The Cost of Hashtag Revolution

That discussion of the Iranian election popped up on Twitter was not particularly surprising. The microblogging service is often mocked as a venue for the discussion of daily minutia -- a recent spoof was made up entirely of real-time reports about the sandwiches that users were eating -- but by now Twitter is clearly one of the most popular forums for online chatter about current events. But when the action on Twitter began to affect events in Iran, well, that was downright shocking. And to the extent that it signaled Twitter's arrival as an important political tool, it was also somewhat alarming.

For those still resisting the Twitter hype, a quick primer: The service allows users to broadcast short messages to one another by text message, through Twitter.com, or by using a variety of purpose-built programs. Which messages you receive is determined by the accounts you've subscribed to -- who you're "following," in Twitter terminology. Users are also able to apply "hashtags" to their updates. Consisting of a word preceded by the # symbol, this convention makes it easy to find clusters of tweeted activity by topic. As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi simultaneously claimed victory, use of the #IranElection hashtag exploded.

Many of the observers outside Iran who were monitoring the #IranElection activity weren't content to passively watch events develop -- they wanted to take action. Less than 20 hours after polls closed, Twitter users began sharing addresses of proxy servers intended to help Iranians evade their government's filtering of Twitter and other sites. Twitter users began tinting their avatars green to express solidarity with the protesters, and links to pictures and video from the streets of Tehran ricocheted through the network.

Inevitably, The Atlantic Monthly's Andrew Sullivan declared on his blog that "the revolution will be Twittered.” By the standards of what followed, that barely counted as triumphalism. Sullivan's colleague Marc Ambinder speculated that by allowing protesters to transmit the location of security forces, Twitter had saved lives. And during an appearance on the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal's Yochi Dreazen asserted that "this [revolution] would not happen without Twitter." It's now been more than two weeks since the election, and although the prospects of the Iranian protest movement remain uncertain, the future of the world's armchair revolutionaries looks bright.

But despite the pundits' enthusiasm, there are reasons for doubting the importance of Twitter to the Iranian protesters. The mobile-phone networks in Iran have reportedly been unreliable since the election, and the government has been working to shut down proxy servers as quickly as they spring up. Even with proxies, Internet access is slow and spotty. As experts like the Berkman Center's Ethan Zuckerman have attested, it's unlikely that Twitter has been an important tool for those organizing the demonstrations.

But that doesn't mean it's been irrelevant to the demonstrators or those watching them. Much of the coverage of the protests has been driven by Twitter, and not just because newspapers can no longer afford foreign correspondents. Twitter has allowed those who want to send news or messages of support to do so without needing technical expertise, or personal contacts, or even the patience to wait for a search engine or journalist to make the content discoverable. Many people have found it to be a useful source of news from Iran, including some at the State Department: On June 16 the agency asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance in order to ensure that the service remained available to Iranians.

This isn't the first time the U.S. government has put its faith in Twitter. The site TweetCongress tracks the updates of over 146 Twittering lawmakers -- and that's just the federal legislature. State lawmakers, candidates, and prospective Republican National Committee chairs have been rushing onto the service, each one desperate to prove that he's a wired, cutting-edge candidate. Twitter is being used to keep checks on government, too: Twitter Vote Report uses the service for crowd-sourced election monitoring.

In short, Twitter is becoming a genuinely important political tool -- collectively, we seem to be making it into something essential. It's probably worth asking whether this is a good idea.

Twitter is far from the only online tool being used for political ends, but it's one of the few that is both a medium and a company. Yahoo.com might handle your e-mail, but if it went down, the e-mail system would still work. Google search is important, but its disappearance wouldn't make the sites it indexes stop working, and there are plenty of search engines that would be glad to take its place.

Twitter is not like that. If it went away, that would be that. Your tweets and your contacts would vanish. And this is largely by necessity. Most Internet technologies are decentralized. Twitter is just the opposite: Its hub-and-spoke architecture enables the network effects that make it worthwhile.

There are competing services like Identi.ca and FriendFeed that hope to peer with Twitter and thereby turn the medium into a more e-mail-like network instead of a fragile centralized hub. But they'll have to overcome serious technical challenges to do so. Besides, it's not clear why Twitter would choose to give up its microblogging monopoly. The people at Twitter (full disclosure: I'm friendly with one of them) have run the service admirably, listening to their users, maintaining an open interface, providing data to researchers and, yes, rescheduling downtime when the government asks nicely. But Twitter is a young company. The way the service works is still in flux, and it's almost certain to keep changing: It's still not clear how Twitter is going to make any money.

All we can say for sure is that Twitter's founders have successfully sold off two other start-ups -- Blogger and Odeo -- and have turned down multiple offers for Twitter. It's entirely possible that this increasingly vital communication medium will wind up in the hands of someone other than well-meaning young men from San Francisco. Is that a problem? It could be: Consider the illiberal capitulations that Google and Yahoo have made to the Chinese government (filtering searches about Tiananmen Square; sharing dissidents' e-mails). Now consider Twitter's capacity for mapping connections between individuals, its adoption by protest movements, its ability to record its users' locations. It could be a big problem.

Admittedly, we're unlikely to see Twitter-enabled totalitarianism here in the U.S. But that doesn't make it a good idea to shift important political activity into a privately owned arena -- particularly one that's still adjusting its business model. Every time Ebay changes its policies or Google alters its ranking algorithm, howls of protest arise from users who depend on those services for their livelihoods. Those entrepreneurs can seek alternatives, of course, but there's a real cost to doing so. If they don't, the service providers extract ever-greater rents, hindering the vitality of the medium.

That's fine for chatter about sandwiches. But important parts of our democracy shouldn't be dependent on a corporation's goodwill.

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