This past week’s news has been nothing short of fascinating.
The popular unrest in Iran has created an outpouring of support on the Web, which has been — truth be told, and yet again — the far and away most reliable vehicle by which unfolding events have been relayed en masse to a wider audience. Twitter, that blasted thing, has been a driving force behind a flood of impassioned dissent emerging from within borders more accustomed to presenting a uniform picture of order. First hand accounts, unsubstantiated speculation, expressions of solidarity, and propaganda have converged into a wealth of noise unprecedented in magnitude and confusion…and yet, somehow, the digital public is learning to make sense of the whole thing. The images, sounds, and messages of resistance to which we have been witness, and in whose distribution we have shared a part, defy the conventional wisdom of information production and analysis. Considering that a rising star in the U.S. State department played a role in delaying Twitter’s scheduled maintenance just long enough to let Tehran turn in for the night, it should be quite clear that the logical conclusions of the digital age have finally kicked in the doors of power (regardless of Twitter’s alternative version of events).
So, it’s a good thing that Twitter is just a toy, for otherwise we might really have a thing on our hands…
Yet, at the same time that masses are producing, organizing, and disseminating information from the disaggregated input of their peers, we are inclined to overlook more fundamental questions about the services we enjoy, particularly if these avenues are being considered as means for officialdom to engage new audiences and build public-private partnerships. Though minor on an individual basis, what concerns ought the outward-facing enterprise (government, military, NGO, and so on) have over lost messages? Dropped contacts? Ownership of the data archive? Similarly, how is a rush towards public platforms to be justified that are already reaching the bounds of actionable utility? As the data stream continues to bloat, it is accessibility to that raw information, and not its presentation, that must drive the architecture of social enabling technologies if they are to cope with the scalability and sustained interaction necessary for truly dismantling barriers to information and meaningful cooperation.
On a cautionary note, we should remember that the various means of socializing information, from established media to emerging technologies, are but extensions of the behavior of social beings. That is, digital dynamics will only be approximate representations of actual circumstances. The more the two can be aligned, the more we can expect to see generative interactions take root within, across, and among human enterprises.