Trivial technologies (Twitter, Flash Mobs) have power in non-democratic countries

[Updated 4/7/09 to reflect latest use of Twitter in Moldovan protests.]

Clay Shirky, author of the interesting read, Here Comes Everybody, has commented on how technologies that seemed trivial and pointless have shown their mettle outside the U.S.

Flash mobs: As Shirky says everyone remembers flash mobs. The technology that made it possible to almost instantaneously and without a clear organization, assemble a pillow fight in downtown Toronto, or enable a mob to all meet in New York’s Central Park, and make pigeon noises for a few minutes. A wonderful recent cool, but pointless example, was 100s of New Yorkers freezing simultaneously in Grand Central Station for a minute.

The anonymous New York founder “Bill”, aimed to critique hipster culture and art happenings.

I published a piece on the meaningless of this trend (“Flash-in -the-pan Mobs?“, 2003). But then in 2006, a developer created a page on Live Journal in Belarus. He proposed a flash mob of citizens convening in the central square and simultaneously eating ice cream. The government’s rules prohibited group public actions (although no doubt the law’s inventors weren’t thinking about ice cream eating). The protesters brought their cameras and filmed black clad security forces apprehending them in October Square. The mission didn’t bring down the government since the protesters overestimated how enraged citizens outside Belarus would at this action, but they did make the government look foolish.

Twitter: another seemingly mindless technology being put to social use. Twitter users send ‘tweets’ (short descriptions, up to 140 characters, of what they are doing at the moment). ‘Having a little trail mix’, ‘On my way to the daily grind’, etc. As the Toronto Star describes Twitter: “In Akron last week, JuggleNuts coded 250 death certificates in a single day. “A new record,” he said. In Bakersfield, jcjdoss “(j)ust bit into a rotten apple… almost barfed.” Seconds later and half a world away, sauj in Auckland, New Zealand, shared a moment that was, he said, “Beautiful: the early morning train, witnessing the gentle pink blushes or the sun reflected on the wind-caressed waves of the Orakei basin.

“Random musings, mundane updates, boredom-fueled brain farts, the rare poetic outburst – all constant fare on Twitter, the online social-networking (think: Facebook) world’s fascination of the moment.

“Until very recently, Twitter could have been regarded as little more than that: an always-on inanity machine, indulging spontaneous tedium. In the past two months, though, those narrow parameters have broadened considerably.”

Then Egypt and China found twitter. An American journalism grade, James Karl Buck, arrested in April in Egypt, send a ‘tweet’ through his cellphone that said simply ‘Arrested.’ Buck’s tweet, after being taken in by policy following an anti-government protest, rallied family, friends and even the U.S. government and led to his ultimate release.

On April 6, 2009, 10,000 protesters used Twitter to mobilize out of thin air to protest the communist government, in a protest that began peaceably and turned violent. Protesters created their own searchable Twitter tag so other would-be protesters could learn of the impending protest.

Last month, the Chinese 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Chengdu offered Twitter another chance to shine as a meaningful technology. The Toronto Star notes that “Twitter users offered the first on-scene accounts. “Slight ly dizzy after being shaken around by the Chengdu earthquake for several hours now,” tweeted one user, Casperodj.

“Suddenly, Twitter’s triviality was no longer its most notable feature. ‘I saw three people in Chengdou giving reports on the ground long before traditional media could even get close,’ said Fons Tuinstra, a media consultant in Shanghai and a fellow at the U.S. media nonprofit organization the Poynter Institute. ‘On that first day, it was a very important tool – a great example of how it could work.’

“A year ago, it was a weird little toy,” says Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of Technology Review, a publication owned by M.I.T. “Now, its potential seems significantly greater than that.

“How much greater? That’s open for debate. (‘One of the reasons it’s not fully mature yet is that it keeps breaking,’ says Pontin, a nod to the service’s iffy architecture).

“But slow down a moment. The weird little toy is still very much at play, and with tweets like this one, from femmedelacreme, still being the norm, overblown idealism is kept well in check: ‘I am really craving shavings of parmesan cheese. Plain. Such oddness.’ ”

Twitter users have doubled in only 18 months from just over 600,000 to more than 1.2 million. The creators (much like Flash Mobs) did not build it with social purpose in mind, although the Toronto Star notes that Twitter offers to turn the world into 24-hour a day micro-blogging.

And some claim that with Twitter’s rise in popularity, comes the increased corporatization of the site (a la Friendster, Facebook or Second Life) that ultimately portends its demise as an innovative social approach.

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