Rebirth, Retrospection, and Year-Old Observations on Sociopolitical Uses of Twitter

I created this website in 2009 after being inspired by a grandiose vision of forging an electronic nexus for my personal and professional existence. I envisioned an active creative, reflective, and collaborative space for both, essentially an electronic commonplace book. It quickly became unwieldy and, as life became more busy, ultimately moribund. I attempted to adapt it for different purposes, at one point turning it into an aggregator for quotidian content I discovered in my electronic meanderings to serve as a resource for a radio show I wanted to host. After that plan fell by the wayside, I couldn't honestly come up with something to do with the site.

Recent revelations about my career goals have inspired me to give it another shot. Like the proverbial Phoenix, this site has been reborn after major structural and content revisions. I hope a leaner, more flexible experience will inspire me to focus on content instead of collection building; on more frequent, shorter updates instead of gargantuan essays published infrequently.

In reviewing what I originally created, I'm astounded at my ambition: I wanted to publish multi-page essays on a biweekly basis and expected people to actually read them. I created a sizeable corpus of information for such an initial, limited effort. The naivète, optimism, bold prognostication, arrogant presumption, and loquaciousness on display in these entries seem almost alien in retrospect: I almost don't recognize myself as I read what I wrote. It has therefore been a most useful exercise to review my content, to rediscover threads I once examined with interest and subsequently discarded. In resurrecting and reshaping this site, I hope to regain some of the optimism and bold (if inaccurate) prognostication that so defined my first year at Hamilton.

This project started with a blog post, which I imported unaltered (blemishes and all!) from the first instantiation of the site. The post was originally published on Wednesday, June 17, 2009. Here it is:

I'll be using this blog publish my day-to-day musings on the state of technology, the internet at large, social media, crowdsourcing, and educational technology.

I believe anyone who has set up a blog will agree with me: getting it going is the hardest part. "Constant contribution," "commitment," "proper grammar," and "organizing thoughts" are familiar--yet oddly odious--terms in the blogosphere. They are the hurdles every new blogger has to overcome in order to create any kind of content that people might want to look at. I've been struggling against my creative inertia but certain events forced me out of my stupor.

I refer to the 2009 election scandal in Iran.

Having been without internet access all weekend, I had no idea that the election had occurred. Nor was I aware of the public outcry against the (horrid) results of the election. And I didn't hear about it by turning on the news, through a newspaper, or even Google Reader.

I became involved in the situation through Twitter.

Upon returning to the electronic world, I pulled out my iPod Touch, booted up Twitter, and was blown away by the sheer depth and breadth of the conversation. People were tweeting events as they occurred; directions to access proxy servers to circumvent Iranian firewalls; dismay at the lack of coverage in U.S. and British media (CNN caught up at least... Fox News was showing Desperate Housewives reruns!); twitpics showing skirmishes and chilling pictures of bullet-ridden dormitory doors; instructions for DDOS attacks; and general commentary on the situation.

Far from being overwhelming, it was a harrowing and immersive perspective on the situation. Frustrating too because I couldn't immediately find a way to participate and assist (besides wearing a green shirt the next day). It was the world immediately accessible and completely human. No intermediary, no verification of authenticity. It was raw, explosive. And it was immediate. Intrepid people found ways for everyone to participate: IT types created easily-executable programs to allow everyone with an internet connection and a mouse to DDOS attack Iranian servers, historians chimed in on the similarities between this and the 70s revolution, news junkies shared updates delivered on CNN, and Iranian agents attempted to use subterfuge and delivered false messages.

All delivered over Twitter. And no Fail Whale in sight.

I hope you're getting a clear impression of the seemingly-anarchical state of Twitter that evening. Far from chaos, I would actually compare the experience to listening in on conversations between groups of people, but virtually.  Each group was involved in different activities (News, subterfuge, awareness, propaganda, general opinion, political science).  You may (or may not) also have noticed that I used the phrase "became involved in" above.  Though I couldn't actively participate, my exposure through Twitter allowed me to inform people around me about the situation who had no idea what was going on. That was my role in this.

And also talking up social media.  Not that it needs the help really: word spread quickly and social media was evangelized universally in every conversation in real life and electronically.

Globally, people have begun to notice the sheer power of social media; how utterly different news delivery has become. Just as oral reports gave way to books and the newspaper which gave way to RSS feeds (Google Reader) and electronic delivery; so too have news agencies and the reporter given way to the internet and people on site or with an interest in the situation to deliver the news.

What once was an asynchronous (yes, even Google Reader), monodirectional, monolithic information delivery system has now become a bidirectional, instantaneous, personal, primary collaborative system with strong implications for all participants. I'm going to focus solely on the Consumer of this new news:

  • Updates occur instantaneously, or nearly instantaneously. You become aware of events as they happen.
  • You receive information from a varying number of observers (single, multiple, tens, hundreds, thousands)
  • Your experience is as multimodal as you desire it to be (or that you have the capability for): Text, Image, Sound, Video, Virtual Presence
  • You can communicate bidirectionally with the observers and with other consumers.
  • You have virtually no way of confirming the identity of the observer or other consumers. Nor have you much of a clue as to their history and possible bias.
  • You are an active participantion the events rather than a passive participant.
  • You can help propagate accurate information (that you believe is accurate)
  • You can contribute relevant information
  • You can coordinate assistance and develop a response network You can meet people who share your views whom you never could have before.

The benefits of collaboration in this media cannot be overstated. There are many unanswered questions: verification of authorship, authenticity; censorship; the question of politics and political oversight in response to this new media; the redefinition of "expert"; whether to professionalize this media in any respect; etc...

My main point is that the fulcrum upon which the world rests has shifted tremendously in visible and invisible ways. New technologies assisting in the socialization and broadening of our electronic lives (and, concordantly, our non-virtual lives) appear every day.

The news--and, more broadly, information distribution--as we know it is dying. Long live the news.

For another take on this topic, I direct you to an excellent TED talk given recently by Clay Shirky, a Professor at NYU'sInteractive Telecommunications Program.  PLEASE WATCH IT.

Further Reading (Some articles, ironically, from Old Media Sources)