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June 22, 2009

Twittering Tehran Doesn’t Mean Social Media Has Inherent Value


The world remains riveted on events unfolding in Iran, and remains riveted in ways that 10 years ago no one could have imagined. The iron-fisted clampdown on traditional media outlets has the world watching through the prism of social media.


CNN’s coverage Saturday was wall-to-wall Twitter posts. The network, which appears to have nearly given up on actual reporting these days, spent the day sharing the latest posts coming from Iran, being careful to acknowledge that the journalists had no way of knowing whether what they were reporting was really true. In fact, it seemed, that was part of the fun.


Well, let’s rephrase that last sentence a bit. Part of the story of the Iranian protests is how that story is being told. No doubt this development itself is being eagerly followed by its own subset of people – that dark and shadowy subculture of social media experts.


A few years ago, social media was something mostly for college kids and Internet nerds. Since then, regular people have figured out that it’s kind of fun to waste a few minutes each day taking online quizzes about how to survive a zombie holocaust or what character from Star Trek best describes them, and sharing the results with friends, family and people they barely know.


In turn, social media sites have figured out that if they let just any old regular person sign up, traffic to their sites grows. Today, according to social media use statistics (which, considering how people use the Internet, should be taken with a grain of salt large enough to give severe hypertension to the entire populace of Milwaukee), Facebook is growing fastest among people 30 years old and older.


That growth provided an opportunity to self-appointed experts to make money telling people what social media is, how to behave on the Internet and – most importantly – how to advance careers and build businesses through things like Facebook. Today, they are no doubt hungrily looking to the story of the Iranian protests about how they can make it work for them.


No doubt that there is some utility to knowing what street-level rumors from Tehran have to tell us. Many of them, repeated throughout the day, turned out to have basis in fact. In terms of watching a piece of history unfold, it is extremely interesting.


What we have seen these last few days may be the seeds of a new political revolution. Who knows? What it wasn’t was a revolution in how people communicate. It was a further demonstration of humans as an advanced species. People communicated through Twitter for the same reasons they sometimes cut meat with the side of a fork – because the better tool for the job is not available. Once cell phone service is turned back on, the people of Iran will go back to talking and using text messages. Everyone else will go back to uploading photos of their kids to Facebook and using Twitter to issue 140-character descriptions of lunch and complaints about the local sports team.


We are also likely to get those same self-appointed experts on social media nodding sagely on the Tee Vee about what it means for the future of human communication. It’s the same line that’s been spun since the first day anyone realized that there was money to be made expressing it, and is kith and kin to the endless advice on how to behave and also how to increase your earning potential through building social media networks.


What none of these people will do is offer anything even remotely useful to people new to social media, like what weapons are best for surviving a zombie holocaust or how to rig quizzes so that they can be associated with celebrities they like. That, unfortunately, is the kind of information that the vast majority of social media users are really ever going to find most useful.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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