Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Revolution will be Tweeterized

Since Sept 17th, hundreds of people have been camped out in a small park in Manhattan protesting against Wall Street (the bankers, investors, traders, etc... not the physical street, with which they have no known complaint). There are daily marches and frequent arrests. According to the protesters, they won't leave until their demands are met. And seeing as they haven't made any, it would appear they plan on staying put for a considerable amount of time. While it's most definitely not Tahrir Square or the Movimiento M15 in Spain or anything like what's been going on in the Middle East, it's something the likes of which the United States hasn't seen in a few decades. So you'd think the press would be all over it. Yet for the first two weeks, nary a news crew was to be seen.

In the time of the ancients (pre-2006), this would have spelled the death of a movement. If the press ignored you, you didn't exist in the wider world's consciousness. While independent media can be relied upon to spread the story, their reach isn't nearly as far as the major players. And if the mainstream media did cover an event, there was always a chance that they would paint everyone as a bunch of whack-a-doos.

Since those primitive days, the world has changed. Phones no longer flip, our spaces have become a lot less ours, and news now comes in 140 character bursts.

As the old saying goes, if a tree falls in the woods and no one makes a status update about it, does it really matter? Or something like that. In 2011, every single person with a smart phone has a video camera, a handful of social media apps, and access to the internet. Now a tree that falls has a thousand views on Youtube and its own twitter account ("If you must know, I sounded like 'KRABOOOSH' when I fell. LOLZ #Bieber #mysterysolved").

Information, however important or trivial, is able to be disseminated instantaneously and directly from the person experiencing it. The flip side is that content has a visible life span which makes a gnat look immortal. (That doesn't mean it's gone though. While time at the surface is short, the deep waters of the web are filled with your every misguided and embarrassing post just waiting to float back up.)

In the past few years, Twitter has received a lot of credit for being a major player in how social change has come about. And that's true. We wouldn't know who Justin Bieber or Rebecca Black were without it. (Oh wait. We've already forgotten about her, haven't we?) As for Twitter being a key factor during Iran's 2009 Green Movement and this year's Arab Spring, that's a little more suspect. It may have been a useful tool, but technology wasn't the catalyst. All the same, Twitter has become a viable way for people to spread information when other channels are unavailable.

For example, the Wall Street protest mentioned above is referred to as "#Occupywallstreet." The use of Twitter was so much a part of this movement, they named themselves as a hashtag. In the early days of the protest, there was an insane amount of attention directed towards whether or not that hashtag was trending. (It wasn't, but "#youlookstupidwhen" was. Ah memes, you say so much about what we find important as a society.) Why the intensity? Visibility. Millions of people use twitter. If that hashtag trends, that's millions of eyes having the option to see every post about the protest. It's better than being on the nightly news.

"Hooray! We are the media! Right?" Right, but it's also a mess. The nice thing about a newscast is that it's clean. Here's a story and here's another and another and now a commercial break. Sure, it may be biased (calm down party people... as I learned from my journalism class in college, all media is biased by the very nature of being written by humans. The question of how biased is the sticky point), but at least it's linear. Twitter is like listening to the news in an echo chamber. One person posts something new and then a thousand people retweet it periodically over the course of a week. There's a linear timeline there, but the way people use the site causes it to get cut to ribbons and rearranged at will. And when a trend is moving fast, "real time" gets even more wacky.

It should also be noted that Twitter is not vetted. The history of media is rife with fabulists and fib tellers, so the public should always be concerned about who their information is coming from. However, when your source goes by the name @riDanculous, your judgement needs to be all the more critical. It doesn't help that the online world is filled with trolls. By that, I do not actually mean folkloric creatures, but rather people who have nothing better to do than post inflammatory or purposefully incorrect information in order to be disruptive. In other words, jerks.

Ultimately, it's not surprising that Twitter is being used to help democratize the media. What is democracy if not many different voices with many different viewpoints attempting to be heard all at once? And when it comes to information, more is generally better than less, right? Right?