If journalism is the first draft of history, then social media is the half-lucid doodling in the margins of history's notebook.
And history is in the making these days, even for those among us who can't find Iran on a Google map. In fairness, staying current is always a struggle when a faraway country goes awry, because - let's face it - no matter how worldly we like to act, only a minority among us carry around world-book almanacs in our head. It's a big planet, and we have local concerns. They've stopped picking up trash here in Toronto, it's awfully hot out, and Steve Jobs just got a new liver.
Still, we try. Things haven't been helped by the fact that while the revolution might not have been televised, it was Twittered assiduously. In fact, I am informed that this is the "new media revolution." There has been almost as much coverage of the way the revolution has been covered as there has been of the revolution itself. (This shouldn't be surprising, since Internet-age journalism has a distinct bias towards reporting that doesn't involve going anywhere.) The way some people talk about it, you'd think the entire event was staged as a technology demonstration.
The extent to which Twitter and its ilk actually facilitated the spread of the Iranian protests is hazy. A number of well-informed observers - among them Ethan Zuckerman, the co-founder of Global Voices Online, an excellent source of international perspective - suggest that new media has been less effective at spurring on the protests proper than it has at inflaming and engaging sentiment worldwide.
And it's certainly succeeded on that front. On Twitter, users turned their avatars green in solidarity and tuned into feeds that gushed out Iran-related snippets like little geysers. Users hurried to forward along (or "re-tweet," in the parlance) messages that seemed especially pertinent.
There were Twitter rumours of mass killings, Twitter rumours of chemical agents being dropped. As the protests reached a crescendo, a particularly insistent rumour claimed that every embassy in Tehran except Canada's was open to wounded protesters. The ruckus that ensued was such that Jason Kenney, Canada's immigration minister, had to tweet out a denial, for all the good it did. It turns out that none of the other embassies were open either.
We've seen this show before. Gonzo information on the Internet, film at 11. It's a classic case of too much noise and too little filter. Nor is it incurable: various people and organizations have stepped into the breach to act as aggregators: bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and the staff of Global Voices Online spring to mind, as well as the New York Times and the Guardian, both of which have used running blogs to cobble the story together from its constituent parts and provide the context to make sense of it all.
But what distinguishes the Twitter phenomenon from the ones that came before it is that this one is all information, no verification. Yes, it's easy (and usually profoundly satisfying) to snicker at Wikipedia and the wooly world of blogs as resellers of dodgy information. But at their core, both are all about fact-checking. Wikipedia's editors and users argue endlessly over how best to represent the truth, or their current take on it. And blogging culture is heavily invested in the act of scrutinizing other reports with a cocked eyebrow and squinty regard.
But the fashionable idea for 2009 is that everything must be short, and everything must happen in real-time. That concision does a job on accuracy, since there's not always space to restate a rumour and link back to a credible source. When passing along Twitter rumours, users might cite one or two people before them in the chain of whispers, but the "news" itself often goes unsourced, and it always arrives stripped of context.
Even more troublesome is the fact that the culture of instant updates encourages people to spread information as quickly as they can. Tweets are such fleeting things, such tiny gossamer messages, that it seems almost harmless to pass along unverified messages. I've seen journalists who spend all day stressing over getting tiny details right re-post flimsy Twitter rumours without thinking twice.
I understand the drive to pass on a hot scoop. It's a great feeling. There's a little rush in the moment where you've come into possession of an interesting morsel that others may not. It drives people to repeat gossip. It drives people to commit journalism, which is really just gossip with an excellent pedigree. The never-ending game of broken telephone lets people bounce from one rush to the next.
Besides, being parsimonious with information is such an old-media mentality. There seems to be an almost moral imperative to share hot gossip, just on the offchance that it turns out to be accurate.
You have to hand it to a medium that makes Wikipedia look like a paragon of reliability. Already, Twitter is starting to be the butt of jokes about poorly sourced information. And that might be the most encouraging sign of all: it's coming back to earth.
After garnering all the titles owed to every burgeoning online idea - Formentor of Revolution, Shrinker of the Earth, Grand Connector of Humans, Future of All Media - we've come to the point where we learn what uses it's suited to, and which ones it isn't. And it turns out that one thing that Twitter can do is import some fog-of-war for domestic consumption. It might not change history, or even write it, but it certainly renders the process of discerning it a good deal more interesting.