Brave Citizen Journalists Provide New Images of Iranian Life


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Like many people, I have been watching this so-called "Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, [Insert New Media Application] Revolution" unfold in Iran from the comfort of my own home. Watching the dizzying and horrifying images that have emerged on the Internet has triggered a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts.

I was shocked and outraged by the death of Neda. I felt a sense of awe watching a group of women defiantly walking the streets without head coverings as if they were in a Pantene shampoo commercial.

I often felt bewildered watching these videos, for I consider myself to be somewhat worldly, and while I always assumed there to be Iranian dissenters, I had precious little knowledge about them. It turns out I'm not the only one who was in the dark. The image that most of the world has been getting about Iran just does not match up with the one that we've only recently been receiving via social media. But the tools for ordinary Iranians to get their stories out have existed for a while -- so why is it only now that Iranian citizen journalists are using them? And how is the work of citizen journalists in Iran changing the way the world sees their country?

What the world sees

Being a citizen of the U.S. currently based in Israel, I am generally shuttling back and forth between Iran's two greatest enemies.

While it can be expected that Iran would cast both "Big and Little Satan" as a monolithic evil entity in its media, I doubt that either the U.S. or Israeli media do a much better job showing Iran for what it actually is: a culturally rich country with an educated populace with varying political and social views.

I find this a bit disturbing, especially in this day and age.

This formula sums up what the average Israeli knows about Iran:

Iran = Ahmadinejad = Crazy = Holocaust Denier = Hamas and Hezbollah Financier = Finger on Red Button = Nuclear Armageddon = Mommy, I'm Scared = Vote for a Right Wing Government to Assuage Fears

Of course, Iran does a great job bolstering this viewpoint, by acting the part of a maniacal regime bested only by North Korea.

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Yet in Israel, one gets the sense that the snake has finally been let out of the bag, and it's not that big and bad and poisonous after all.

While many Israelis I've spoken to are using the current events to validate their claims that the Iranian government is out of its mind, the overriding sense is one of surprise that the Iranian people are saner than previously thought.

Who knew that most Iranians support women's liberation, a more compassionate Islam, and a free press?

A month ago, most Israelis couldn't name one Iranian besides Ahmadinejad. Now some here have actually started wearing green in solidarity with Mousavi and company. Israelis are now realizing that they actually have a lot in common with Iranians, which I imagine is true across much of the world.

Why Now?

The big question I have is why did it take so long?

Couldn't these iReporters, as CNN calls citizen journalists, have uploaded anonymous stories a month or a year ago? Why did it take a fraudulent election and street riots to get the world's attention about the repressed majority in Iran?

I suppose the answer might have to do with the "if it bleeds it leads" business model in news journalism.

Iranian bloggers have long been the only truly independent journalists Iran has to offer, yet they have been largely ignored by the Western media as either not credible or not relevant. It's funny how quickly breaking news and street riots mitigate both of these factors.

The Iranian government, on the other hand, has always taken bloggers very seriously. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent non-profit organization, Iran is considering passing a law that would make the creation of blogs promoting "corruption, prostitution, and apostasy" punishable by death. To date, millions of websites have been blocked, and hundreds of bloggers have been arrested. In March, cultural blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi died in prison under suspicious circumstances. He was only 29.

If these intrepid citizen journalists are willing to sacrifice their lives to report from Iran, the least we can do is extend them a hand and publicize their work as much as possible, even if it's not about violent or sexy topics.

In general, it would be nice to read and see reports from despotic regimes during times of peace, so that we can have a window into their world before the blood spills. (One good example of seeing into the lives of people in a war zone is the "Gaza Sderot" video show that I profiled on MediaShift.)

Let this be a wakeup call for the Western media that has been collectively hitting the snooze button on Iran since 1979.

Tapping into Citizen Journalism

It's high time to tap into the plentiful and natural resource known as citizen journalists. The advantages are numerous: There's no need for an expensive bureau. They're already on the ground. Plus, they speak the language.

It should also be a stern warning to other governments that forcefully control their people and their outlets for free expression. From here on out, the relationship between press freedom and citizen journalism campaigns will be inversely proportional.

iran3.jpg

Whether it be China, Egypt, Cuba, or Burma, totalitarian states should note the futility in stripping the powers of professional journalists, because citizen journalists have the tools, the resolve, and the tenacity to fill the void.

