Twitter’s power to change the news and the world – more hype than substance

Can you just imagine the phone call at Twitter WHQ when they were asked by the US State Department to hold off on a planned maintenance so that the voice in Iran could be heard around the world following the country’s national election.

Man the ego boost that must have sent through the office. You see Twitter isn’t just some hack-kneed 140 character messaging service for people with no life. No indeedy folks Twitter was at the forefront of being the worldwide voice for those trying to peaceably overthrow a corrupt government.

They held the pulse of the world’s news about what was happening within their hands. Twitter was a world shaker and mover. Yup it was full of all kinds of awesome sauce.

Or was it it?

In an interesting report that was made available to Ryan Tate at Valleywag by one of the author’s of the report shines a bit of a different light on just how much of an effect Twitter really had.

Charles Leadbeater, a British writer and analyst, along with research Annika Wong decided to go a little deeper than all the hype and back slapping that the Twitterati smothered themselves in. The report called Cloud Culture is to be published by the British Council next year but in the meantime some interesting facts have been put out there that take some of the shine off of Twitter’s halo.

It shows that such a tiny proportion of Iranians are on Twitter that any stories about a new movement based on the social network are meaningless. The figure they provide, by they way, includes the thousands of foreigners who changed their Twitter location to Tehran when the ‘Iranian internet revolution’ story struck after the elections in June and Facebook and Twitter were afire with Iran sentiment. So the likely figure is even lower.

The report adds that only one third of Iranians have internet access at all. And because opposition supporters are young, and on the internet, and Ahmadinejad supporters tend to be older and rural, the picture on the ground is likely skewed by any analysis that relies on tweets.

So the reality is that if there was any real hype surrounding the news coming out of Iran it had less to do with the people actually in the country than it did with the web digerati clamping on to a fleeting meme that is the end didn’t change a damn thing except for possibly getting a whole bunch of people in jail – or worse.. dead.

It’s a warm feeling when you believe that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. Something that might change even a little piece of the world and Twitter in all its simplicity does just that. That however doesn’t mean that any real long lasting change will come out of some sort of failed electronic version of the Ride of Paul Reeve.

The actual sphere of influence of things like Twitter regardless of how much the social media mavens is minuscule in comparison to the rest of the news gathering world and activist movements. If Twitter really did have the power to change the world why aren’t we hearing from Pakistan, why aren’t we seeing a flood of change coming from the Middle East. Why aren’t we hearing from within our own country about the injustices and Twitter being used to change those injustices.

Sure we might hear the late breaking story but just as in the old game we use to play as boy scouts around the campfire. What you whisper in the first person’s ear never turns out to be the same things that you hear whispered back t o you after the story makes the circle of the campfire.

That original news flash that occurs in the first second on Twitter will almost never be the same story we all hear as it gets retweeted to hell. Anything beyond even the first couple of messages fired over Twitter do nothing to add veracity or accurate new information. And as the recent events at Fort Hood have shown we may even need to serious question those first messages themselves.

Citizen journalism in the spirit of the reporter on the front lines might be a nice ideal but whether or not it stands up under the real scrutiny of examination after the fact still remains to be seen.