Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On Iran, Social Media and Revolution

(By Ben Curtis -- Associated Press) Will remove upon request.

I have been trying for days to write something meaningful about the role that social media is playing in the current political upheaval taking place on the streets of Tehran. Fortunately and unfortunately, there's quite a bit to take in and expand upon. But, now that we're in the middle of this, here are some thoughts.

1) I Agree With Anne Applebaum

"In the United States, the most America-centric commentators have somberly attributed the strength of recent demonstrations to the election of Barack Obama. Others want to give credit to the democracy rhetoric of the Bush administration. Still others want to call this a "Twitter revolution" or a "Facebook revolution," as if zippy new technology alone had inspired the protests. But the truth is that the high turnout has been the result of many years of organizational work, carried out by small groups of civil rights activists and above all women's groups, working largely unnoticed and without much outside help."

A historian would not say that Protestant Reformation occurred because the printing press was invented. She would say that it greased the wheels, but it was by no means the vehicle. I feel as that the coverage of these current events makes it seem like the Iranian people were discontent and disconnected from one another in these sentiments. This notion is false and unfair to the brave people - especially the women she writes about - who are risking their lives for freedom.

Is the internet, despite government interference, acting as the "printing press" in this situation? The uber-nerd, technophile in me instantly says yes. After all, this is McLuhan come to life. The internet is supposed to be the most egalitarian and democratic medium available, and now it's being used to achieve just that. However, and this is a big however, every other part of me that knows anything about political science, history, and sociology tells me that we're not going to understand how people are using the internet in this situation for some time.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that people outside of Iran should not help prop up the internet by creating proxy servers that the government cannot touch. If it is working, it needs to be there.

2) I Am Not Going to Become Mr. Mousavi's Fan on Facebook

I am not saying that Mousavi is not a reformer. In my meaningless opinion, he's not enough of what the country needs to be free.

3) This Sort of Thing May Never Happen Again

Oppressive regimes with an internet capable citizenry are watching what develops very closely. While these governments already heavily censor web content, they have a vested interest in making sure that the people don't realize what they can do with this tool and try to stop it.

Then, there's the almighty dollar.

Let's say I ran a social network here in the US that is being used by the Iranian people to help organize protests. Knowing the strife that many Persian-Americans faced in fleeing Iran, I decide to keep my site running in the country despite its government's efforts to shut us down. Finally, the people win and the despots are removed from power.

While resting on my laurels, I get a call from the technology minister of a country with the fastest growing economy in the world and one seventh of the world's population. I just opened an office in this country with hopes that my product is going to become the new popular way to communicate, which means unimaginable ad revenue. The technology minister gives me two options:

Option 1: Allow them to screen everything going on; block specific communications containing anything from a special list of words; and tell them who is trying to use this service in the ways they don't like. If I do this, I can stay and make as much money as I can.

Option 2: I'm out, someone else is in.

This is quite a dilemma. Are these governments calling up US companies right now? I don't know, and we may never know.

The only thing I do know is that something remarkable could be happening, and it doesn't matter if it started in the streets or in cyberspace. A country filled with beautiful people, cultures, and traditions may finally be free to live the lives they want.

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