Kudos to the brave citizen journalists of Iran who have used their cell phone cameras to finally give us a more complete picture of their country. While this may not be the revolution many Iranians were waiting for, we will look back at the events of 2009 as a watershed of sorts for citizen journalists across the globe, who got the attention of the wider global audience.

Thank you. We've gotten the message. And now let the draconian regimes of the world get theirs: If you don't change your ways, the revolution will be uploaded to the Internet, and then televised.

Jaron Gilinsky is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. As a freelance video correspondent for Time, the New York Times, and Current TV, he has produced and directed scores of documentaries on a range of international topics. Jaron is the founder of Falafel TV, a documentary production company, and regularly posts his videos and articles on his personal blog.

Iran protest photos collected but not taken by Misterarasmus via Flickr.

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Torturous Wording (On The Media: Friday, 26 June 2009)


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Last week, NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard caused a minor uproar after responding to angry emails from listeners over NPR's use of the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" to describe treatment of terrorism suspects under the Bush Administration. Shepard talks about NPR's policy and her own opinion on the use of the word "torture."

The need for – and risks of – government transparency


This post is by Jeff Jarvis from BuzzMachine


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At yesterday’s Personal Democracy Forum – where I was in the unfortunate position of speaking inbetween two of my favorite geniuses, danah boyd and David Weinberger – I sang the obvious hymn to the choir, arguing that government in a Google age means transparency. All governments’ actions and information must be searchable and linkable; we need an API to government to enable us to build atop it.

I also argue that as newspapers die – and they will – government transparency is a critical element in the new news ecosystem that will fill the void. When government information is openly available, a dwindling handful of journalistic watchdogs in a state capital can be augmented by thousands, even millions of watchdogs: citizens empowered. I’ll write more about this as part of the New Business Models for News Project.

But at PDF, I also listed four cautions regarding transparency – charges to us as citizens:

* We have to give permission to fail. In speaking with government people about What Would Google Do?, I’ve learned how much they fear failure and how cautious that makes them. Without the license to fail, government will never experiment, never open up, and never be collaborative.

In other words, we need beta government: the ability of government to try things, to open up its process, to invite us in, to collaborate. That was the lesson I learned from Google about releasing a beta: it is a statement of humility and openness and an invitation to join in. We need that in government.

* Transparency must not always mean gotcha. Oh, there are plenty of people to catch red-handed. But if transparency is about nothing more than catching bureacrats and politicians buying lunches, then we will not have the openness we need to make government collaborative.

* We have to figure out how to make government and its work collaborative. What if we were able to help government do its job? What if it acted like a network? What if it acted like Wikipedia, where a small percentage – less than 2 percent, says Clay Shirky – create it; it would not take many citizens to help make government work in new ways.

* We have to turn the discussion to the positive, the constructive. Again, there are plenty of bastards to catch. But we must move past that – especially once we have more watchdogs watching – so we can build.

I ran around the auditorium like a fool – a role I enjoy – playing Oprah and asking everyone in the audience to say what they thought government for the Google age looked like. Since I was running, I couldn’t take notes, but the #pdf09 Twitter hashtag captured some and PDF will put up a video later. Lots of great thoughts.

China blinks


This post is by Jeff Jarvis from BuzzMachine


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I said in What Would Google Do? – and argued the point in a talk at Google in Washington – that Google and other technology companies have more influence than they know – and should use it – in protecting free speech and pressuring censorious governments. I see evidence of the strategy working – or hope I see it – in China’s decision today to delay its noxious Green Dam requirement for all PCs sold there. Government and companies put pressure on; China blinked.

Yahoo’s new CEO, Carol Bartz, said in July that it’s not her job to fix governments. But neither is it a company’s job to enable tyrannical governments in their tyranny. Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

Zombie Bloggers Create Communal Horror Stories


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On June 13, bloggers around the world imagined they were under attack by the living dead, writing short horror narratives for the annual Blog Like It's the End of the World Day (which was especially appropriate for me since it fell on my birthday). But there are some bloggers who blog as if everyday were the end of the world: the zombie bloggers.

And while the bloggers involved in BLITEOTW day imagined exotic fantasy and science fiction scenarios, dedicated zombie bloggers strive to keep their stories grounded in reality. This is a community where writers win respect for their ability to spin plausible explanations for impossible events -- and where readers add to the experience, collaborating in blog comments, forums, and tweets to create a communal story.

