Twitter has suffered endless wise cracks about its users tweeting more about their favourite sandwiches and coveted parking spots than anything truly important, but the past few days have showed the microblogging site's real promise.
During a government crackdown following the disputed Iranian elections, the Twitter social network has become something of a lifeline for the people of Iran. The Iranian government may have blocked or shut down various communication mediums - phone lines, the Facebook social network, YouTube videos and even text messaging - but people are still sending photos and information from Iran in short 140-character bursts.
"I think this is Twitter's finest hour. I don't think there's much doubt about that," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research. "If anyone in Iran has access to the web, they can tell their story. This has made our world smaller and more personal in a time of great chaos and when a government is trying to stop communication."
Some of the Tweets sent today include:
- "CONFIRMED!!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters!"
- "tehran is alive with sound of freedom"
- "all cell networks down in Tehran"
It's not the first time Twitter has been used to get vital information from chaotic sites to authorities and the public. Earlier this year, several passengers on a US Airways jet that made an emergency water landing on New York's Hudson River used Twitter to keep the world updated on the status of the passengers and crew. And late last year, tweets were sent from the site of a terrorist attack in Mumbai, India.
Taking control of the news
Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat, and Caroline Dangson, an analyst with IDC, both said the use of Twitter to broadcast reports from the scene of such incidents shows how individuals have taken control of news dissemination.
"Social media is empowering the masses to connect, share and organise [information] with an incredible scale and speed that makes it much harder, if not impossible, to control," said Dangson. "The situation in Iran is illustrating this phenomenon where government and media outlets are no longer the gatekeepers to news. The man on the street is now the reporter in the field covering the situation in Iran, thanks to the penetration of connected devices and availability of social messaging applications."
While an astronaut has Twittered from space and despite the Twittering from disaster sites, the social network still gets far more attention for its trivial side. For instance, when Oprah Winfrey started tweeting live from her talk show and actor Ashton Kusher raced to his one millionth Twitter follower, there were weeks of headlines.
Now Twitter may be better able to show off its more serious side.