The API revolution

It soon will be – if it not already is – known as the Twitter revolution in Iran. But I’ll think of it as the API revolution.

For it’s Twitter’s architecture – which enables anyone to create applications that call and feed into it – that makes it all but impervious from blocking by tyrants’ censors. Twitter is not a site or a blog at an address. You don’t have to go to it. It can come to you (as newspapers should). Twitter is an outpost in the cloud and there can be unlimited points of access from every application and site using its API, so the crowd can always stay ahead of the people formerly known as the authorities. That, I believe, is the keystone in the architecture of the new infrastructure of unstoppable freedom of speech and democracy. That’s what enables Clay Shirky to declare, “This is it – the big one.”

It isn’t merely “social media” that make this a step-change in the internet’s impact on society and government, as the reporters who’ve been calling me and other pundits want us to say. Sree Sreenivasan tweeted, “on CNN just now, I asked – China quake, Mumbai attacks, US election, Iran… how many times can one technology ‘come of age’?” RIght. See January 16, 2001 when, as Howard Rheinhold recounts in Smart Mobs, tens of thousands of protesters against Philippine president Joseph Estrada were brought to a square with an SMS. See Mark Zuckerberg proudly talking about the Spanish-language Facebook being used to organize Colombians against FARC. Iran is just another example of people organizing themselves online for a cause or a revolution. The people will avail themselves the latest available technology to serve their needs and cause.

Twitter is different because it’s live and social – the retweet is the shot heard ’round the world – and because that API lets it survive any dictator’s game of whack-a-mole. But it’s by no means the final word in digital revolutions. I know we will soon see witnesses and participants to events such as these broadcasting them live from their mobile phones. We will see people organizing with Google Maps. We can’t imagine what will come next.

Twitter has been used in many ways in the Iran story:
* Citizens of Iran are using it to inform each other.
* They are using it, most importantly, to organize.
* They are using it to inform the world.
* We outside Iran are using us to see what people were saying and doing in Iran. Journalists are using it as a tip service to news and a way to find witnesses to interview. I’ve said in Twitter – to respond to the obvious complaint I hear – that, no, Twitter is no more the final source of news in and of itself than Wikipedia is the only source of knowledge. But it is a tip service for journalists who then still need to do their job and report.
* We can use it to see the interests of at least the Twitter demographic – limited though it may be – and then to use that to beat up CNN, Fox, and MSNBC for their terrible news judgment last weekend as they all but ignored a revolution.

Of course, Twitter – and Facebook and blogs and camera phones – alone cannot win a revolution. They cannot protect their users from government’s bullets and jails, as we have seen all to tragically in Iran. (This thought led Tom Friedman to the worst line on the New York Times editorial page, worse even than the worst of Maureen Dowd: “Bang-bang beats tweet-tweet.”) Fighting for freedom requires courage and risk we must not underestimate. But at least these tools allow allies to find each other and to let the world know of their plight. For thanks to the fact that anyone in the world – outside of North Korea – now has a printing press and a broadcast tower, they can be assured that the whole world is watching.

I recorded a Skype video interview for Al Jazeera English that will air at 20000 GMT today and looked at the camera and said, “Despots, beware.” Your days are numbered. This is more than a revolution. It is an evolution in the architecture of speech and freedom.

: LATER: Note that not just Iran is censoring the internet. Germany wants to, seeking a censorship infrastructure that can be used for one purpose today, another tomorrow. Oh, when will they ever learn?

  • http://zuluzulu.net Wessel van Rensburg

    The Tweet is mightier (and flightier) than the sword.

    • handwaver

      It’s a sword that can cut both ways – sophisticated intelligence services may find twitter et al. great tools for eavesdropping on plans, sowing the seeds of disinformation, or providing a platform for agents provacateur

      • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

        Right. And the danger that comes from going up against tyrants remains all too real.

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  • http://editor.blogspot.com Howard Weaver

    Reporters typically are learned to check facts before reporting them. DOn’t they teach that to professors?

    Shirky says “I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then. But this time it’s true…”

    That’s just bullshit. The 1968 Chicago were covered on live television for an audience of at least 50 million.

    How many are learning about Iran on Twitter?

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Howard, see the discussion of process journalism. There are new ways to do journalism, including collaboratively.

      And who learned you how to use the verb learn?

      • Howard Weaver

        Re: Learned.

        I blame the professors :)

        \-\/\/

    • http://nich3.net Nick Nichols

      There’s a “long tail” concept at work here too. The “quality” (for lack of a better word at the moment” of the 50 million viewers of Chicago is different from the quality of the perhaps fewer people tapping into the early Iran events. The 50 million may have included a whole bunch that simply didn’t care what was happening in Chicago. But if you were trying to follow #iranelection you were there for that specific purpose.

