Q&A with Clay Shirky on Twitter and Iran

Posted by: Chris Anderson


NYU professor Clay Shirky gave a fantastic talk on new media during our TED@State event earlier this month. He revealed how cellphones, the web, Facebook and Twitter had changed the rules of the game, allowing ordinary citizens extraordinary new powers to impact real-world events. As protests in Iran exploded over the weekend, we decided to rush out his talk, because it could hardly be more relevant. I caught up with Clay this afternoon to get his take on the significance of what is happening. HIs excitement was palpable.

What do you make of what’s going on in Iran right now.
I’m always a little reticent to draw lessons from things still unfolding, but it seems pretty clear that … this is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then. But this time it’s true … and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends, and they’re even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is reallly extraordinary.

Which services have caused the greatest impact? Blogs? Facebook? Twitter?
It’s Twitter. One thing that Evan (Williams) and Biz (Stone) did absolutely right is that they made Twitter so simple and so open that it’s easier to integrate and harder to control than any other tool. At the time, I’m sure it wasn’t conceived as anything other than a smart engineering choice. But it’s had global consequences. Twitter is shareable and open and participatory in a way that Facebook’s model prevents. So far, despite a massive effort, the authorities have found no way to shut it down, and now there are literally thousands of people aorund the world who’ve made it their business to help keep it open.

Do you get a sense that it’s almost as if the world is figuring out live how to use Twitter in these circumstances? Some dissidents were using named accounts for a while, and there’s been a raging debate in the community about how best to help them.
Yes, there’s an enormous reckoning to be had about what works and what doesn’t. There have been disagreements over whether it was dangerous to use hashtags like #Iranelection, and there was a period in which people were openly tweeting the IP addresses of web proxies for people to switch to, not realizing that the authorities would soon shut these down. It’s incredibly messy, and the definitive rules of the game have yet to be written. So yes, we’re seeing the medium invent itself in real time.

Talk some more about the sense of participation on Twitter. It seems to me that that has spurred an entirely deeper level of emotional connection with these events.
Absolutely. I’ve been saying this for a while — as a medium gets faster, it gets more emotional. We feel faster than we think. But Twitter is also just a much more personal medium. Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement. We’re seeing everyone desperate to do something to show solidarity like wear green — and suddenly the community figures out that it can actually offer secure web proxies, or persuade Twitter to delay an engineering upgrade — we can help keep the medium open.

When I see John Perry Barlow setting himself up as a router, he’s not performing these services as a journalist. He’s engaged. Traditional media operates as source of inofrmation not as a means of coordination. It can’t do more than make us sympathize. Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it. Even if it’s just retweeting, you’re aiding the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the ouside world is paying attention is really valuable.

Of course the downside of this emotional engagement is that while this is happening, I feel like I can’t in good consicence tweet about anything else!

There was fury on Twitter against CNN for not adequately covering the situation. Was that justified?
In a way it wasn’t. I’m sure that for the majority of the country, events in Iran are not of grave interest, even if those desperate for CNN’s Iran info couldn’t get access to it. That push model of one message for all is an incredibly crappy way of linking supply and demand.

CNN has the same problem this decade that Time magazine had last decade. They simultaneously want to appeal to middle America and leading influencers. Reaching multiple audiences is increasingly difficult. The people who are hungry for info on events of global significance are used to instinctively switching on CNN. But they are realizng that that reflex doesn’t serve them very well anymore, and that can’t be good for CNN.

Do you get the sense that these new media tools are helping build a global community, forged more by technology and a desire for connection, than by traditional political or religious divides?
You can see it clearly in what’s happening right now. And it cuts both ways. The guy we’re rallying around, Mousavi, is no liberal reformer. But the principle of freedom of speech and fair elections and the desire for reform trump that.

