Monday, October 31, 2011

One Tweet Can Change the World

(This Sunday November 6th, journalist Charles Sennott, who witnessed and wrote extensively about the January 25th revolution in Egypt, will speak at the seventh annual Cornerstone Forum in Sherborn on the topic “Digital Revolution: The Power of Social Media to Change the World”.  It takes place at 4 p.m. at the Sherborn Community Center and is free and open to the public.  Sennott’s topic got me thinking about social media’s revolutionary impact on all of life.)

Tweet (noun) 1. a weak chirping sound, as of a young or small bird. 2. a very short message posted on the Twitter Web site: the message may include text, keywords, and mentions of specific users, links to Web sites, links to images or videos on a Web site.
                                                            --Random House Dictionary

Can one person change the world by writing and sending a 140 character message on a digital screen?  Consider Twitter.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is an online social networking and micro-blogging site which allows users to “tweet” (send) and read “tweets (text based messages) with other Twitter followers on smart phones and computers.  160 characters is the limit for international text messages, so Twitter limits users to 140 characters of prose, with 20 characters reserved for the “tweeter’s” (sender’s) name. Twitter users “follow” (subscribe) to other Twitter authors and receive tweets in real time, then often forward those to other groups of online followers. In the digital world, Twitter isn’t all that old having just turned five last April.  But it is a big and growing form of instant digital communication and connection, with 200 million users worldwide, writing, sending and reading some quarter billion tweets per day. 

The cliché critique of Twitter and similar social networking sites like Facebook, is that these only promote digital narcissism, claim a cadre of self-focused folks letting other self-focused folks know what they are doing and how they are feeling, overblown human self-importance writ large.  “Hey! I’m going to the store.” “I’m drinking a great cup of coffee at Starbucks!” “I have a headache!” 

Yes. Twitter is largely filled with such digital “cotton candy”. Four of the top five tweeters are the singers Lady Gaga (1.5 million followers), Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and reality TV queen Kim Kardashian. (President Obama is number four.)  You have to go pretty far down the top 200 tweet list to find any other folks of substance: Bill Gates (44), Stephen Colbert (100), or Al Gore (126).  But if we look beyond the flash of Twitter, its simple and radical process of sharing information is very revolutionary, especially when it comes to social change, people seeking to transform the world from the bottom up.

Twitter’s first great moment came during the Iranian uprisings in the summer of 2009, when Iranian protesters, fighting for democracy in that theocratic land, were able to let the world know of their struggle and the government’s violent crackdown by tweeting text and photo and video links. News outlets were not there to witness, nor most foreign governments. But Twitter was and with its instantaneous and under the radar messaging the global community quickly found out about Iran’s dirty laundry.  Last January’s revolution in Egypt was largely organized not through traditional methods (from the top down of a political structure) but through postings and pages on Facebook.  Occupy Wall Street, which seemed to come out of nowhere, was in fact born in social media land. 

We live in amazing and revolutionary times, especially when it comes to mass and micro communication.  For the gift of Twitter and Facebook, so much more so than merely allowing us to connect with friends or follow a celebrity, is that these communication networks bypass the powers that be. They bring the power of protest instead directly to the streets, the people, and the activists.  With just a cell phone and a signal, one brave soul can send out the word to fight for freedom, and governments are often powerless in the face of such subversive organizing. 

If I was a ruling cleric in Iran or a communist party chair in China these days, I’d be very afraid of Twitter and Facebook.  It’s startling to consider just what can be said in 140 characters.  “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [people] are created equal.” (79 characters.)  “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble." (130 characters.)   "You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (106 characters.)   "Be the change you wish to see in the world." (45 characters.) “I have a dream.” (17 characters.)

What would you say in 140 characters?  It might just change the world for the better.


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