A Group Story

Zombies have had a major hold on the zeitgeist lately, with a whole slew of new horror movies coming out as well as books like The Zombie Survival Guide and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So it's no surprise that there are innumerable websites dedicated to these shambling monsters. But it's precisely because there's little in the way of an ultimate authority on zombies that makes enthusiasts so eager to discuss them.

lost zombies grab.jpg

"It's because of this, that everyone can have their voice heard," said Ryan Leach, co-creator of Lost Zombies, a social networking site dedicated to an unusual attempt to film a community-generated zombie mockumentary. "It's kind of like an undead democracy."

Lost Zombies community members donate videos, audio recordings and photos of "zombie attacks" in their area.

"When we decided we wanted to do a community film, we knew we needed a website to be at the center to get the content we need," said Leach. "From [the user-submitted content], we are pulling pieces out that we want to be in the final project. Originally we didn't have any rules and just let it be, but over time we realized that users needed more direction and in order to get any narrative, we needed to create a loose timeline. We put a timeline on the website with dates and some events, but even with this, users are free to play around a little."

Since the site's launch in May 2008, Leach said it had received 18 hours of footage submitted and 10,000 registered members and won both the Community and People's Choice Awards at this year's South by Southwest conference.

Zombie Central

"There's no literary tradition of zombies," agreed Andrew Morisson, co-founder of the Zombie Research Society (ZRS) and zombie-themed social networking site Zombie Central. "It's not like Bram Stoker wrote the great zombie novel. Modern zombies as we know them didn't exist until 1968, when George Romero made 'Night of the Living Dead.' That means that a lot of the questions about them are anyone's guess and there's a lot of debate about, if they did exist, what they would be like."

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Even so, readers generally have a sense of where the discussion is going. First, there are enough established ground rules about zombie behavior drawn mostly from popular horror films that new participants can quickly learn the ropes and join the conversation. At the same time, though, there are enough gaps in our "zombie knowledge" to provide ample opportunity for pseudo-scientific discussion. The Zombie Research Society has an advisory board made up of heavy-hitters in the zombie world, including Harvard Medical School Co-Director of Psychiatry Steven Schlozman, to help lead discussions with suitably scientific-sounding explanations for the undead.

Social networks like Lost Zombies and Zombie Central are dominated by three main groups of users: arts buffs who are interested in zombie arts and like gathering to watch zombie movies or organizing zombie walks or costume parties; survivalists who like to plan out how they would survive in the event of an actual zombie attack; and philosophers who like to discuss the social, legal and scientific ramifications of a zombie outbreak.

ZRS commenters often get into heated discussions, because everyone has their own opinion on what to expect from zombies. Morisson said he often receives excited emails from readers eager to throw in their own two cents on blog post topics such as whether zombism could be spread by mosquitoes. Keith Harrop, editor of Zombie World News, compared it to online role-playing.

"Having so many people contributing to the discussion provides perspectives and solutions that may have otherwise been overlooked," said Melissa Ebbe of Zombie Defense Training. "Even if zombies never rise up against us, this type of Internet discussion has become a modern storytelling. We are collectively creating a narrative, of which we are all a part."

Staying Real

Other than their central conceit, most zombie websites want to appear as matter-of-fact and realistic as possible, something that helps readers to better imagine that the fantastic events being described could actually happen and to get into the spirit of the conversation.

ZRS's web page could belong to a serious thinktank...on zombie issues. Zombie World News is a mock newspaper written in dry AP style chronicling the rise of the undead. Harrop selects and edits reader-submitted stories to maintain the site's faux-news reel tone -- and the realism which he says is important to instill a sense of mounting paranoia in readers.

"The basic premise is that anyone can take it where they want," said Harrop, "But I was interested in exploring the socio-political aspects of an outbreak, the part you never see in horror movies. How would the government deal with it? Would borders close? How would religious zealots react when the dead start coming to life?"

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Harrop has also created a number of auxiliary websites for the sole purpose of feeding into Zombie World News and giving it a heightened sense of realism -- for example, a fictitious pharmaceutical corporation working on a zombie antidote referenced in numerous ZWN articles now has its own 'official' website. Despite his commitment to building ambiance, Harrop was quick to point out that he still includes disclaimers on all his web pages, just in case any readers might be too credulous.

Having contributors from all over the world helped to establish credibility -- a story set in India or Sweden always felt more real when written by a contributor with knowledge of the local terrain and culture. Adding to the faux-news feel of the site, ZWN stories unfold in real time and often incorporate actual current events; during the presidency of George W. Bush, news stories often discussed the potentials of stem cell research in zombie prevention.

