The Revolution is Being Blogged (and otherwise Communicated)

We break an almost 3-month silence to note something currently happening.  (I'll write a longer blog post sometime in the next week or two, I hope--I wrote one a week or two ago, but it wasn't very good, so I didn't post it.)  I have been following the New York Time's blog The Lede on the crisis in Iran following the so-called election there (here's Tuesday's link, Wednesday's link, Thursday's link).  It has been a remarkable experience.  If you haven't read or watched any of it, I strongly encourage you to do so (before or instead of reading more here).

We keep reading about the political power of the Internet, and the Obama campaign certainly seems to have demonstrated this power.  But the current crisis unfolding is quite different.  It's in a country with a less-than-free system of media communication, but one that is reasonably modern by Western standards, and has had a kind of steady opening-up over the last decade (this last, to my mind, distinguishes it from the situation in Myanmar that developed last year).  Similar political crises have occurred around the world over the last few decades, but the unique confluence of culture and events and technology make this a weird moment, a mix of the familiar and the new.

The world stood rapt when Hungary attempted to throw off Soviet shackles in 1956, and the same happened with the 1968 Czechoslovakian coup.  Ditto Iran itself in 1979.  There have been numerous smaller political crises as well.  But up until the last five years or so, these events came to the West almost exclusively through the eyes and ears of the professional reporters and camera people.  Now we have citizen media, and we are reading accounts and seeing images and video from professional news sources, bloggers outside the country, bloggers inside the country.  We have a remarkably diverse set of reporters to draw upon.

What I'm most interested in, though, is the effect of modern communication technologies on the progress of events within the country.  Because I'm writing without time to ponder, my thoughts are all tangled on this subject.  I'll do my best to summarize my initial reactions and post something else if it occurs to me and I think it's worth it.

One thing that strikes me is that the digital divide--the gap between people who have advanced computer technology and those who don't--has changed substantially since people first started talking about it in the mid-90s, but that it's still there.  The vast majority of our reports come from Tehran, and virtually nothing is coming from the countryside.  I'm sure there are a lot of factors at work--simple living conditions, generally conservative support for the Ahmadinejad's regime, etc. mean the countryside are less likely to see disturbance.  But I'm sure the gap in communications technology plays a part.

Another thing that strikes me is that the progressive (anti-Ahmadinejad) elements in this country are used to using modern communication technologies.  There are numerous Twitter feeds, blogs, and postings of all sorts feeding into the current news stream.  In addition, the stories I've read seem to indicate that people have tried to use texting and cell phones and blogs, etc. to coordinate protests.  This may backfire, as the regime seems to have (at least somewhat ineffectively) tried to shut down most digital and cell-phone communications (a recent NYT post said that Twitter feeds out of the country have just gone silent)(updated: internet traffic in general has been slowed significantly by the Iranian government, but Twitter feeds and other pieces of info continue to trickle out).

A third observation: the new mediascape is so incredibly diverse, and if people don't get something one way, they get it another.  The last NYT posting talked about how the BBC Farsi radio broadcast is very important for people in the country getting news, as it was in 1979.  TV, radio, cell phones, blogs, video--probably print too, although I haven't heard it mentioned: all of these tools of communication are now playing a role.  What it says to me is that unless regimes go the route of extreme totalitarian dictatorship, it's tremendously difficult to shut down information flow nowadays.

A final observation for now: for all the importance of new media, it seems now that more and more of the events are being dominated by Sneakernet--events, conversations and interactions on the ground.  The yells from the rooftops are potentially more powerful than any website could be.  Now is the time for physical bodies to make a difference.  And when the digital channels get shut down, people talking with each other will hopefully suffice, in spite of the guns and curfews.  I'll be following...

EDIT TO ADD:

And as if on cue, I publish the blog, go to the Lede as see a link to opposition leader Moussavi's Twitter feed with this quote: "We have no national press coverage in Iran, everyone should help spread Mousavi's message. One Person = One Broadcaster."

UPDATE (2PM, Tuesday):

Very interesting story on Wired about the protesters' attacks on government websites.  All kinds of issues involved.

FURTHER UPDATE (9:30AM, Thursday):

Good editorial about internet censorship circumvention.  Very intriguing.

FINAL UPDATE (6:50PM, Sunday):

The story continues, but I'll stop updating so as to stop clogging the TWU blog updates.  However, before I quit, one last really interesting NYT analysis of Twitter.

Last updated Jun. 21st, 2009 at 6:48pm by Kevin Schut