Saturday, June 20, 2009


I have been fiddling with Twitter for months now, and frankly just could not find anything engaging about it at all. I kind of liked the simple API that it has, but at the same time, the idea that Twitter is just, well, dumb, was reinforced by techies doing things like setting up their toilet to tweet when it was flushed. There is a portion of this that I admire; I think that more and more of the things in our environment could be set up to communicate to make life easier and better. Doing an 'art project' of this sort helps expose the problems and possibilities of existing communication standards. But this is sufficiently tasteless that it decreased my interest in the technology for a while. I didn't care to tell anyone when I was going somewhere, and couldn't imagine caring what anyone else was doing trivial enough to be encoded in just 140 characters, and I sure as hell don't need to know when someone is on the crapper unless we have to share one.

Facebook has been a lot of fun, so it isn't that I am a social networking curmudgeon ("Hey you damned kids, get your Web 2.0 off my lawn!") and although the status line is roughly analogous to tweets, Facebook has a lot of other things going for it. I'll leave my musings on FB for another post, because it has something interesting going on too that I want to think aloud about.

Anyway, with the recent unrest in Iran following the apparent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I kept hearing that the Iranian people protesting the election, which they said was fixed, were communicating via Twitter. I was not sure what to make of this, so I looked in, and it dawned on me over the course of a few hours (of following with rapt attention, tweets that contained links to cellphone video and news stories) that this was something of great importance. Twitter may not have been intended to be this kind of tool, but many things find their best use only after having been around a while.

What emerged was that this technology provides a quick and easy way for people to let the world know what is going on. One might expect that the mullahs would just pull the plug on all of the communication and internet resources that allowed this. But this is where the politics gets interesting.

To some extent, all of the things that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs have been doing with respect to nuclear enrichment have relied on having a digital infrastructure in place. They cannot just shut it off without screwing themselves. So they shutdown or block servers that carry digital traffic outside the country.

Twitter matters because people on the outside can help, by setting up software to provide misdirection, anonymity, and proxies so that bloggers and tweeters in Iran can bypass the routes that have been restricted by the mullahs.

Twitter matters because 24 hours ago, I had never heard of Tor, and had only the vaguest idea of how to set up proxies (my 12 year old already knew, but that is another story). Now I have several things set up to try and help.

A friend of mine and I had a spirited debate over whether Twitter was helping. He seemed to think, from what I can tell, that the fact that 90% of those tweeting support couldn't find Iran on a map, and didn't know anything about Iranian politics, meant that they should just shut up and get out of the way. But the point is that people are watching, even if they do not know what they are seeing. They can certainly understand a bystanding young woman being shot on the street by the government.

I don't have a dog in the Iranian election fight, and it might well be six of one, half dozen of the other when it comes to who won. I don't know enough to speak about what is going on.

But I do support peaceful assembly, and free speech, and I don't think these sentiments are just products of American cultural imperialism. There is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and peaceful assembly and free speech are in it. So I want to help, and will, in a tiny way, knowing that my servers are not going to change the world. But enough drops fill buckets.