Zombie sites strive to give readers a "You Are There" sense of this hypothetical apocalypse. To that end, zombie bloggers rarely break character, always speaking as though zombies were a genuine threat.

"I believe that the appeal in discussing zombies arises from a need to feel proactive in the face of adversity, and moreover in the case of a test of survival," said Zombie Defense Training's Ebbe. "Most civilians have never encountered a life or death situation. There is an incredible disconnect in these modern times between our work and our survival. The zombie apocalypse represents a breakdown of this monotony. Every individual will be forced to step up or become zombie fodder. In a sense, discussing this scenario gives people a chance to explore the direct relationship between their actions and their survival."

A Global Game

Of course, communal storytelling isn't restricted to zombies. Harrop noted how the approach he used on Zombie World News could also be applied to any number of topics. But zombies seem to be a fruitful topic around which to build an online community for several reasons.

"It's the perfect post-modern monster," said Morisson, "They can be explained scientifically. They're a biologically definable creature occupying a human corpse. There's no romance to a zombie. It's not like a demon or a vampire which works by magic. The only mysteries with zombies are the ones that we haven't figured out yet."

Another aspect of the zombie genre that makes it particularly well-suited for discussion in a global forum like the Internet is that zombie attacks are almost invariably presented as causing a world apocalypse, a complete meltdown of society -- in contrast to most other monster movies which pit a small group of heroes against a single monster. So it's easier to suspend disbelief when web surfers from all over the world report similar zombie experiences.

"When I get an email from a zombie enthusiast in South Africa, we may have nothing in common," said Morisson, "but this gives us some common ground. We know that this will hit everywhere when it happens -- when it hits Cleveland, it'll hit L.A., and when it hits L.A. it'll hit South Africa."

Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.

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Ambushing the Ambushers (On The Media: Friday, 26 June 2009)


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In the past few years, "The O'Reilly Factor" has adopted an old tradition from "60 Minutes"-era TV journalism: the ambush interview. We talk to John Cook, investigations editor for Gawker, who says that Bill O'Reilly uses the ambush to settle personal scores. Plus, OTM producer PJ Vogt describes shadowing Cook as he tried to ambush an ambusher.

Help Line (On The Media: Friday, 26 June 2009)


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A few weeks ago Ron Lieber, the New York Times "Your Money" columnist, faced a predicament. He'd undertaken an ambitious research project about student loans that he couldn't possibly finish by his deadline. So he came clean and asked readers for help. Lieber explains his journalistic experiment in mea culpa, crowdsourcing and subtly expanding the print pages of the Times.

Leaving the Story (On The Media: Friday, 26 June 2009)


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This week, the Iranian government continued a harsh crackdown on protests and on news outlets covering them. Journalists were expelled from the country. Some were arrested. Others, like Tehran Bureau's Jason Rezaian, were under such severe restrictions that they couldn't effectively report. So Rezaian decided to leave and explains why.

Getting A Second Opinion (On The Media: Friday, 26 June 2009)


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When ABC broadcast its exclusive health-care-reform town hall meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, one group cried foul. The Media Fairness Caucus, newly formed with some 40 Republican House members, wrote to ABC News president David Westin to complain that Obama wouldn't, couldn't be challenged enough to satisfy them. Both Westin and Caucus head Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas weigh in.

Help us help hyperlocal news


This post is by Jeff Jarvis from BuzzMachine


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For CUNY’s New Business Models for News Project, we would be very grateful if local blogs and sites filled out a survey to give us data in our analysis and modeling of the economics of hyperlocal news. The survey is here.

We are trying to find out how hyperlocal blogs and sites are doing their business today – how big they are, how big an area they cover, what’s working in advertising and what’s not. The data they give will be kept anonymous; that is, we’ll release it only in aggregate. We’ll also interview some of you to find out more.

Out of this, we are working to build models to show how to optimize the business of the hyperlocal news site: revenue opportunities, network opportunities, and so on. We’ll share that work on the site as it progresses.

As of today, we have a director, a business analyst, two business consultants, two journalism graduates, and six business students working on this effort. It’s serious. The more information we have to work with, the better they can serve the community. So if you have a local news blog or site, please fill out the survey and pass it along to others you know.

Thanks.

Why Razorfish Divestiture Now?


