Birth of the Twitter Revolution

A smashed computer in a Tehran University dormitory, suspected of Tweeting news outside the country

“Kasra is dead & I don’t know where is Masood, lost him in the crowd yesterday.” So writes a young Iranian, formerly known only as “Change_for_Iran,” on the Internet service known as Twitter. (He or she has since changed their username to avoid detection by the national government.)

“I see many ppl with broken arms/legs/heads – blood everywhere – pepper gas like war,” writes persiankiwi, another Twitter user. “They were waiting for us – they all have guns and riot uniforms – it was like a mouse trap – ppl being shot like animals.”

These and other “tweets” – the term used to describe the brief, 140 character messages posted on the Twitter service – paint the terrifying and bloody picture of life in Iran after the June 11 presidential election, in which Mahmood Ahmedinejad was declared winner mere hours after the ballots closed, and opposition leaders claimed fraud.

In the days and weeks following the election, as we are now all aware, Iranian citizens took to the streets in riot and rebellion, decrying the current regime and demanding a true democratic resolution to the election, in which candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi was heavily expected to win by a wide margin. In an effort to crack down on the civil unrest, state-run media and technology attempted to put a clamp on the news escaping the country. Foreign journalists received “suggestions” to leave, cell phone traffic and MMS messages were halted, and Internet connectivity was heavily filtered. Among the sites first blocked to Iranians were Facebook and Youtube.

Soon Iranians, many of them students, began to spread the idea of using Twitter to make their voices heard, as well as coordinate the movements of their growing rebellion. For the better part of two weeks, these Twitter users were the only ones reporting on the status of the country and the Iranian people.

It wasn’t long before the Iranian government learned about this news leak and began to attempt to block Twitter as well. But at this point, the rest of the world began to intervene and provide private proxy servers, in many cases people rigging their own personal computers so that Iranians could use them as Internet gateways, to reach the outside world.

Government agents began using the service to spread misinformation amongst the rebellion, as well as attempt to track user accounts and discover these proxy servers, so to shut them down and prevent further unrestricted access to the Internet by Iran’s citizens. As the days wore on, users started to become more secretive about their messages, urging each other to watch what they say, and even going so far as to request that Twitter users outside Iran to change their location and time zones to Tehran, working off the assumption that the Iranian government can’t block everybody, and the more users they have to sort through, the tougher it will be to block actual Iranians.

While many throughout the world have found it to be heartbreaking, being able to watch and interact with these Iranians embroiled in a truly dangerous situation, but unable to help, it has also been a fascinating case study of the use of technology in facilitating what may well be a national revolution.

The shift in some users’ Twitter pages is interesting, such as in the case of one user known as “smileofcrash,” who spends his days complaining about his exams and anticipating the upcoming season of Lost, to reporting on the status of the injured and arrested during the pro-Mousavi demonstrations.

Other users’ experiences are significantly more dramatic, with persiankiwi and Change_for_Iran being some of the bigger examples. As persiankiwi writes about constantly fleeing from location to location, stealing Internet connections where she and her group can, uploading photos and videos of the day’s protests, and Change_for_Iran providing gut-wrenching descriptions of the violence in the streets, Twitter has become a place of riveting human drama to watch, unfolding.

While for the last couple of years, Twitter has been examined as a unique piece of the Internet, as the service has played roles in reporting the California wildfires in 2007 to the spreading of news, evacuation reports and shelters during the disaster wrought by Hurricane Gustav, the freeing of an American student jailed abroad and even its use by candidates during the 2008 American presidential election. Yet, skeptics remained critical of the service and its utility, wondering aloud who would ever care to use a messaging service so limited in its scope and service?

Critics have dismissed it as simply another outlet for Internet-based narcissism, for people to reach out for attention. The UK’s Times Online posted an article in February in which one clinical psychologist is quoted as stating that “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

Another neurologist at the University of Sussex adds, “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

And yet, it is clear by now that at this point, Twitter has gone beyond notifying one’s friends and family what dinner consisted of, or how traffic is on the 405.

It’s been said that the elections in Iran will be Twitter’s coming-out party, where the world can see just how revolutionary the service is to the way we communicate. Only three years old, the site’s audience has surged more than 1000% in the last year, boasting more than six million users as of this printing. Small stuff compared to other Internet services, but certainly that will be changing in the near future. And with founders Biz Stone, 34, and Evan Williams, 36, rejecting offers upwards of $500 million to purchase the service, it remains to be seen what kind of growth lies ahead for Twitter. Certainly, it is a Silicon Valleyite’s dream come true.

But for university students in Tehran, its value is much more elemental. It is the means to communicate, coordinate and in some cases, survive.

A young Iranian woman shows off her ink-stained fingers from voting

A young Iranian woman shows off her ink-stained fingers from voting

persiankiwi’s last posting was on June 24, where she wrote “in Baharestan we saw militia with axe choping ppl like meat – blood everywhere – like butcher” – she wrote again minutes later, stating “we must go – dont know when we can get internet – they take 1 of us, they will torture and get names – now we must move fast.” She signed off with “Allah – you are the creator of all and all must return to you – Allah Akbar – #Iranelection Sea of Green” – and has not been heard from since.

Change_for_Iran and Masood were, however, reunited.

As of this printing, the situation has yet to be resolved.

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Copyight © 2014 by Cristopher Boyer, all content/images © their respective owners.