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Twitter, Iran and the Social Nervous System

Submitted by on June 23, 2009 – 4:44 pmOne Comment

Today Ken Majer — change-agent and leadership guru to many large corporations –  asked for my opinion on why Twitter was receiving so much attention – how much of it is well deserved, how much PR hype.   While the new media aspect of what is happening in Iran has been well covered and I generally avoid current events, I thougt I would share my response here.

The chatter about Twitter is well deserved and a core example of what I have been calling The Social Nervous System – a system that uses Internet communication technology to coordinate events in the real world.   Twitter is a decentralized messaging system with an incredibly low barrier to entry in terms of ease of use and single-purpose functionality…  Each of these factors help explain its  rapid growth as a tool for socializing and answering its default question “What are you Doing?”   Twitter reached its watershed moment during the Mumbai attacks last November when the answer to  “what are you doing” became urgent and important news.    it was used as a real-time news service and was running 10 minutes ahead of CNN….    Its utility as real time news during a breaking situation is what is driving the press now… not PR.   Iranians on both sides have been using it to push information out… Since it is decentralized you are not dealing with the leadership of these factions but actual citizens engaged in struggle….   That direct, emotional, on-the-ground connection in combination with the real-time nature of the story as it unfolds is truly compelling.

Let me break down these elements individually.

Twitter is Single Purpose – Twitter only really tries to do one thing – a simple, character-constrained messaging service.   It asks one question, “what are you doing?”  It provides you one window in which to enter your text and one button to publish.   This single purpose design creates two critical side effects:  1. It lowers the barrier to entry and is incredibly easy to use. 2. it creates myriad opportunities for others to build on top of (see Platforms beat Applications) – Currently I believe there are over 2000 services that help you manage your Twitter presence.  For example,  I use Tweetdeck to aggregate and publish Tweets,  bitly as my URL shortener, MrTweet to find people I might be interested in and Twitterific as my iPhone client.    A radically simple tool for socializing explains how Twitter got liftoff – but not why it is being used in situations like Iran….For that you need to consider that…

Twitter is Decentralized – Anyone can create a Twitter account.  Tweets can be authored, published or consumed easily  from laptops or mobile devices.  Twitter is a radically democratic medium allowing anyone, anywhere to connect.

Twitter is Direct – When you search on Twitter, or follow – you are hearing directly from a human being.  There is no PR layer (usually).  In Iran this means that you are hearing directly from people in the street.  This direct, human connection is powerful.

Twitter is Real Time – Twitter runs in real time.  When you search Twitter it is all about now.   The enforced brevity of 140 characters further accelerates the speed of communication.  These are dispatches with a lag time of seconds – not even hours.

Twitter Allows Asymmetric relationships (or Twitter Works Like a Populist News Service) : Unlike Facebook – you can follow anyone you like (unless they have protected their profile – which very few ppl do).  This means that Twitter can replicate the way influence works in society  — meaning, human attention can be directed to whatever person “earns” that attention.  That attention doesn’t “cost” the influencer anything because Twitter is asymmetric — you can follow me — I don’t need to follow you if I do not choose to.  I don’t even need to know who you are….  In this regard it is more like a broadcast tool.    This asymmetric property also accelerates the diffusion of information since there is much more cross-pollination of followers/followed than in a more symmetric model like Facebook where both parties must agree to be friends…. All of this to say – Twitter is structured to be function better as a new service than other social technologies.

Twitter is now part of  the revolutionary’s toolkit just as Mumbai made it  a part of the emergency response toolkit.  What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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