This post is by Andrew Goodman from Traffick


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Back in 2007, we briefly reviewed the major M&A activity in the digital ad serving technology and digital agency spaces. Many of our panel observers felt that Google and Microsoft should immediately divest themselves of the agency parts of the DoubleClick/Performics and Aquantive/Razorfish acquisitions, to clear out some of the conflict of interest inherent in major agencies owned by the sellers of supposedly performance-based, impartial media platforms.

Google moved relatively quickly to divest itself of Performics, whereas Microsoft held onto the Razorfish business -- until now.

Amazingly, the $6 billion acquisition of Aquantive counted as Microsoft's biggest ever acquisition. Considering its size and clout, Razorfish (formerly Avenue A | Razorfish) has had a relatively quiet two years since then. Perhaps this can be chalked up to this mega-agency's DNA; its first go-round in Bubble 1.0 was in the fast-hiring, website-overbuilding, overvaluation heyday of 1995-2000. And the company still seems to favor slow-loading, expensive-to-build, semi-indexable pages. Like ALPO, a recent client win for Razorfish, could it be that Razorfish represents a previous era of overpackaged, overstrategized goods with the same old ALPO inside the can?

While some may ask why Microsoft is selling this business, Daily Finance reporter Douglas McIntyre proffers: "What it is doing with the company in the first place is anybody's guess."

Certainly, if the long delay in selling Razorfish was helpful in demonstrating that Microsoft's decision-making process was totally independent of industry opinion that they should divest sooner, the delay was effective. Unfortunately, the value of the asset may now be sharply reduced. But so are many assets... such as the parts of Yahoo Microsoft is still considering strategically partnering with or buying.

First, kill the lawyers – before they kill the news


This post is by Jeff Jarvis from BuzzMachine


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Following the frighteningly dangerous thinking of Judge Richard Posner – proposing rewriting copyright law to outlaw linking to and summarizing (aka talking about) news stories – now we have two more lemming lawyers following him off the cliff in a column written by the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Connie Schultz.

First note well that Schultz is married to U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown as she calls on her newspapers and employer (my former employer, Advance Publications) and fellow columnists to influence Congress to remake copyright. She should be registered as a lobbyist. No joke.

Schultz says that David Marburger, an alleged First Amendment attorney for her paper, and his economics-professor brother, Daniel, have concocted their own dangerous thinking, proposing the copyright law be changed to insist that a newspaper’s story should appear only on its own web site for the first 24 hours before it can be aggregated or retold.

Incredible. So if the Plain Dealer reported exclusively that, say, the governor had just returned from a tryst with a Argentine lady, no one else could so much as talk about that for 24 hours. A First Amendment lawyer said this.

They make vague reference to the hot news doctrine theAP has been trying to dig up from its very deep grave. Note that their definition of hot is the cycle of newspaper publishing, not the cycle of news itself. Look at how fast the Michael Jackson news spread. Under these guys’ scheme, TMZ would have had exclusive right to publish his death for a day. Well, except it’s not a newspaper. And what they care about is protecting newspapers.

Schultz and the Marbergers complain about what they call the “free-riding” of aggregators, et al. But they simply don’t understand the economics of the internet. It’s the newspapers that are free-riding, getting the benefit of links.

These newspaper people are the ones trying to act as if they own the news and can monopolize it. Those days are over, thank God.

: LATER: Schultz has responded in the comments here. I have responded in turn. And I have just sent this message to the office of her husband:

Please consider this a press inquiry:

I want to know Sen. Brown’s stand on his wife’s column in the Plain Dealer on attempting to rewrite copyright law to give newspapers a 24-hour period of exclusivity on the news they report.

Does the senator support this legislation?

What will the senator vote on this legislation?

Will the senator recuse himself from voting on this legislation, considering his wife’s role in lobbying Congress on the issue?

Is his wife registered as a lobbyist?

4 Minute Roundup: Michael Jackson’s Death Rocks Web; Guardian Crowdsources


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Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at the way Michael Jackson's death yesterday played out online, going from TMZ to Twitter to the LA Times blog. Yesterday was a record traffic day for Yahoo, and Google News reacted like it was under a hack attack from the huge jump in search queries for Michael Jackson. Also, the Guardian is doing a massive crowdsourcing project to look over hundreds of thousands of documents of expenses from members of parliament.

