This is just a quick blog post getting my thoughts out on the current events going on with Iran. Social scientists have come down hard in the blogosphere, over the hype about twitter. They've made sound arguments, particularly of how hype spreads like wildfire (Twitter revolution! and all of that). And I believe they are right. Twitter was not instrumental in the Iranian revolution, but at the same time, the revolution made Twitter instrumental for us to learn about it. In other words, I'm thinking the vast upsurge and use of Twitter helped us keep informed as to what was going on. I've been following the hash tags, "iranelection" and "anthropology," and there has been a lot of useless chattering "Twitter is awesome!" (See the Open Anthro blog for a good article about this), but there also has been links I found useful. Updates, information, current events. In other words, decent coverage.

Now, this all has less to do with Iran and more to do with how we informed ourselves about the revolution. More about us than them. That's the critical point... Twitter isn't instrumental in this revolution, but it's been great for helping us become informed about it. I know I learned quite a bit from twitter updates, or other mediums (Reddit, Youtube, etc). Social media can help news spread like wildfire, if it can come about at the right place and time.

That being said, it's not perfect. There are other moments in politics where no coverage was done, Twitter wasn't used, and that raises certain hypocritical issues, and begs the question whether or not all of this is hype and feel-good-revolutionary Western memes. That's true. But, I've seen these things happen in smaller ways in the past. Take Reddit, for example. They have covered a decent amount of world wide political activity (albeit not perfectly, again subject to mass hype).

As a social scientist, I whole heartedly agree we should be the first to raise skepticism and anchor our desire for these ideas (internet revolutions, power to the masses, etc) not cloud our analysis of what's really going on.

That being said, we've raised doubts as to how effective twitter was in helping them, but turning this analysis on ourselves, it says to things I've noticed:

1) What many social scientists have pointed out: It's a lot of hype, a lot of feel good revolutionary ideals. Social media idealists, mass hysteria.
2) The dangers of relying on social media to broadcast news: unconfirmed, and for the most part most people don't broadcast news (Twitter was on the decline before Iran events). A lot of chatter, little valuable information.
3) The emergence of new technology to enhance our own communication with each other and with the world. In reality, this doesn't make "twitter revolutions," but definitely is helping us communicate within our own countries. The information age might be undergoing a real phenomenon, not one in which US citizens, now empowered social media folk, can be instrumental in foreign revolutions. That sounds like a case of narcissism if I've heard heard one. No, it's helping our own infrastructure, our own social sphere, transform. That's where the hype, I believe, is accurate.

But 3 is often the least focused on (at least from my experience here) only because, it seems, of our focus on skepticism and criticalness of hype. But, as a general question to social scientists: would it be ok to be an enthusiast without gaining the connotation of an idealist? I think the social media thing is remarkable, but yet I agree with a lot of skepticism. Though, I think there is plenty of potential for us to be both skeptical and harness the potential for social media technology to really flesh out the possibilities we do have.

I mean, Open Anthropology is itself, I think, only backing up evidence of point #3. That in the West (and beyond, now), it's a growing tool for collaboration and information/communication exchange. This is a new phenomenon, it has its ups and downs. And we as social scientists are familiar with those: hysteria, hype, idealism, etc. Its a virtual space to communicate, but humans are at the other end of the computers, so of course twitter and other technologies are not perfect. At any rate, I guess this whole thing is just a mixture of ideas and reflections about recent events.

I study as a focus the impact of technology has on structures of society and social interaction. So these ideas are always bubbling up in my head. One thing I've noticed is social media has been evolving to become more organic and complex, reflecting more and more the way we are in reality. It's like the internet is becoming embedded in our society, surely that will have a significant impact.

At any rate, please feel free to critique and comment. I'd really like to hear input on what other social scientists think of the world we're living in, and the new forms of social communication.

Thanks for hearing me out...


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Comment by Jeremy Johnson on July 22, 2009 at 6:51pm
Hey Alexandre,

The internet is definitely a fascinating place for anthropological analysis! Odds are it's only going to have more and more to analyze as time goes on...

I think the key point I might not have raised before is clarification between social media, and the medium itself. Not what we're talking about as much as how we are talking. To me at least, it seems the internet is the first example of a communication technology that can provide all of the elements of previous media technology: broadcasting to everyone via any form (image, text, sound), and in such a way that we can also have conversations with each other. Mass broadcasting and mass inter-communication. It's that last part, the decentralized web of connections that's the newest element, and allows for twitter, blogging, and even this network to thrive.

