Brief encounters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2011, 12:00am

If online social networking sites were people, Facebook to me would be an acquaintance, Myspace a stranger, LinkedIn a one-time neighbour and Bebo someone I'd heard of but never met. That would seem to make me an internet recluse, but not so - in my 16 years of Web use, I've frittered away far too much of my life with chat programmes. I've now no need to collect cyber friends, preferring to keep in touch with those I know with what my sons refer to as Stone Age means of communication: e-mails and the telephone. That said, I think I'm about to have a steamy romance with Twitter.

I hadn't paid much attention to Twitter until Iran's green revolution 20 months ago. Those anti-government demonstrations also came to be known as the 'Twitter revolution' because of the protesters' use of the social network to keep the outside world informed with 140-character updates and links to blogs and online videos and pictures. The use of so new a tool - Twitter began in 2006 - instantly grabbed media attention. It was easy to believe predictions that technology could help bring down the country's Islamic dictatorship.

The demonstrations were brutally crushed. Twitter, it turned out, was used less within Iran to bring protesters together than e-mails and mobile phone text messages - and when electronic communications systems were blocked by the government, not at all. Twitter, in reality, wasn't a secret weapon. Rather than bringing people onto the streets, it united the Iranian diaspora and foreign observers through the information it helped transmit.

Yet, as protesters swarm Egypt's streets calling for President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, it seems as if another Twitter revolution is under way. The site and Facebook are frequently mentioned in media reports, giving new impetus to the belief that technology can force out the three-decade regime and usher in democracy.

The US State Department clearly has such a view; responding to the Egyptian government's shutdown of the internet, spokesman P.J. Crowley said unhindered use of social media was as fundamental a right as 'walking into a town square'. How easy it is to forget that the popular uprisings that brought down the French and Russian monarchies and the regime of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos just 25 years ago did so without the internet and mobile phones.

That has been lost on the world's autocrats and dictators, who have been nervously watching events in Egypt. They have taken pre-emptive action by getting even tougher than they have already been with the internet. If they are ruling people who genuinely hate them, their efforts are doomed. History is awash with leaders overthrown by word-of-mouth revolts.

Crowley spoke of social media, but what he was actually referring to was communication. And it is because of that that I think I'm falling in love with Twitter. I do not doubt that it can be used to organise a protest that will overthrow a government or political system, although that is not why it has stirred my soul. Rather, it is the ability to let me know the thoughts of people who are intelligent, insightful and amusing.

I am a follower and increasingly so, of people like US film critic Roger Ebert, technology blogger Robert Scoble, Canadian science fiction author Cory Doctorow, Filipino journalist Michael Mirasol, US comedian Stephen Colbert, New Delhi-based film-maker Natasha Badhwar and, at times when I need to comprehend my sons, rappers 50 Cent and Kanye West.

Day by day, my to-read list grows, giving me new ideas and insight as no other medium can. It is like reading a book of short stories each day in half an hour without having to spend every waking moment ploughing through them.

I am not yet head-over-heels smitten with Twitter. I have got to work out a way of being more selective in what I read so as not to be bombarded with information. But with Twitter I can at least say for sure that, this time, the revolution has begun.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post