Check it out:

4MR podcast 6-26-09.mp3

Background music is "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Outpouring of searches for the late Michael Jackson at Official Google blog

Losing Michael Jackson at Yahoo's Yodel Anecdotal blog

Michael Jackson Dies: Twitter Tributes Now 30% of Tweets at Mashable

Guardian Crowdsources Information about Parliament Members' Expenses at Poynter

Investigate your MP's expenses at the Guardian

MPs expenses -- what you've told us. So far at the Guardian

Four crowdsourcing lessons from the Guardian's (spectacular) expenses-scandal experiment at Nieman Journalism Lab

King of Twitter by Jeff Jarvis

Here's a graphical view of last week's MediaShift survey results. The question was "What websites do you trust most for news about Iran?"

survey grab for iran.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about when you really believed Michael Jackson died.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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How Will Iranian Protests Change Twitter?


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There's been much ado about Twitter's role in the political protests in Iran, and for good reason. With the Iranian government expelling foreign journalists, outlets like CNN scrambled to uncover sources where they could. They found these sources among the din of unverifiable messages surfacing on Twitter. It's been fun reading mainstream media accounts of how Twitter is, in a sense, revolutionizing revolutions -- very "meta," no? If you aren't familiar with these recent events, MediaShift editor Mark Glaser has a very useful summary here.

But I've been more interested in the way this story has brought Twitter into the mainstream. That is, not Twitter's effect on the Iranian protests, but the protests' effect on Twitter.

Ok, I'll Join...and So Will the UN Secretary-General

I have a confession: I've made a good chunk of my living recently counseling clients on digital media strategies, yet I myself have abstained from jumping aboard the Twitter bandwagon until this past week. Sure, I've launched Twitter campaigns on behalf of clients and I do consider myself wise in the ways of microblogging best practices. But while I understood how organizations could use this channel to connect with certain audiences, I felt that, for personal correspondence, Twitter had a sort of a navel-gazing, quasi-exhibitionist feel about it. If something's worth sharing with a larger group, isn't it worth more than 140 characters? Besides, I was -- and continue to be -- a stickler for good grammar, so the idea of proudly publishing that SMS-style nouveau scrawl makes me nauseous.

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My friend Laura Fitton (who authored the just-released Twitter for Dummies") has been hassling me for quite a while to sign up, but I've been stubborn. Nevertheless, the Western media's reliance on Twitter as a primary source -- along with the technology's power to enable dissent in an otherwise stifling environment -- has inspired me to climb aboard.

Twitter was scheduled to go offline for routine maintenance last week, but the U.S. State Department requested that the service keep the information flow from Iran uninterrupted. If the continuous operation of Twitter is deemed important to our national interest, perhaps there's something to this. Perhaps I should stop being so self-conscious about using such a self-conscious communications tool.

It's not just the State Department that's giving a nod to Twitter in the wake of the protests. The United Nations is adding its voice, too. I've been talking lately with my friend Jim Landale, a public information officer at the UN. Landale's been working on a multiplatform campaign to mark the 100 day countdown to the UN's International Day of Peace. The campaign, called WMD: We Must Disarm, is jettisoning traditional promotional tools in favor of social networks in an effort to reach a "socially active audience." (You can follow the campaign on Twitter here).

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who's shown a willingness to use digital media tools in the past, has even started tweeting. Landale, who was part of the team that encouraged Ban's use of Twitter, shared with me how the Iranian elections have impacted the UN's decision to use Twitter:

This is obviously the first time that a Secretary-General of the United Nations has 'tweeted' and the first time (that we know about) that one of our campaigns has used multiple online platforms at once...There was some skepticism initially within the UN Headquarters at the idea of using Twitter, Facebook and MySpace for such an important campaign, rather than the traditional set of promotional tools, but we managed to overcome this by demonstrating how the campaign would work online...In addition, although we planned the campaign well ahead of the recent elections in Iran, the role Twitter has played in the demonstrations has also probably helped persuade doubters within our own ranks that Twitter and other social networking sites can be an extremely powerful tool.