  • http://npharder.wordpress.com ken

    I agree with most of that, but sadly the part about Twitter being impervious to blocking is not true. Its a centralized service. Everything goes through a couple of IP addresses. The Iranian government issues licenses to operate mobile telephone networks, and can easily insert a requirement that Twitter’s SMS gateway be blocked from mobile phone users. They can also require blocking of Twitter’s addresses by ISPs so that internet-based applications can be shut down. There are ways around this, using encrypted proxies, but that’s true of anything on the internet, albeit easier in this case because of the small size of the messages. So can the Iranian government block 100% of Twitter traffic, or any other type of data exchange? No. But they can get it in a pretty good choke-hold and stifle it, as the Chinese have done.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      My point is, I can go to Tinker.com and read Twitter.com. By opening the API, others can replicate Twitter’s functionality and content at different addresses.

      • http://npharder.wordpress.com ken

        Yes, point taken. I was worried about the ability to post to twitter as well, which is necessary if Iranians are going to use it to organize themselves or post information live from the field. I should note that Twitter OAuth support is in beta, which will help matters by letting an intermediary post updates for you in a secure fashion without sharing your username and password. But Iran can still make it very hard to post, and the number of OAuth providers is likely to be small and easy to block. You really need a decentralized system like freenetproject.org to make it robust against totalitarian regimes.

  • http://frogblog.biz Fred Schlegel

    Tis an amazing tool, little did I realize the ‘fail whale’ would survive attempts to block it short of taking down an entire infrastructure. I just hope they can monetize before the venture capital runs out.

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  • http://socraton.blogspot.com Socraton

    Well what is happening in Germany, has been around a while here in Norway.

    And it works quite well, I have never noticed it. It only stops child pornography, so it is very restricted to take away something 99.99% of the society do not accept. This is only until other countries get the same laws and attitudes as us, of course. The way the world should ultimately have worked, is that if Norway find child pornography, then they should be able to either take it down, or get the country to take it down. But the world isn’t globalized enough for that, so we need tweaks like this cencorship to deal with it.

    I would say that to cencor Twitter and Facebook is something completely different.

    • http://mohya.livejournal.com/ Andrea

      Just because you don’t notice it, doesn’t mean that it only block child pronography. And if you had read the article:
      “The working group on censorship demonstrated the alternatives for instance by actually removing over 60 websites containing child pornographic content in 12 hours, simply by emailing the international providers who then removed this content from the net. The sites were identified through the black lists of other countries documented on Wikileaks. This demonstration underlines the protesters main arguments: instead of effectively investing time and efforts to have illegal content removed from the internet, the German government is choosing censorship and blocking – an easy and dangerous way out.”

      There are better ways to fight child pornography than censorship.

      Maybe you have saintlike politicans in Norway, but we here in Germany don’t. If that thing gets through, they will use it to censor other forms of unwated content, too. That’s for sure.

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  • Vadim

    Western media are getting too excited about the whole idea of Twitter revolution. Let’s remember alleged “Twitter revolution” in Moldova a couple of months ago. American media were in a hurry to declare it the first revolution done with the help of livestreaming platform. Well, the claim failed when it became obvious that most of the protesters in Moldova did not even know what Twitter was and the majority of tweets on Moldova were posted from outside of the country.

    Alleged “coup d’text” or “cell phone revolution” in Philippines eight years ago also turned out to be nothing more than just a “meme” invented by the media in the West.

    Iran may well turn out to be the actual “Twitter Revolution” but so far there is NOTHING that even remotely indicates that Twitter was the main tool in organizing the protests. There NOTHING that even points to popularity or wide usage of Twitter in Iran.

    We have to understand that Twitter is popular mainly in the West and it is very far from being a truly global livestreaming platform.

    Twitter coverage of protests in Iran is certainly the revolution in international media coverage but it is not (so far) even close to being the “Twitter Revolution” media in the States are talking about.

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  • http://www.53tech.com/blog Graham Clarke

    The salient point is the power of the API. Fill in the blank … “[——-] is an outpost in the cloud and there can be unlimited points of access from every application and site using its API, …” What’s most impressive about Twitter is the rapid evolution of services using the API.

    Cheers,
    Graham

  • http://www.thefutureofprint.blogspot.com Ian Walthew

    Jeff, you need to get all over today’s spoof edition of the International Herald Tribune by Greenpeace and the online version http://iht.greenpeace.org/.
    But why 50,000 copies of print?
    Something still in it?

  • http://www.thefutureofprint.blogspot.com Ian Walthew

    futureofprint on twitter

    futureofprint#greenpeace #iht WHERE R ALL U.S & U.K MEDIA COMMENTATORS ON THIS? WHERE R ENGLISH-LANGUAGE NEWS SERVICES ON GOOGLE? BEHIND THE WAVE

  • JohnnyBoy

    The problem with these things (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, etc) is that anyone can create an account and spew out whatever the heck they want. All these pictures, tweets, etc, do we really know that they are coming from the people we think they are coming from? For all we know, this might be sophisticated plot by the Global Muslim World Order which wants to take over the world. And it’s doing so by creating sympathy for Iranians, one of the most hated groups of people in the world. So, hated that American won’t do business with them up until now.