From this perspective, the most interesting component of modern communication technology is its potential to allow mass organization without a central, broadcasting authority. Top down is no longer necessary for group efforts. Not that it doesn't exist, since the internet also serves as a TV, a radio, magazines, etc. But it's role in organizing, at least in theory, might be seen to diminish as time goes on.

As a social scientist I find that to be fascinating, and it's implications profound, given enough time to spread and develop... I guess the next question is: how might this new structure affect culture, identity, politics, activism, or in effect, any group effort?
Comment by Alexandre Enkerli on July 22, 2009 at 5:05pm
Coming a month late but there's a lot to say about this...

Just a few quick notes, jotted down haphazardly.

Thinking critically is a large part of our training and we do tend to do it. But not all the time. Those of us who are ethnographers may have this habit of going back and forth between "worldviews," including the switch between the academic mode of thought and the "local knowledge" that we try to understand. In this sense, some of us might appear to be "buying the hype," but we still maintain a critical sense, with regards to these phenomena.
Those of us who are, indeed, idealists may want to use social media to "live the change we want to see." It's not that social media is a cause of a major shift in social structure. It's that the kind of social change about which we may care is happening at the same time as the rise of "social media." We can think about the link between journalism and nationalist-era representative democracy. If we want to see a shift to post-nationalist participatory democracy, we may as well look at social media.
That part implies a personal involvement and even personal opinions. There still is a lot of debate in academic anthropology about the degree to which we may involve ourselves personally in social change. Are we academics, activists, ideologues, politicians, chroniclers, agents, researchers, instructors, consultants...? Is there any connection between our anthropological background and our social lives?
Twitter got a lot of hype, partly because of the crisis in journalism. I happen to think that the service itself is overrated, that Twitter isn't the core of the "social media revolution." But it's currently the focal topic for discussions about social media, in general. Not that I like military analogies but it's the "front" on which "the social media battle is fought." Social scientists ignoring Twitter may have a hard time understanding the current state of social media.
The very fact that a notion of "feel-good revolutionaries" is discussed demonstrates something important about the world in which we live. In fact, it's almost a mainstream conversation among French-speakers. Part of it may sound snarky and it does go against the grain of "liberalism" (and neo-liberalism) in the United States. But it's going on, right now.
Some of the loudest voices in English-speaking social media are connected to a newly formed elite. There's been a fair bit of talk about the centrality of some US regions. We can think about Sillicon Valley's Benevolent Dictatorship. Or about Negroponte's top-down approach to building and selling technology. Or about the connections (at least intellectual, but also personal) between The Well, Global Business Network, TED, Edge, Whole Earth Catalog, etc.

Overall, social media may be hypetastic, but it's also a fascinating ground for anthropological thinking and ethnographic perspectives.
Comment by Keith Hart on June 25, 2009 at 9:59pm
Jeremy, thanks for starting this thread.I should say, before getting to what I have to say for myself, that Max's post on OA was a magnificent example of serious blogging, not easily matched by anything on Twitter. My general point is that you can't tell what the eventual social use of a technical innvoation is going to be from its immediate application. Thus the adoption of iron in the Eastern Mediterranean around 1000 BCE was first as elite ornaments, then as weapons and only much later as material for agricultural and manufacturing tools. Similarly the internet was for a while the monopoly of military, bureaucratic and academic types, before emerging as the marketplace it is today. Who would have guessed five years ago that this commerical potential may soon to be outstripped by the mobile phone, wich has a built-in payment system, or that the world leader in such applications would be East Africa?

I would suggest, moreover, that each of us finds some innovations more 'revoltuionary' than others. For me the sequence would be word processing (the intellectual as artisan!), email, personal websites, micro-blogging and social bookmarking. But I don't expect others to share this judgment. We all enter the digital revoltuion at differen tpoints with our own bundle of advantages and drawbacks. The fun part is that late starters can often make better use of more advanced software than the pioneers.

I am convinced, because of my persistent interest in the digital evolution of money that Twitter (or something like it) will prove to be an excellent medium for alternative currencies. Like you, I was not convinced by the coverage of the Iran election. But I am impressed by the speed, transparency and some other features of Twitter compared with the newspapers, Google etc.

And Sean, Tianmenen Square was witnessed by a vast global TV audience at a time when Gorbachev was visiting China. Pictures of a man stopping a tank in its tracks did not stop the politburo from crushing the protest nor do I aimagine that the new social media would have made much of a difference. The guy himself spent the next two decades in jail. I watched it all with an old West Indian revolutionary. we agreed that nothing could stop the Chinese authorities, but the demonstration effect would undermine Soviet control over Eastern Europe. And that is what happened next. The problem with much analysis of these phenomena is that the cause-effect relations postulated are too narrow and immediate.
Comment by Jeremy Johnson on June 24, 2009 at 8:57am
Hey Fran, Sean

The MSM and social media interconnection is definitely true, but if anything, MSM has had to adopt to social media in order to remain an authority (CNN blogs, etc). Clay Shirky mentions a few things about how the majority of content creators make up the minority, but that nevertheless this makes up for a successful network (Twitter, Flickr, etc) and more organic communities.

