While Twitter Inc has suffered endless wisecracks about its users tweeting more about their favorite sandwiches and coveted parking spots than anything truly important, the past several days have once again showed the microblogging site's real promise.
During a harsh 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 - like 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."
In fact, two of the top trend topics on Twitter today are "IranElection" and "Tehran."
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.
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 organize in ways of incredible scale and speed that are 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 splashy headlines.
Now, Twitter may be better able to show off its more serious side.
In a previous interview with Computerworld, company co-founder Biz Stone said Twitter can help people track global events as easily as they track their friends' day-to-day activities.
"It's become the pulse of what's happening in the world," said Stone. "It can be as big as terrorist attacks in Mumbai or as nano as eating a sandwich. You can look at it as trivial or as a pulse of information. It depends on how you customize it."
And what the situation in Iran is showing is that Twitter can give the average person the ability to communicate with the masses - not just about something trivial but about something world changing.
"This calls attention to one of the most important benefits from social networking -- how it gives the common person the ability to communicate with the world unfettered and uncensored," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group Inc.
"In a situation like the Iranian elections and the resulting turmoil, Twitter is allowing news to leak out of the country," he added. "It is also a mechanism that can help gather evidence and paint a much clearer picture of what truly happened in the election and what is happening now. As someone once said, 'Sunlight is the best disinfectant.' Think of Twitter and other social networking mediums as form of sunlight."
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