It's also evident that Twitter has a unique ability to collapse the emotional distance between the objects of news coverage and the reading/watching/listening public. This capacity follows from Twitter's decentralized, choose-your-own-conversation structure: if you've got a Twitter account and a cell phone (or computer) and weigh in on the Iranian situation using the tag #iranelection, your comments can be read by everyone following that subject, whether you're posting from Tehran or Teaneck. That alone creates a potential for participatory transnational solidarity that surpasses anything experienced during, say, the fall of communism two decades ago.
And if, as a non-Iranian, you join the criticism of CNN's supposedly sparse Iran coverage by posting with the tag #cnnfail — or help to disseminate information on Web proxies for Iranians seeking to avoid government censorship of the Internet — the sense of being united in struggle with Iran's dissidents grows even more palpable. As Shirky put it: "Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it."
So far, so clear. But when we turn to Twitter's role on the ground in Iran, the picture gets murkier. Case in point: on June 15, the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote, in a post titled "The Revolution Will Be Twittered," of Iranian dissidents using Twitter to warn each other of impending violent crackdowns by the government, thereby saving the lives "of any number of would-be revolutionaries."
It's true that Twitter may have saved tens of thousands of lives in the days following the election. Then again, it may not have saved any at all. We simply don't know, since no journalist or historian or political scientist has yet had the luxury of talking with key figures from the opposition and figuring out how important Twitter was in terms of protecting dissenters.
By the same token, no one's been able to study — with the precision required to make the sort of declaratory statement everyone currently craves — exactly what role Twitter played in mobilizing and sustaining resistance to the regime. (Writing at foreignpolicy.com, Open Society Institute fellow Evgeny Morozov — who previously extolled Twitter's significance among Moldovan-government opponents earlier this year — convincingly made this point.)
We can, however, identify some problems Twitter may pose for Iran's dissenters. In addition to the perils of Twitter-driven disinformation (intentional or inadvertent) and Twitter-based government eavesdropping, the site's aforementioned inclusiveness poses its own problems. When Twitter users everywhere changed their designated location to Tehran to protect their Iranian counterparts from retribution, they also made it harder to discern — via geographic sorting of tweets — which users actually had information worth sharing.
Maybe we'll eventually discover that Twitter really was the organizational engine of the Iranian opposition. But even if that's the case, contends Jack A. Goldstone, director of the Center for Global Policy at George Mason University, its big-picture importance shouldn't be overstated. In Iran, Goldstone tells the Phoenix via e-mail, Twitter seems to be doing the work previously done by speeches, leaflets, newspapers, radio, and television. However, he adds, "It hasn't changed the basic mode of protest (physical challenge to regime order by public demonstrations by crowds) or the basic message (we are numerous, virtuous, united, and resolute)."