Twitter's Role in Iran--Is The Medium Really The Message?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 17, 2009

The blogosphere and mainstream media are ablaze with the news that Twitter is playing the key role in enabling the protest against the election fraud in Iran. This is social media’s first revolution (or second or third, counting the Ukraine, Latvia and a few other countries). The open platform is so flexible that it can evade attempts to shut it down by the Tehran government authorities.

This is all true and to be applauded and celebrated. But I wonder if the medium is not the message we should be taking away from events in Iran.

In the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran, the bazarre was the “social media” space that enabled people to secretly communicate and organize. It was the traditional middle class bizarre merchants who led the fight against the Shah, in part because they were losing out to the modernization he unleashed.

That revolution was captured by another—the Islamist takeover of the Iranian state and that was organized in the mosque, another “social media” space that enabled people to communicate and organize.

Now we have the first digital space, safe enough to enough people to communicate and organize to fight for change.

My conclusion is that Twitter is but the latest of many forms of social media spaces. Each generation is comfortable with its own communication forms and spaces. Each finds the cultural means of organizing to generate action. Twitter is the form comfortable with the young in Iran. The mosque was the form comfortable for the religious. The bizarre was the place most comfortable for the merchants.

The medium may appear to be the message to the techno-fetishists who marvel that their generation can communicate digitally (and yes, as one who blogs and twitters, it is a marvelous technology). But the deeper message is that the message finds the medium.

Each generation at each periuod of time uses the technology it is comfortable with, whether it is getting dates or organizing street demonstrations. For American Gen Yers looking for jobs in big corporations, they have to write. For Gen Yers starting their own companies (or organizing to elect President Obama), they have to visualize, communicate and engage digitally.

Reader Comments

Dan Hoffman

June 19, 2009 5:54 PM

Bruce, I agree with you that the medium isn't the message here. But I'm not sure Twitter is really analogous to the kinds of social spaces you mention. The merchants in a bazaar, or worshippers at a mosque -- or patrons at a tavern in colonial Boston, for that matter -- would know and trust each other from long, face-to-face ("verified") association. These communities lend themselves to controlled conversations shielded from outsiders. They are the kinds of environments where we'd expect seeds of revolution to be sown. In the case of Twitter, the revolutionaries have essentially moved from whispers in the sanctuaries to shouting rebellion from the minarets, and anyone may be listening. In that sense, I wonder if the best analogy for Twitter isn't the mosques and bazaars, but the streets and public squares where hundreds of thousands are marching in plain sight.

Fred Collopy

June 21, 2009 4:23 AM

I did this little blog posting recently about twitter. Interestingly, I drew on McLuhan's (of "The Medium is the Message" fame) Four Laws of Media to try to make some sense of what twitter is and is not.

http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/fred-collopy/manage-designing/twitter-mcluhans-laws-media

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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