As a social network, Twitter can be a difficult concept to grasp. The idea of having strangers follow your every update in life doesn’t seem particularly innovative or useful to a world already full of social networking websites. But somehow, Twitter has managed to be a great asset to repressed societies, enabling communication with the rest of the world when the media outlets are told not to be quiet. But how does Twitter actually work? And more importantly, why does it appeal to so many people all over the world?
Twitter’s main appeal is the closeness it allows people to have with their followers. By having followers read your day-today actions it offers a kind of intimacy that helps establish relationships. From personal experience, I can say that I have got to know many people through my Twitter account and that replying to things as banal as ‘I am listening to the Beatles’ creates a powerful first basis for a friendship. The main difference from other networking websites, like Facebook, is that what people tweet is genuine, for the select people who follow them and who actually want to know about their lives and their opinions.
This is also the reason why Twitter was not blocked immediately in Tunisia, Libya and many other countries when censorship was blocking most of the internet; the feel of a website where most people post what they’ve had for breakfast, lunch and dinner is not exactly threatening. But it is one of the most powerful tools activists can have online.
As stated before, the muscle of the website originates in the way it can relate to people personally with honest information – banal as it may be. On a political level, this intimacy can be extremely important for a revolution in the making: by tweeting updates of repression, photos and videos of riots and human rights violations by the authorities, the people are constructing a new kind of media. This new kind of media is crude and naked, it is not chewed up by media outlets first and it appeals to a stronger type of solidarity. Personally uploaded content reaches out on a different level than any journalistically written report of riots and human rights violations.
The first example of a Twitter Revolution was the uproar caused by the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. Suspicions of a rigged election and criticisms of CNN’s lack of coverage ran through Twitter quickly and soon enough; users from all over the world were making their profile photos green in solidarity with the cause – there it was, a way to oppose a totalitarian regime from the comfort of your own home!
It might seem like a futile use of a click, but it put the issues in Iran closer to us than it had ever been before. Tweets like ‘Woman says ppl knocking on her door 2 AM saying they were intelligence agents, took her daughter’ and ‘we hear 1 dead in shiraz, livefire used in other cities’ were reaching people all over the world – in a practical way, it cannot be said the solidarity helped the Iranians’ cause, but knowing the rest of the world supported them spurred them on, even when Twitter was eventually blocked by the government. Twitter Revolutions were still in the making – but how could it become a new, revolutionary tool?
The revolution in Tunisia is an example of successful handling of Twitter. It was not as publicised as the Iran uproar and international sympathy was pretty much dormant until the very last month of protests, when a coup was imminent. But as reporters were forbidden to cover protests in Sidi Bouzid and news reports were censored by the government, Tunisians got their information from Facebook and Twitter which had remained uncensored. Not only did this help a whole nation mobilise against their government, the Tunisians could follow ongoing updates of protests which unified the people in the most revolutionary way of all: digitally.
This is not to say that Twitter and the internet were the only factor that overthrew a dictatorial government; of course there is much more to that. But this generation has to recognise what a great impact the web makes on the world of politics; Twitter in particular allows opinion and information to spread at an alarming speed. Debates can be easily tracked with a simple hash tag and I don’t think it would be an underestimation to say that public opinion can be measured through it.
The events in Libya had been trending on Twitter for weeks and, again, the personal accounts of what was happening and the cries for help got to people all over the world. Bloggers on Tumblr (Twitter for blogging) circulated pictures, videos and revolutionary cries until it was taken notice by a more powerful country’s authorities that could actually do something to help.
With this in mind, one cannot help but ask if this form of support and solidarity is a lazy generation’s way of revolutionising. Perhaps, but regardless something is being done to help the people who need more exposure in the media and providing this breach in censorship is what has helped these recent revolutions.
Twitter and other social networking website have introduced a whole new way of politics that can keep up with the speed information is given out nowadays. And besides giving the public information in its crudest form, without it being digested by journalists, our lazy generation has finally found a way to care and contribute to the world – through a simple click or tweet. In short, Twitter FTW.
Article by Nicole Froio.
Edited by Marc Geddes.