So how does this play out?
It’s complex. The Ahmadinejad supporters are going to use the fact of English-speaking and American participation to try to damn the dissidents. But whatever happens from here, the dissidents have seen that large numbers of American people, supposedly part of “the great Satan,” are actually supporters. Someone tweeted from Tehran today that “the American media may not care, but the American people do.” That’s a sea-change.

Comments (45)

  • Google Wave Forum commented on Dec 1 2009

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  • Matthew Tripp commented on Jul 19 2009

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  • Juan Sebastian Suarez commented on Jul 15 2009

    I accept that Twitter has changed the way we get informed, but I’m worried about the fact that as twitter users can’t be controlled, information will be more subjective than objective. that’s why I consider that news agencies must continue existing.

  • harold brown commented on Jul 13 2009

    I do think that the potential for twitter to serve as an organizing and mobilization tool has now been legitimized in the eyes of many grassroots organizers who have been skeptical up until now.
    About me

  • harold brown commented on Jun 29 2009

    This is of course important, and probably reduces violence by the militia, but unless twitter also plays a more direct role locally.

  • Andre Natta commented on Jun 21 2009

    I’ll agree that to characterize this current use of Twitter as “The Big One” may be a bit shallow, but as far as those who were not familiar with the true power of the online tool, it demonstrated just how useful it could be on a global scale.

    Mike’s right; I’m sure if you talked to nonprofits and individuals who’ve been using it as a part of their strategy for some time already, they’d tell you that the situation in Iran demonstrates the endless possibilities.

    My hope is that those who see Twitter as a fad will realize that while it may not have the spotlight on it for long, especially with our “give us the latest and greatest” mindset, it will be a jumping off point for people from all over to hear from more than one side of the story. The hose of information allows us to determine what’s important to us, forcing us to be critical instead of just accepting what’s said to us. What a novel concept…

  • Kelly Powers commented on Jun 19 2009

    Very interesting talk. Excellent follow-up.

    Adding to the list of examples of how social media has influenced political struggles: The uprising in August of 2007 lead by the Buddhist monks in Burma. Social media both helped and harmed the efforts of those who were trying to change the system of government.

    Reflecting on the theme of “How reliable is the information I’m receiving and to what extend is it valid?” reminds me of the problems confronted in the early days of companies like Amazon (or any online commercial site). I believe the idea was called Reputation Management (i.e.: How do I decide if a seller is reliable and trustworthy if they don’t live in my town or have a brick and mortar store?) Or, how willing am I to use my credit card online?

    Social networking will need its own version of “Buyer Beware.”

  • Kishore Kumar commented on Jun 18 2009

    Twitter is too one-sided for my comfort. I miss the balanced coverage that non-American media can provide. Try assuming that the Iranian elections were not rigged and see where that takes you: http://bit.ly/MsaZm

    • laurel laflamme commented on Jun 21 2009

      I respect your opinion, however, I am confused about your comment as it seems to be an oxymoron: “…balanced coverage that non-American media can provide.” I think the theme of this thread is about the amazing power of social media for accurate information as it relates to world wide communication.

      I regularly tune into the BBC and a few Australian news feeds, not just “American News.” The problem with “non-American” media coverage is that for too many nations, getting the news “out” is banned, blocked, censored, and near impossible. THAT’s why applications like Twitter are so vital in our tumultuous world. PEOPLE can communicate realities to each other…where governments fail to do so.

      Never before in history have we been able to reach so many people so quickly with news about what is transpiring around the world. Social media has become a truly international community of reporters. My Twitter trends alert me to the “real news” before it even hits air-waves.

  • Allan Grogan commented on Jun 18 2009

    It is truly amazing that social media has arisen to the level of service that it has rendered in the challenging moments in Iran. It is comforting to know that communication cannot be restricted by countries and their attempt to silence their people!

  • felicia kay commented on Jun 18 2009

    ahhhhhhh twitter!!!!