A Look Forward: Twitter and Limitations

Peggy Noonan, whose column is the sole reason I buy the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, had a thoughtful take on new technology's role in the recent Iran protests. She notes that Twitter and YouTube may have become powerful expression tools for existing sentiment, but acknowledges that they don't, by themselves, create that sentiment. What will be most interesting, she suggests, is how Twitter will be used moving forward. Using the French Revolution as a proxy, she writes:

If they Twittered and live-blogged the French Revolution, it still would have been the French Revolution: 'this aft 3pm @ the bastille.' It all still would have happened, perhaps with marginally greater support...The interesting question is what technology would have done after the Revolution, during the Terror. What would word of the demonic violence, the tumbrels and non-stop guillotines unleashed circa 1790-95 have done to French support for the Revolution, and world support? Would Thomas Jefferson have been able to continue his blithe indifference if reports of France grimly murdering France had been Twittered out each day?

iranphoto.jpg

The answer, of course, is "no." And the point, of course, is that Twitter can enrich the newsgathering ability of the mainstream media by acting as an investigative tool, a harbinger of public sentiment , and/or a crowdsourcing device. But Twitter itself is not -- and should not be -- the story here (except for outlets like this that cover this beat). Instead, it's part of the storytelling apparatus. It's no longer a grand phenomenon, but is instead a mere fragment of the mainstream media's new configuration.

Journalists should use Twitter to better understand the Iranian rebellion, not use the Iranian rebellion to tout a "Twitter Revolution." By focusing too heavily -- and headily -- on a simple micro-blogging technology, the news media risk distracting themselves from the more macroscopic, geopolitical issues at play here. If the mainstream news media can't get over its impulse to hype their shiny new tool, they will be enfeebled by the same kind of navel-gazing I thought Twitter was all about...until now.

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he's currently pursuing a master's in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

Iran protest photo collected but not taken by Misterarasmus via Flickr.

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The King of Twitter


This post is by Jeff Jarvis from BuzzMachine


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Reporters have been calling today looking into the importance of Twitter and social media in the two big stories of the month: Iran and Michael Jackson. Have we come to a next step stage in social media’s impact on news? Maybe.

Certainly the Jackson news spread quickly via Twitter. TMZ.com got the news first and it spread from tweet to retweet and then it spread beyond the web as each of those Twitterers acted as a node in a real-life network. An AP reporter told me she was riding on a bus when someone came on and announced the news to all the passengers – that person was a node, the bus the network – and then everyone on the bus, she said, took out their smart phones and spread the news farther. The live, ubquitous, mobile web is an incredible distribution channel for news.

I also spoke with Tampa Bay’s Eric Deggans and we wondered together about the arc of the Jackson story in big media versus our media. I’ll just bet that the story will die off on Twitter trends, Technorati, YouTube, and Facebook sooner than it finally exhausts its welcome – and our patience – on cable news. Back in 2005, I said that TV news was paying more attention to Jackson’s trial than the audience was, as evidenced by discussion on blogs, which lost interest in the story long before TV did; indeed, they never obsessed on Jackson as TV did and TV believed we wanted to.

I think this also means that we are less captive to cable news. Since its birth, cable was the only way to stay constantly connected to a story as it happened, or allegedly so. But in the Jackson story, there really is no news. He’s still dead. All that follows is discussion and wouldn’t we really rather discuss it with our friends than Al Sharpton? Once the supernova of news explodes – taking down Twitter search and YouTube and jamming GoogleNews search – we probably to seek out TV, but it quickly says all it has to say and the rest is just repetition. If the Iraq War was the birth of CNN could Iran and Jackson mark the start of their decline in influence? Too soon to say.

Journalists end up playing new roles in the news ecosystem. Again, I followed the Iran story in the live blogs of The New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and Andrew Sullivan and they performed new functions: curating, vetting, adding context, adding comment, seeking information, filling out the story, correcting misinformation. They worked with social media, quoting and distributing and reporting using it. I watched the filling out of the Neda video story as the Guardian called the man who uploaded it to YouTube and Paulo Coelho blogged about his friend in the video, the doctor who tried to save Neda. Piece by piece, the story came together before our eyes, in public. The journalists added considerable value. But this wasn’t product journalism: polishing a story once a day from inside the black box. This was process journalism and that ensured it was also collaborative journalism – social journalism, if you like.

The unfortuante truth about the confluence of these two stories – Jackson and Iran – is that the former pushes the latter off the front page, the constant cable attantion. But will it push Iran out of our consciousness and discussion? Again, we’ll see. I was in the car when I spoke with Eric but he told me that on Twitter, the trends were all but filled with Jackson – except for the Iran election, which was still there, in the middle. That renews my faith in us.

: LATER: Here’s the AP story.

Here’s Eric’s piece. And here’s the San Francisco Chronicle’s piece (curses to the editor to cut out reference to WWGD?).

: Interesting take from a lawyer who sees Jackson as a victim of the innovator’s dilemma.