Saturday, 18 April 2009

More thoughts on Twitter: a force for good?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

A very strange thing happened today. I woke to the news that the American-Iranian journalist, Roxana Saberi (pictured left) has been sentenced to eight years in an Iranian jail for 'spying'. I knew a little about Saberi after hearing an interview with her father a few weeks ago on NPR, the nearest America has to Radio Four. (I get it in Scotland through the wonder of podcast.) At the time, the Iranians insisted that they were holding her because her journalist's permit had expired; she was actually arrested because a shopkeeper reported her for buying a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran. Her father was extremely worried about her state of mind, but it seemed that the authorities would soon let her go, and were mostly posturing, possibly for some kind of tactical diplomatic gain. Then, instead of the happy ending of Saberi going home to North Dakota, the whole thing escalated into spying charges and eight years' incarceration.

I found myself incredibly upset and frustrated by this: what they do to the women, and what they do to journalists, under repressive patriarchal regimes, often in the name of god, drives me nuts. So I put out a Tweet. It felt mildly stupid, almost adolescent, yelling into the wind. But I had read a story about how a critical mass of people on Twitter had contributed to the freeing of a man called Roy Bennet from a prison in Zimbabwe. I thought: if Twitter can take on Robert Mugabe and win, then maybe it has a chance against the Mullahs. I know that the young people in Iran are always reported to be very tech savvy. I thought: maybe nothing will come of it, I have only a meagre hundred followers, but I'll send it out into the Twitterverse anyway.

This is when the extraordinary thing happened. I went back after a couple of hours and it had been re-tweeted, over and over, by people I had never heard of, had no connection with, did not follow. How had they even found it? I am so new to Twitter that I don't quite understand the retweeting process. It seems to work something like this: when someone finds a message they like, they copy it out and post it on the site again, presumably to get it out to a wider audience. My newness also means that I have absolutely no idea how these strangers even found my message in the first place. As far as I can see there is no search facility on Twitter, or at least I have not found it (although I have not spent much time looking). I use the whole shebang in a very basic way: I write a couple of Tweets a day, trying to be either interesting, informative or, if at all possible, mildly droll. I regard avoiding banality a matter of honour. I engage in conversations with my new, fabulous Twitter friends, mostly women who are so brilliant that lately some of them have taken to making Twitter jokes in Latin. I still have not mastered the art of posting links, I am so much in the basic stage. I like Twitter because it makes me laugh, it gives me glimpses into other people's lives, which is always riveting, and in distilling my thoughts into 140 characters, it makes me pay a slightly Zennish attention to moments in my day, which I think might be an excellent contribution to mental health.

So this whole Roxana Saberi retweeting phenomenon felt like a miracle to me. I have no idea how it happened, so it has an aura of absolute magic about it. I sometimes feel a little protective of Twitter, because people bash it so lazily and so easily. (I know about this: I was once one of those very bashers.) Until today, I thought: come along, cross people, it's just a little bit of harmless fun. Now I wonder if it is not more than that. I wonder if it might not turn out to be an actual force for actual good.


  1. Great post. Yes, if Twitter can help save lives and free innocent people, then it can only be a good thing. I, too, struggled with it at the beginning (not that long ago), but I'm enjoying it more than Facebook now (and I never thought I'd say that). Although they're entirely different formats, someone said that Facebook is about the people you used to know and Twitter is about the people you want to know. I quite liked that.

  2. So agree. I find Facebook very old hat - too cluttered and filled with pointless bells and whistles. Its only advantage is that I do get to see absurd photographs posted by my 15 year old niece, and can keep up with my brother in Australia.

    The Roxana Saberi thing is fascinating. She is already all over Twitter. Can sheer people power do what the Secretary of State of the US so far cannot? There are elections coming up in Iran, and even if they will not be shining beacons of democratic process, public opinion must count for something.

  3. Never underestimate people power. We will see.

    Yes still do love the vouyeristic aspect of Facebook, but my love affair with it is definitely over.

  4. Search is right at the bottom of the Twitter page (in the footer).

    inserting a link - You can just copy and past a URL or you can use one of the Twitter interfaces, like Tweetdeck (google it and download), which has a little URL-shortening thingy.

    (Am also hugely surprised by how nice it is using Twitter)

  5. Mackle- you are so kind. Search is a revelation. The button is very small but even so I do feel like an idiot for not seeing it before. Now am all Twittered up and ready to go.

  6. it is fantastic what can happen on twitter - i agree, it feels a little like magic. but if information can be spread and opinion mobilised, then the internet can be forgiven - just a little - for all the cr*p it spawns otherwise. let's hope it works for roxana

  7. Such an interesting post - I am still very very new to twitter, but having read Bill Baileys post on my friend's twitter, I can definately see the advantage!

    This efect is interesting - it seems that the Amnesty style letter campaign has embraced new media whole-heartedly - and if people listen, I say go ahead!

    Lets desperately hope she gets out.

    Oh - and facbook is great for seeing photos (and organising events, I find), but really has become kind of old-hat


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