So I think altho there will be some centralizing forces on the web, there will probably be ever-evolving ways to keep things as decentralized as possible, and to enhance the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of that sort of community structure. For instance, bloggers cross referencing each other, etc.

I guess as a general trend with communication technology would be: less centralization, more networking and integration. Each new development, once it's become structurally abundant and available in society, still allows for some centralized agents, authority, bias, etc, but on subtler and subtler levels, and enhances our ability to communicate.

I think the internet will/is having a similar effect that the printing press, television, radio etc. have had on societies. How that will play out in this century is definitely a fascinating topic... As Sean is saying, what would happen when more and more technology is available to wider and wider groups of people (beyond the west, etc)? In the future, these forms of communication may play integral roles in politics and activism.
Comment by Sean Mallin on June 23, 2009 at 9:27pm

Thanks for your post! And while I agree that Twitter, YouTube, et al., may be over hyped, we have to acknowledge the capability of new social media to shape the real outcomes of world events. Surely the response of the Iranian government to protesters has had to change given the overwhelmingly negative media coverage. A hypothetical we could ponder: what if Twitter and YouTube had existed during Tiananmen Square? Would that have changed anything?
Comment by Francine Barone on June 23, 2009 at 9:21pm
Hi Jeremy,

Yeah, I agree. I also think that it's become more or less impossible to separate MSM from social media, especially given that they are sourced by each other. MSM broadcasts often quote from blogs and Twitter now; nearly every Twitter/blog post/Wikipedia article links to MSM for credibility and verification. What is left over is a social filtering effect (Digg writ large) that is as swayed by the editorial beliefs of "a few authorities" as much as it ever was, only with a lot more static thrown in. Stick a comment box on a website and suddenly everyone wants their voice heard, and the sensationalists have free reign there as well. But can we really listen to/hear so many voices shouting into the darkness?

Universal, anytime, anywhere access to the Internet and dispersed social media practices might well cause a backlash against information decentralization. Information (and misinformation) from every direction is as unbearable as it is unhelpful. Within social media, I've noticed a trend towards renewed attention to trusted specialists, experts, popular editors, etc, who take on the role of filtering massive amounts of content for their respective audiences. (Even on Twitter since the Iranian election there has been talk of trustworthy and untrustworthy sources).

Despite the so-called egalitarian nature of the web, not every Internet user is on an equal footing. There are far fewer content producers than consumers, and I think this is leading to the development or strengthening of a expert class of information elites within knowledge communities on the web. It's possible that on a larger scale, we'll find the same old structure of centralization taking root in new media as it did in MSM, just less deliberate or less evident at first glance.

Just a few thoughts.

Comment by Jeremy Johnson on June 23, 2009 at 2:34am
Hey Fran,

Thanks for the response! I think it's a little bit of both, honestly. The MSM often appeals to sensationalism, among many other things, and a new form of media exchange is meeting the need the latter can no longer, or at least is no longer feeding (more facts, more information), simply because, well, it's just how the internet is built. A system which thrives off of decentralized communication and information, placed within a society where we get our knowledge from centralized agents (MSM, etc), I guess there is a clear place where the two structures clash. We're amazed at the little we know, but some of us make the mistake that it's all the MSM fault, where really it's partly us to blame for letting it get so bad! Nevertheless, it's still becoming a popular way to get information and spread news, sometimes faster than MSM. Signs of changing times...
Comment by Francine Barone on June 21, 2009 at 10:11pm
Hi Jeremy,

You bring up some good points here, many of which I've seen debated on the various media you mention (Twitter, YouTube, blogs, MSM, etc) and there's far too much to repeat here. I recently read this blog post from Ethan Zuckerman which is a good "let's step back and take a breath" look at the overwhelming information of recent days, with attention to social media vs. mainstream media. There are also plenty of links included in the text for more detailed analysis.

I'm not sure if there are equal parts "revolution" and "hype" in the situation in Iran, or which outweighs the other. I think the reason why "Westerners" cling to the notion that Twitter and social media can reveal the "truth" to us is that it's so frustrating to realize we don't actually know what's going on. Again, I'm not sure if that's a failure of MSM or social media or both, or if it's just inevitable given current conditions.



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