Since before social media was a term anyone knew, we've been used to the idea that 'content is king' on the web. Any blog post (and now any Twitter post that stands a chance of being re-tweeted) should contain some new information, analysis or synthesis to avoid being lost in all the noise. This was true back when many individuals and organisations thought it was fine to build flashy websites with nothing useful on, and it's still true now that the web is littered with dead blogs with nothing to say.
When it comes to the post-election demonstrations in Iran, though, it seems there's almost nothing new to say. Hours of footage have made their way onto YouTube; it's being covered from all angles by blogs and mainstream news services (who haven't been as ineffective as was originally claimed); Twitter have rescheduled site maintenance to avoid downtime during the demonstrations; and its #iranelection hashtag is being added to more quickly than it can be read.
In this situation, 'content is king' needs rethinking. Yes, some sites, like the Huffington Post, are consistently ahead of the pack for quality of insight, but not everyone who is blogging or tweeting on Iran is trying to do what those sites are doing. Looking at #iranelection, it's clear that many just want to have a say, to show support, and just as importantly to keep the noise and the media chatter around this issue going. If one of the criticisms of mainstream media is that it too quickly loses interest in a story, this is a determination to prevent that from happening. Here it is not just that the stories are standing out from the noise. The noise is part of the story.
This can be beneficial or dangerous. The risk is that Iran's demonstrations will become no more than a social media cause celebre, interesting in itself for a while, then not. What really matters is the aftermath, and whatever government emerges in Iran as a result of this election period. The noise generated by the whole world has to be transformed into a mandate by Iranians, and then into a political programme which places less emphasis on the will and power of conservative clergy and more on secular governance, civil liberties and meaningful democratic accountability. That will be a difficult, dangerous job, and while it is perhaps made easier by the ability of social media to shine a light on political activity and to aggregate small expressions of political will, calling this a 'Twitter revolution' is naive at best. Twitter may represent voices from (not 'the voice of') civil society, but civil society is about action as well.
The effect on social media, especially Twitter, has been interesting. The concentration on #iranelection has shown the power and versatility of the hashtag to create temporary aggregations of people and ideas. The site itself, its parameters rather than its content, is beginning to be used as a political tool. At the time of writing there is a big push encouraging users to set their time and location zones to Tehran to generate extra noise in that zone which will stop security services identifying Iranian tweeters; and a smaller push to anonymise re-tweets, removing usernames which might give away the identity of Iranians involved in the protests. Whether these are legitimate and useful tactics it's hard to be sure, but they are at least a show of solidarity.
They are also an early signal of a growing belief in what I'll call 'civil social media' - social media considered as a tool for direct civil action. This belief holds that social media use is not just speech but action. We have yet to see how successful it will be, and whether content really can bring down kings.
# Alex Steer (21/06/2009)