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?