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A lot of noise for not much news: The Iran Hashtag – The Age

‘IRAN went to hell, side effects media went to bed.” Last week, hospital this sentence spoke to an acute cultural fear. Written on global whiteboard Twitter, it typified a particular rage and echoed a particular boast: old media is inert and useless; our own, new real-time media is where we’ll write and find the truth.

Citizens of the electronic world, it seemed, were ravenous for news on the Iranian election. Traditional media, they contended, were unable to offer satisfying fare. Rather than sit around waiting for a-la-carte news service, millions chose to serve and feed at the chaotic buffet of Twitter instead.

Following the disputed Iranian elections, the Twitter service was saturated with links to images and messages of happenings in Iran. Even for the cynical, it was difficult not to gape in awe at some of these “tweets” ó the name given to the short, and, in this case, very persuasive, bursts of text published on the medium. Posts ostensibly written by Iranian citizens not only managed a news speed “top down” outlets seemed unable to offer, in many cases, the tweets alerted the people of Iran to protest and protection. The locations of military action and Government crackdowns were written in under 140 characters. These updates were followed slavishly not only by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s soldiers. The West was also watching.

In the face of democracy’s defeat, at least new media scored an unambiguous victory. But Twitterers were hardly alone in the conviction that their medium had become an essential news, and survival, source. The significance of the tweet was elevated by an institution no less traditional than the US Government. The nation’s State Department officially requested a delay in Twitter’s maintenance tasks so that the tool remained available to opponents of Ahmadinejad.

This is not the first occasion in which affordable technology and so-called “social media” have been employed by protesters. In 2005, the Philippines Government restricted broadcast of a wiretapped recording in which president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo discussed election rigging. The conversation was fused with music and quickly spread as a mobile telephone ringtone. Arroyo’s prohibited conversation was heard throughout the nation. In 2007, ordinary Nigerians used SMS technology to observe and report on the election.

The same year, the term “blog” officially entered the popular lexicon thanks, in large part, to the extraordinary efforts of Burmese citizen journalists. When Burma’s press was forced to down tools, the Saffron Revolution was entirely written on mobile telephones and in internet cafes. The photography sharing site Flickr, normally home to the artsy offerings of teenaged Westerners, first hosted the now famous pictures of blood on a monastery floor. In the ’60s, protesters against the Vietnam War would chant, “the whole world is watching”. Then, the world was not watching with such constancy and ease as it is now.

Recent days have seen spirited discussion about the role of new media and citizen journalists in reshaping history. Buoyant terms like “Twitter revolution” and “collaborative dissidence” are coined by technology-minded thinkers. Many Western public intellectuals are preparing to deliver the eulogy for old media. But, news of the Iranian election did not so much unfold as explode on Twitter. What we saw, more than a careful chronicling of events, was the release of a compressed urgency.

Some news agencies, including BusinessWeek, suggest that there were fewer than 100 active twitterers during the disputed election. Among those sifting through critical tweets was The Atlantic’s political editor, Marc Ambinder. It is generally agreed that Ambinder’s conflation of old media savvy with new media smarts provided some of the best coverage of the bloody dispute. While he credits many Iranian tweets, he is reluctant to employ the term Twitter revolution. Twitter, he says, is noise. It is not signal intelligence.

It would be foolish to dismiss the online events of recent weeks. It would be equally unwise to celebrate, as so many seem willing to do, the demise of traditional media just yet. In the end, Twitter offered the world little more than a cluster of emotional, diffuse and unreliable detonations.

The genuine messages from Iran were quickly eclipsed by Westerners desperate to selfishly demonstrate their selflessness. This flashy display achieved a goal that eluded the Iranian Government. Twitter became useless as a news source. Iran was silenced by those “citizen journalists” on the other side of the world. In a matter of hours, one was unable to follow any meaningful narrative on Iran. All the talk turned to the failure of old media, thereby ensuring the failure of the new. As I write, “Iran” has all but disappeared as a tag in Twitter. Users offer emotional, diffuse and unreliable reports about Michael Jackson instead.

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