Twittered off

I read Steven Johnson’s Time magazine cover story on Twitter. It’s well done and all that, and raises some interesting questions about Twitter’s value as a search engine for things as they’re happening. Though that repeats what got said about blogging and Technorati. Technorati has not managed to replace Google for most of us.

Maybe Twitter will. Google and other search engines do struggle with real-time search. What I’ve seen that works tends to be sophisticated algorithms that cost a lot to buy, and are not easy to figure out. I know a writer who says Twitter has replaced RSS for her, which I find interesting. But for me, Johnson’s article on Twitter seems to boil down to: we like to express ourselves and now have another way to do it. Hoo ha.

What’s that, you say? Didn’t I see how much hoo ha Twitter go this week, for preventing repression in Iran? Certainly, it was hard to block. But whether its denizens represent the truth about the elections seems unlikely. It may be that Twitter users did not vote for Ahmadinejad, but how many Twitter users are in Iran? Only one-third of Iran’s population has Internet access, according to this study (although a much greater percentage of the population uses cell phones, which are all you need for Twitter). Twitter doesn’t release total usage numbers. But the biggest numbers I’ve seen reported are less than 8 million worldwide, and most Twitter users don’t actually use the service.

The truth about Twitter in Iran comes from this Time column, Don’t Assume Ahmadinejad Lost, though it doesn’t even mention Twitter. Instead, it notes:

For too many years now, the Western media have looked at Iran through the narrow prism of Iran’s liberal middle class — an intelligentsia that is addicted to the Internet and American music and is more ready to talk to the Western press, including people with money to buy tickets to Paris or Los Angeles. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a terrific book, but does it represent the real Iran?

There you have it: Twitter, mouthpiece of the information elite.

That said, I think Twitter is a fine tool. Someone I follow on Twitter just posted this piece on Twitter and America’s political fascination with it. No revolution here, folks, move along!

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