  • Alexandre Su commented on Jun 18 2009

    I think the most compelling part of the talk is how Twitter, to an even greater degree than other social networking sites, has connected a wider audience with the events that are going on with people who aren’t direct participants. There’s an immediacy to the form that a lot of the others lack. Otherwise, I think I echo some of skepticism in a few of the other comments. Twitter isn’t being used for organizing purposes in Iran, particularly in a country with a history of political demonstration. Our level of engagement with the events as people not physically in Iran is the new thing through twitter and the internet is the new growing thing. And the scale of the number of people (v. Chicago and other transformative events). It might be that Shirkin fell for the trap he normally studiously avoids.

    • laurel laflamme commented on Jun 21 2009

      Very well-spoken, Alexandre! “Before” social media, all we could do was “watch” the world news. “Now” we can participate in active discussions for change. We can express our sympathy and show our compassion. So, I love how you put it: “Our level of engagement ” has never before been so great OR so exciting.

      We didn’t use to have any form of engagement with world events. We only had to take what was handed to us on a plate, whether it be the truth or the lie.

  • Mike Norman commented on Jun 17 2009

    I dont think we should be evaluating this in terms of whether or not it is “the big one” that seems to me a kind of arbitrary classification. I do think that the potential for twitter to serve as an organizing and mobilization tool has now been legitimized in the eyes of many grassroots organizers who have been skeptical up until now. Im extremely excited about what this can mean for movement builders who have not been plugged into discussions about technology. Anyone who is interested in helping to build that community please contact me! @mikenorman22

    • name surname commented on Jun 22 2009

      I agree with this. Some other issues that are worth addressing might be the particular conditions such tools are being utilized under. For instance, under a dictatorship or a monopoly of the communication infrastructure by the governments or non-transparent private institutions: the traceability of the twitter messages (all of which are recorded, right?) to certain IPs or locations; ease of spamming and signal to noise ratio of information, etc. – if the idea is to increase the effect of purposeful use of social media for activism.

  • Peter Peter commented on Jun 17 2009

    “I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then”
    It was true. The world that mattered watched & listened. Kent State massacre May 4, 1970 It was true. We record the truth and cause & effect.
    “The guy we’re rallying around, Mousavi,” !! who is we ?
    This is it The Big One IMO is quite shallow.

    • name surname commented on Jun 22 2009

      True. Clarity and reason are very important when it comes to “big ones” like this…

  • Mic Car commented on Jun 17 2009

    The beauty of the online social networks is that you can begin to better gauge trustworthiness by the volume of a network rather than trusting an individual.

  • Joerg Heber commented on Jun 17 2009

    Not sure, the Iran protests are the “big one” yet. So far, twitter is mostly used to inform the rest of the world on some specifics that are happening in Iran at the moment. I can’t really see that twitter is used much to coordinate anything within Iran itself. Nor is it used by the leading figures in the opposition to directly talk to their supporters. So far, it is a window into Iran. This is of course important, and probably reduces violence by the militia, but unless twitter also plays a more direct role locally, I don’t think we have seen a sea change yet. But we may get a glimpse here towards the role new media may play in future.

    And yes, Andrew, we have to take things more on face value – which implicit means we should always apply some caution towards authenticity.

  • Robin Majumdar commented on Jun 16 2009

    Certainly an interesting (and valid) POV from Clay, although Twitter is on the overall decline (and not uptick) and Iran is far from the Opus Dei of Twitter. The Mumbai attacks gelled users into Twitter as did several other events (h1n1) of global interest.

    In fairness, the Iran Election is probably the singular event that garnered the most sustained interest from the MSM and also the grassroots community (i.e… .people!)

    • Stephen Collins commented on Jun 18 2009

      Robin, if you think Twitter use is in decline, you’re not looking at the numbers I am. Not the 1-2 use then bored group, but the group for whom it is an sometimes essential tool. May people and communities now use it extensively at near-utility level. It approaches critical infrastructure for some.

