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Twitter Revolution?

Monday, July 06, 2009 at 05:10 PM EDT

Most of us in the conference room were white, 20-somethings. Most of us had the latest laptop propped open on our legs or table with 20 different websites open, clicking, typing, and procrastinating. Dare I say it, most of us were probably only half listening to the Oxford-style debate going on in the conference room.

We the interns of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society were discussing if Twitter and its tweets were “a revolutionary form of communication.”

That was our way of framing a discussion about this new-fangled Twitter thing that seemed to be everywhere in the media — or at least in the media we Internet-philes read, blogged and shared. Whether it was the best way to frame the discussion is questionable, but we wanted to have a stab at the conversation, too.

Some of the takeaway points include:

  • The Cons: It is not revolutionary because it’s just a build off of what we already have: blogs, Facebook, and SMS.
  • Pro: It is revolutionary because it can connect you with a wide array of people faster than ever, and it can connect you with the very cool and important people you never had access to before. Like Shaq and Oprah.
  • And from a listener: Hold up, how can you tell if it’s revolutionary unless the revolution is over?

So full disclosure. I am part of the 90 percent of users who opened a Twitter account, puttered on it for a bit and then puttered out. As far as I can tell, I have no need for it. It’s not revolutionary or even a useful tool for me. I tote my laptop with me everywhere and can communicate in a faster manner on Internet platforms with many friends…like, ya know, writing here on this site, or posting something on Facebook. The majority of my teched-out and tuned in peers in the room felt the same way.

Yet, I think we failed to articulate how the global conversation has changed and could change even more because of Twitter: In light of the recent Iran elections and the subsequent Twittering that followed the controversial results, it seems that the ultimate revolutionary use of Twitter and similar SMS services may not be in the US and already heavily-connected and broadbanded regions, but in areas of the world where mobile phones have the high penetration rates. Often, these same regions have news and information services that don’t always (or ever) function in a democratic fashion.

In India, Kenya, and now Iran, Twitter and SMS have become important tools for connecting and coordinating isolated populations — both physically and politically — with each other and then enables them to broadcast that dialogue around the world for others to iterate on.

In Iran this week, Facebook groups, blogs and political websites supporting Moussavi were shutdown as his supporters rushed to the Internet to voice their frustrations about Ahmadinejad’s victory. But the re-routed Twitter feeds from Iran served like a collection of political SOSes and kept the Iran election dispute highlighted in the press of the US, Great Britain and other parts of the developed world as well. That’s an important change in the global dialogue, and it may prove to be revolutionary in more ways than one.