banned from the streets, some reported from their bureaus against a photo backdrop of the city. Meanwhile in Washington, comedian John Hodgman told diners at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner, “At this very moment, the fate of Iran is strangely entwined with the sleep schedules of the geeks who maintain the servers at Twitter and YouTube.”


But stranger still was how many of these “correspondents” were sitting in their offices, trying to sift hailstones.


Indeed for all the excitement about the raw material flowing and snaking across borders one step ahead of censors, there is also a propaganda war between government and protesters being waged on the same digital platforms. Who is a thug and who is a hero? Who is a protester and who is Basij? Some have as much credibility as Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. The fog of war has become the downpour of texts and tweets.


Some see in this media moment the creation of a new hybrid model of journalism, where professionals work with raw reports and analysts decode tweets. Even The New York Times has now posted a request for “readers in Iran to help us document the post-election unrest.”


But in this time of unrest, you will forgive me for some skepticism. How many more foreign bureaus were shut down by accountants at the home office than by censors in Iran? I don’t have to remind readers of newspaper woes, but in this imploding world, who will do the job of the mainstream media.


The Not-Quite-Twitter Revolution shows all the virtues and vices of the Internet. The ease and flow of information. The difficulty of knowing its accuracy and meaning. It’s like searching for medical advice in an online world of quacks and cures. If there’s anything we have learned, it’s that the need for guides—and dare I say trusted guides—is greater than ever.


So here is the new world of You and YouTube, of Tweets and Tricks. Stories fly, voices can’t be silenced. But how will we know what to believe?


Forgive my bias, but old-fashioned journalism—validated, vetted, edited—is as central to our portrait of the world as it was in the pre-digital past. When the streets of Tehran are quiet as they are today, the most dramatic moments are not tweets and texts. They are when protesters go to the rooftops at precisely 10 p.m. to chant—God is Great! Death to the Dictator!—in equally old-fashioned voices.


Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman1@me.com.

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