    Paranoia aside, any government can create Twitter account and start tweeting like a twit. And spread misinformation and disinformation. There’s not a single country in the world that doesn’t have a black-ops operation of some capacity. Even if it be that Iraqi general who said there were no tanks in Iraq even as tanks rolled behind him in the picture. Be careful and skeptical.

    • http://www.familygreenberg.com/index2.php Brian Greenberg

      I’ve got a blog post brewing about exactly that. Twitter is all well and good, and the “social media revolution” that Shirky (and now Jarvis) are talking about sounds terrific, but the bottom line is still about credibility. The Iranians’ tweets are effective right now because they are credible and timely – no one’s arguing that the revolution isn’t happening.

      But take Shirky’s example about Obama’s net neutrality issue: he skims over the fact that the “hive mind” didn’t succeed. Why? Because they were painted as a fringe group with a political opinion that had gravitational pull. Almost anything can attract thousands of supporters on the internet (cf. 9/11 consipracy theories, for instance). There’s a fine line between collaborative, “real-time” reporting and “mob mentality.”

    • Andy Freeman

      > The problem with these things (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, etc) is that anyone can create an account and spew out whatever the heck they want. All these pictures, tweets, etc, do we really know that they are coming from the people we think they are coming from?

      We don’t know which members of the Washington press corp are married to folks in govt or big biz. We didn’t know that CNN was self-censoring their Iraq coverage to avoid antagonizing Saddam Hussein. We don’t know when a newspaper publishes a rewritten press release. We don’t know the qualifications of “experts” quoted. We don’t know when “unnamed sources” are cranks pissed because they didn’t get a promotion.

      I can go on and on. Journalists aren’t seen as less credible than used car dealers because of the latter’s stellar behavior…. (I exclude sports and society reporters from that criticism because their reporting is significantly closer to reality.)

      The alternative to the social media isn’t perfection, it’s the crap-fest called journalism.

    • Andy Freeman

      My comments about social media should not be construed as praise of social media. I agree with much of the criticisms of social media.

      My point is simply that, as bad as it is, social media is probably better than much of what passes for journalism.

  • Melinda White

    Great point Johnny Boy, while the tools have created an environment for free speech and great ideas to spread like wildfire, they have also created a forum for any crackpot or despot to spew their venom as well. Each individual needs to take responsibility for thinking about what they’re reading and attempt to do their own ‘fact-checking’ before forwarding it on. Otherwise, we’ll soon have our own Twitter version of the Nigerian email scam on our hands. Twitter is still nothing more than a tool, plain a simple.

  • Steve Bell

    “People organising themselves” or people being organised by the same kind of individuals with a talent for manipulation? You only have to look at the proportion of Twitter postings that are marketing pitches to see that the same old would-be manipulators are there as they are in all media.

    And that Greenpeace exercise in achieving a wish by pretending it is a fact frightens me. I admit part of my mind is of the “environmentalists are trying to push us back to the Stone Age” school.

    There is no such thing as real anarchy. In any amorphous body something/ somebody will always rise to the top. Maybe cream, maybe scum (maybe just a transient effect of Brownian motion). But watch their motives whatever you perceive them to be.

  • http://www.emergingtiro.com Evan

    Twitter is site full of self absorbed users, me being one of them. People just use the site to promote their company or infatuations. Much of what is said on the site is BS and needs to be waded through to find anything that is of value. Twitter needs to have some sort of filter to make it a user friendly site.

    Unfortunately, as Jeff has said, the site is revolutionizing the world. People live on that site and take what is said as fact when most of the comments are not. The site however is very useful for marketing a business and has brought a lot of traffic to my site. So in the end i have to say it does more good than harm for me and therefore i am a fan.

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  • http://none Linda Swisher-Smiley

    Cellphone companies, Twitter, CNN and other businesses who are profiting from the dissent should step up and cover all cellphone bills coming out of Iran.

  • http://wyman.us/ Bob Wyman

    The ability of a people to maintain a democratic form of government is directly dependent on their ability to process, store, retrieve, and communicate information.

    bob wyman

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  • Tansley – Addendum

    At last…a form of self-sustaining anarchy….that works.

    Cut off one head, and ten-100 new ones sprout in its place. Now THAT is truly beautiful.

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  • http://amiiin.wordpress.com amin

    I’m from Iran and your blog is filtered!
    I sign in to twitter.com by https://www.twitter.com/am_in
    :D

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  • http://twitter.com/stinson Matthew Stinson

    Jeff, you might want to revisit this post considering Twitter’s forced move to OAuth, which will leave many of those Chinese and Iranian Twitterers you mentioned unable to use third-party websites. The API is going to be more secure but less free.

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