Nicholas Thompson has a level-headed response to all this Twitter-is-the-weapon-of-the-revolution talk in the US.
Still, the language is somewhat dismissive. (“twitter-gasm”? Really?) It suggests Thompson sees Twitter as something like a Hula Hoop or Sham Wow: a fun dalliance but ultimately lacking in serious benefit to the citizenry. (Note: I’m not entirely clear why he feels it useful to note how many profiles located within 250 miles of Tehran aren’t written in Farsi, but I do know changing your profile time zone and location to Tehran are part of an organized campaign to confuse Iranian censors.)
In making the specific argument that US journalists are overblowing the impact of Twitter as opposed to other media on the election–including citing UCSD prof Babak Rahimi–he encourages defensive responses on the part of Twitter supporters of varying stripes. So you get Clay Shirky calling this “the big one” or Damion Schubert writing about how it will be “hard for the history books” to discuss this election without mentioning social networking software (true: both are writing about “social media” and not Twitter specifically in these comments, although Twitter is the specific occasion for raising the issue in both cases.)
This dialogue is notable in that it is a rehearsal of a conversation that has happened at essentially every point in history when a new communication technology, suddenly in use by large groups of people in new ways, begins to overtake the technologies that preceded it. Inevitably, two sides line up along a fairly wide divide: those who favor a shift to (or at least significant inclusion of) the new medium as a platform for public discourse, and those who favor retension of the older medium already in place and known. My sense is that these kinds of debates don’t so much get resolved as simply become passe in that either society embraces a new medium or it does not. As Shirky says, this is the communication technology we have; it is time to accept it.
What is a bit harder to embrace, I suppose, is the utter speed with which new media in the form of specific software built on the standard html/xml framework are currently proliferating. This is a problem in that society has little time to understand and internalize what the platform’s benefits and limitations are, especially in terms of hazy ethical questions, before a new, apparently improved platform becomes available. Odds are good that the platform to replace/improve upon Twitter is already under development and should be in beta soon (it might be Google Wave). So just as we’re trying to collate what we’ve learned about one platform (and collective intelligence is becoming increasingly more important in this rapid-paced environment for doing that), we find ourselves faced with a new platform to consider.
This is a consequence of the advent of digital, networked technologies that have put the tools of production in the hands of a vastly larger base of consumers than in any previous time. The days of Benjamin Franklin and the citizen presses are dwarfed by the ease with which anyone can grab a textbook on how to code in a particular language and begin tinkering. Without overhead for costly prototype development or distribution deals/networks to get your new tech in place, the barriers to entry are incredibly small (especially compared to the most recent communication platform to arise prior to social media, television).
So ultimately we have an argument happening about the prominence and usefulness of Twitter that will soon be eclipsed by something else, bringing with it comparable arguments about its usefulness. And perhaps this indicates that at least some of the concern about the current platform, in this case, Twitter, is displaced anxiety about the rapidity of the entire process itself, in addition to any real concern over the validity of this or that platform specifically.