Innocents abroad

This June a passion for Iranian politics is lighting up Facebook and Twitter. The rigged election and resulting protests feel like history in the making, so the spike in interest on the web is no surprise. Yet I suspect a good number of tweeters and bloggers now tracking events had never heard of Hossein Moussavi before last week, and even now many who are genuinely moved by the defiance of Iran’s clerical elite he is inspiring could tell you little about him or them or life in Iran. We have a lot to learn — but (and this is the wonderful thing) we now *want* to learn.

It seems clear that this sudden engagement, this sudden caring about the political freedom of Iranians has a lot to do with the medium itself. To those immersed in new media communication channels, it’s thrilling that “cellphones, Twitter, Facebook can make history,” to crib from the title of Clay Shirky’s recent TED talk. We’re sensing that new media is providing timelier, more accurate, and more effective information. Hence there is a parallel confrontation, with parallel cracks in authority: authoritarian government vs. uprising crowd, traditional media vs. participatory media. Since we can, by definition, participate in the latter showdown, we become invested in the former.

Thus twitterers avidly piled onto the #CNNfail movement to drive better coverage; Gawker tweaked the New York Times’s executive editor for a premature divine blessing of Ahmadinejad; and so many Tumblrs devoted to Iran have blossomed that it’s now a throwaway line. And handy! here’s a political map of Iran from the Berkman Center derived from the Iranian blogosphere:

Shirky’s TED talk is worth watching, especially against this Iranian elections backdrop. He succinctly heralds the “many to many” communication that is transforming media, the mashup of broadcast and chatter that encourages each to inflect the other. Have a look, if you have 17 minutes:

Shriky’s pre-Iran cases in this talk are China, forced by twitterers to quickly acknowledge the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and globally shamed by the shoddy construction that caused so many deaths then, and Barack Obama, forced by a community built on to answer for his reversal on FISA surveillance during the 2008 presidential campaign. Shirky emphasizes a shift from crafting a message (done by an elite, broadcast to the masses) to forming groups (now amateurs can participate, messages can be customized for various groups, everything becomes much more conversational).

It bears noting, though, that the confrontations that Shirky describes ended murkily, from the point of those disruptive tech-wielding crowds. As Shirky narrates of the Sichuan insurgency, “the protests kept going and – finally – the Chinese cracked down. That was enough of citizen media.” He further acknowledges that the Chinese government shut down Twitter (along with Flickr, Bing, Hotmail, Blogger, and other services) during the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. It may be, as Dan Rather has put it, “harder to turn out the lights” these days, but proving this with a quick flareup is different from keeping the lights on.

The pushback against Obama’s FISA reversal also frustrates the manyDavids-vs.-Goliath narrative, because the fact remains that, despite a flood of protest from his supporters on his website, despite their formation of the largest ‘group’ to gather on, Obama was not swayed. A campaign spokesman last year danced around this awkwardly: “The fact that there is an open forum on where supporters can say whether they agree or disagree speaks to a strength of our campaign.” The offended “netroots” may have forced some explanation, some acknowledgment of their anger, but in no way did they prevail.

So it remains to be seen whether Iran will offer the story we so clearly crave: in which the newly democratized media actually drive history, rather than just flare up in the dark, explode, and shimmer away into inconsequence. Whether or not you believe that story in these early days, you have to admire the way communication technology is stirring up personal investment in troubled places in our troubled world — as long as there is a showdown, a disaster, something to track in a feed.

I’ll leave off here with one exchange that seems, to me, to capture everything big-hearted and empty-headed that TwitterFaceFlickrTube inspires in the face of political events unfolding on the streets of Tehran:

“Stay safe” indeed….

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