More on the State Department and Social Media

The New York Times has a very good account of State and its social media strategy:

The Obama administration says it has tried to avoid words or deeds that could be portrayed as American meddling in Iran’s presidential election and its tumultuous aftermath.

Yet on Monday afternoon, a 27-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, e-mailed the social-networking site Twitter with an unusual request: delay scheduled maintenance of its global network, which would have cut off service while Iranians were using Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests around Tehran.

The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.

“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’ ” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.” The network was working normally again by Tuesday evening.

The State Department said its request did not amount to meddling. Mr. Cohen, they noted, did not contact Twitter until three days after the vote was held and well after the protests had begun.

“This is completely consistent with our national policy,” Mr. Crowley said. “We are proponents of freedom of expression. Information should be used as a way to promote freedom of expression.”

The episode demonstrates the extent to which the administration views social networking as a new arrow in its diplomatic quiver. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks regularly about the power of e-diplomacy, particularly in places where the mass media are repressed.

Mr. Cohen, a Stanford University graduate who is the youngest member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, has been working with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services to harness their reach for diplomatic initiatives in Iraq and elsewhere.

Last month, he organized a visit to Baghdad by Mr. Dorsey and other executives from Silicon Valley and New York’s equivalent, Silicon Alley. They met with Iraq’s deputy prime minister to discuss how to rebuild the country’s information network and to sell the virtues of Twitter.

Referring to Mir Hussein Moussavi, the main Iranian opposition candidate, Mr. Crowley said, “We watched closely how Moussavi has used Facebook to keep his supporters informed of his activities.”

Tehran has been buzzing with tweets, the posts of Twitter subscribers, sharing news on rallies, police crackdowns on protesters, and analysis of how the White House is responding to the drama.

With the authorities blocking text-messaging on cellphones, Twitter has become a handy alternative for information-hungry Iranians. While Iran has also tried to block Twitter posts, Iranians are skilled at using proxy sites or other methods to circumvent the official barriers.

It is a new political day indeed.

Thursday New Tools Feature: Twitter Tracking

It's been a big few weeks for Twitter, which the New York Times technology section yesterday called "the new killer app, the new cool kid on the block," in an article about Facebook having "Twitter Envy."

Last week, San Francisco Mayor and friend of NDN Gavin Newsom announced his candidacy for Governor of California via a tweet from his iPhone before announcing on YouTube or Facebook. Newsom already had 240,000 followers on Twitter at the time of his announcement; he now has 332,000. Here's what Simon had to say in the San Francisco Chronicle about Newsom's tweet:

"The way that Gavin Newsom announced will become standard practice in the post-Obama era of politics," said Simon Rosenberg, who heads NDN, which studies Democratic policy issues. "We're seeing a reinventing of politics ... and in a state as wired as California, and a campaign as expensive as this one will be, the candidates who can figure out how to tap into the power and passion of their supporters will have an advantage."

Oprah also joined Twitter last week, raising traffic 43 percent and almost instantly bringing more than a million new users to the service.

Twitter's also been gaining some attention this week in connection with the swine flu; I wrote earlier this week about how Twitter was being used to track the spread of the virus, and today the top 3 terms on Twitter are Swine Flu, #swineflu, and H1N1. This is not just a gimic, either; real-time monitoring can make a big difference in preparedness and early detection, so this is one case where I think Twitter is a legitimately useful tool. A quick example of how keeping track of what people are talking about helps in these kind of situations -- Wired today reports that, had they been looking for it, Google could have caught the swine flu before the news broke in the media:

Google’s search data may have been able to provide an early warning of the swine flu outbreak — if the company had been looking in the right place.

Last week, at the request of the Centers for Disease Control, Google took a retroactive look at its search data from Mexico. And there the team found a pre-media bump in telltale flu-related search terms (you know, “influenza + phlegm + coughing”) that was inconsistent with standard, seasonal flu trends.

However, even given its meteoric rise in popularity, and its interesting potential applications, many remain ambivalent towards Twitter. I've written before about how I myself am of two minds about this trend, and that seems to an attitude reflected in many other places, from the Daily Show and Colbert Report to Wired and the New York Times; last week, on the same day, in the same section, there were articles in the Times entitled "What Annoys Me About Twitter" and "Why I Am Obsessed With Twitter." The day before, Maureen Dowd wrote an especially snarky column in which she stated that she would "rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over [her] and red ants eat out [her] eyes than open a Twitter account."

Interestingly, at the same time as all this Tweeting was taking place, Adbusters was having "Digital Detox Week," where it encouraged readers to the unthinkable: unplug. Say good-bye to Twitter and Facebook. Turn off your TV, iPhone and Xbox. For seven days, reconnect with the natural world and the people around you. You’ll be amazed at how the magic creeps back into your life. Don’t be afraid and don’t find excuses, just take the plunge and see what happens.

To convince people to do so, Adbusters cited a fascinating article about how the internet is rewiring our brains. I don't want to spoil the article for you, because it's really good and you should actually read it (in its entirety!), but here's a snippet:

We used to have an intellectual ideal that we could contain within ourselves the whole of civilization. It was very much an ideal — none of us actually fulfilled it — but there was this sense that, through wide reading and study, you could have a depth of knowledge and could make unique intellectual connections among the pieces of information stored within your memory. Foreman suggests that we might be replacing that model — for both intelligence and culture — with a much more superficial relationship to information in which the connections are made outside of our own minds through search engines and hyperlinks. We’ll become “pancake people,” with wide access to information but no intellectual depth, because there’s little need to contain information within our heads when it’s so easy to find with a mouse click or two.

I don't consider myself a luddite, and I spend a lot of my time here explaining how technology can make our lives better, but we do now spend one third of our lives in front of a screen, and I certainly notice the effects myself; I find it much harder to read full books or even long passages than I used to. While I agree with Simon that Twitter has great potential for politics, and is quickly becoming an essential part of the New Tools toolkit, I also worry that it exemplifies and magnifies many of the negative qualities of an always-on, technology-obsessed culture that craves instant gratification.

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