Q&A

Q&A with Clay Shirky on Twitter and Iran

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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.