Narrowcasting enables revolution, humor. Hop aboard.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
One of the more bizarre interviews I had during my time as a tech reporter in Silicon Valley involved the co-founder of microblogging service Twitter, though it was more of an e-mail exchange than an interview, because Biz Stone only talks to Oprah (and maybe Conan, Piers Morgan and Howard Stern, and those last three only if he’s feeling charitable).
Back in early 2009, when Twitter was fast gaining momentum after its ’06 launch – from 340,000 accounts in 2007 to more than 1 million by the end of 2008 – I asked Stone about the unique ways people were communicating in the confines of 140 characters. His response: “Every day I’m reminded that Twitter isn’t about the triumph of technology – it’s about the triumph of humanity.”
Ridicule ensued. “What exactly does this guy think he’s helped create?” was a comment I heard more than once. But Stone went on to repeat the pithy comment in nearly every interview he gave.
Then, damnit, his words began proving true.
First in June 2009, the Iranian elections took on the theme of “This revolution will be tweeted,” because as the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cracked down on protests, and newspapers were delivered half blank because of censorship, Twitter became the method of a mass movement, the way for protesters to connect and deliver real time information from the front lines. The U.S. government got in on the mix, with the State Department asking Twitter to delay a scheduled technology upgrade that could have temporarily cut daytime service in Iran.
American media also joined in, with ABC’s Jim Sciutto tweeting “Iran police confiscated our camera and videotapes. We are shooting protests and police violence on our cellphones.”
Six months later, as a devastating 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, Twitter again served as the information hub, what one pundit called a “21st Century CNN.” In the five days after the quake struck on Jan. 12, one analytics firm estimated that more than 150,000 tweets containing the words “Haiti” and “Red Cross” went out. The Red Cross organized a revolutionary campaign of its own, enabling donors to text a code to the Red Cross twitter account to immediately donate $10. Again, in less than a week, the Red Cross raised $8 million for Haitian relief efforts.
Then Egypt, just a year later, another revolution was tweeted, albeit not necessarily in the way the Egyptian government had anticipated. The country shut down Internet service and cell phone networks – and blocked Twitter – as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Cairo. In Japan, just an hour after a magnitude 8.9 earthquake devastated the country’s infrastructure, the number of tweets coming out of Tokyo exceeded 1,200 a minute.
Not everything on Twitter, of course, is serious. Some of the best comedy writing right now is happening 140 characters at a time.
The author of now infamous Twitter stream Sit My Dad Says chronicled the world-weary, snarky musings of his elderly, physician father (“War hero? No, I was a doc in Vietnam. My job was to say, ‘This is what happens when you screw a hooker, kid. Put this cream on your pecker,”) and parlayed it into a book and television deal. (The show is horrible, the Twitter stream remains funny.) A fake account was set up as an homage to Rahm Emanuel (@MayorEmanuel) during his run for Chicago mayor, and became a fully formed narrative, featuring the musings of the foul-mouthed, former Obama Chief of Staff Emanuel, senior-Obama-advisor-turned-Emanuel-consultant David Axelrod and the hapless, imaginary intern Carl. (“Carl the Intern is absolutely fing killing it on ‘Tiny Dancer.’ He said it was for someone special. I wonder who that is?”)
Most recent and most charming, though, was the fake account an as-yet unidentified someone set up for a 20-inch Egyptian cobra that briefly escaped from the Bronx Zoo. The writer chronicled imaginary jaunts at @BronxZoosCobra (“Holding very still in the snake exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. This is gonna be hilarious!”) Since the snake’s capture, the tweets go on with a more melancholy tone (“It’s just one of those days when I could eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Mice Cream).
In Monterey County, a cursory search of Twitter shows there are only about two dozen, county-centric accounts, including the Monterey County Weekly’s. A refrain oft-herd around town is, “Twitter. I don’t really get it.” But it costs nothing to set up an account and takes almost no time to accomplish tweeting. Between the conversations that can get started – about humorous stuff, sure, and serious, world-impacting stuff too – everyone should hop aboard the Twitter train.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow the Weekly on Twitter, @McWeekly.