      The ability to coordinate group action in this and other ways using technology is the core premise of the overall democratisation of participation. You don’t need to participate, but you can – and that’s the key.

      • Mike Norman commented on Jun 18 2009

        Yea Stephen is right, twitter has been going like crazy until recently when it has slightly slowed down. Many users are inactive though so total userbase isnt really a great metric. Here is a great report about explaining all this stuff http://tiny.cc/nzLjx

  • Brock French commented on Jun 16 2009

    @Andrew Maynard – The issue of Trust is what it has always been, susceptible to manipulation. The beauty of the online social networks is that you can begin to better gauge trustworthiness by the volume of a network rather than trusting an individual. Internet street smarts 101.

    • Andrew Maynard commented on Jun 17 2009

      I’m not entirely convinced of this. Certainly there is some community-selection of ideas and opinions, but I’m not sure that the selection criteria are always truth/honesty/reality based. Guess it’s the still rather fuzzy boundary between the wisdom of crowds and the madness of mobs.

    • Dave Potts commented on Jun 17 2009

      I would go so far as to strongly disagree with Brock. As the number of Twitter users engaged with the #iranelection stream on Twitter went up over the last few days, so did the level of baloney. The relevant, trustworthy information was still there, but it became increasingly difficult to find under in the torrent of useless or even contradictory posts. I’m interested in how well SM users will adapt and learn how to self edit. They do it well in niche areas – community forums like this one, for example – but when big news like Iran (or even our own election last year) hits, the noise can be deafening.

      • laurel laflamme commented on Jun 21 2009

        Indeed, the “noise can be deafening” but at least we have the noise. There is NO voice for countless millions of people on the planet today. At least we still have a measure of Freedom of Speech, be it noisy or not. That in itself is a blessing.

    • Kathy gill commented on Jun 17 2009

      Volume without diversity = group think.

  • Tide Waters commented on Jun 16 2009

    “Whatever happens from here, the dissidents have seen that large numbers of American people … are actually supporters.”

    It’s not just USians who have been mesmerized by the Iranian events and trying to help via Twitter.

  • Andrew Maynard commented on Jun 16 2009

    Thanks – an insightful and timely interview. Something that does concern me, and I would love to see comment on, is the degree of trust that seems to occur around Twitter in particular. Users – and I would count myself here – tend to trust that people are who they say they are, and that their tweets are legitimate. This potentially leads the system wide open to manipulation – wonder whether there are clear indicators yet of community moves to close the loophole.

    • Sari Signorelli commented on Jun 17 2009

      I have been thinking about the same issue–who is giving me the info I’m digesting and to what extend is it valid. As the online social networks evolve, we have to develop the critical skills necessary to ascertain the validity of information. For myself, I try to combine sources for topics, such as mainstream media, FB, Twitter, etc. I also try to be careful about what info i pass on. My hope is that just as we develop a type of inner-radar to pick up BS in the face2face world, we’ll develop it online as we spend more time communicating through social networks.

    • Kathy gill commented on Jun 17 2009

      Trust and credulity are important issues — especially, as Clay notes, because we tend to respond emotionally as the speed of information increases. And although Clay pooh-poohs the observation that most Iranians aren’t English-speaking (calling people who make this observation “Ahmadinejad supporters”), the fact is that these English-speaking Iranians are a vocal minority. Language fluency and tools like Twitter make it possible for their message to reach beyond their home – which is a good thing. But “dissident” doesn’t make them (a) automatically trustworthy, (b) automatically truthful, or (c) an accurate reflection of the mood of the country’s majority. America has dissidents, too, like the guy who shot people at the Holocaust Museum last week.

      I recommend this analysis from Stratfor Global:

  • Louis Galdieri commented on Jun 16 2009

    “the American media may not care, but the American people do”: for some thoughts on what it takes to care and what may be at stake in the caring, and in our continued vigilance, check out “History by Proxy”: http://bit.ly/XQFOS