How To Follow a Revolution: New Media and Iran

How To Follow a Revolution

Let me just say this up front: I am not much of a ‘new media’ aficionado. I have had a Twitter account for less than three months, and even then I’ve barely used it. I have tried and failed to maintain a personal blog three times (and am still trying). Before recently being forced back onto the site for social-health-related reasons, I managed to neglect my Facebook account for an entire year. I don’t read Gawker or the Huffington Post.

That being said, I must admit that over the last two weeks I’ve become tremendously interested in the discussions/debates/confrontations/spitball-fests that surround the current old media vs. new media ‘thing’. (I call it a ‘thing’ because qualifying it as a ‘debate’ or a ‘revolution’ or a ‘replacement’ would mean rather arbitrarily taking a stance on an another equally important but complex and slippery and fascinating issue, which is: ‘how exactly do we define ‘media’ and its/their history?’) I’ve become interested in this partially because of the recent cock-up perpetrated by North American cable news vis-à-vis coverage of the post-electoral uprising in Iran, which even the Economist has lambasted, and which has embarrassed stations like CNN into playing a sort of exasperated (and at times comical) game of coverage catch-up. More importantly, however, I’ve become interested in the media ‘thing’ because, for the past two weeks, I couldn’t have cared less whether CNN was covering Iran or not. Let me explain.

On Saturday, June 13th, I woke up earlier than usual. The night before, I had written a short blog entry about the Iranian election and Mir Hossein Mousavi’s electoral fraud complaints, and though I hadn’t exactly expected anything revolutionary to follow, I was anxious to see what Iran’s reformists (who had shown lots of spunk in the days leading up to the election) would do. After checking my email and cycling through my regular news sites, I refreshed a page I had left open on my desktop the night before – ‘The Lede’ blog at The New York Times. As the page finished loading, my jaw dropped. Facing me was a torrent of photos, video, blog excerpts, ground reports and tweets, all of which painted a picture that was both tremendously exciting and profoundly disturbing. Protests were erupting in Tehran, clerics were dissenting, and opposition leaders were being arrested. And the best part was, every time I refreshed the page, something new happened!

After taking a few minutes to read through reports from the previous twelve hours, I followed a link to Andrew Sullivan’s blog at The Atlantic in hopes of finding yet more information. The Lede’s coverage was excellent, but I was hungry for more. Sullivan’s blog didn’t disappoint. Every fifteen minutes, some new piece of news that fueled my sense of excitement for democratic reform in Iran (not to mention my contempt towards what I thought was a despicably theocratic and bullying regime) would pop up at the top of the page. After following The Lede and Sullivan’s blog for an hour, discovering Nico Pitney’s liveblog at the Huffington Post (arguably the most intensely updated blog of the three) was icing on the cake. By now I wasn’t just absorbing information – I was swimming in it.

But my search didn’t stop there. Reading something progressive and promising about an uprising that I was in intense approval of every five minutes was great and stimulating and all, but it didn’t feel completely satisfying. Andrew and Nico and Robert (The Lede) were bloggers, and blogging, I knew, wasn’t all that difficult (at least, when one had the enthusiasm to find things to blog [which I then had in excess]), so that meant that the info-aggregation and primary-source analysis they were doing wasn’t all that difficult either. If they could sort through hundreds of tweets and blog posts from Iran, I could. And so I did.

I began following twitter feeds (around 20-25 of them) from Iranians that were establishing themselves as reliable sources like persiankiwi, alirezasha and iranbaan. I started reading through reports blogged by the Tehran Bureau and the National Iranian American Council. I began sifting through the hundreds of videos that were pouring onto youtube and stared at countless images posted on sites like, flickr and Bigsoccer Forums. I even took some long, hard looks at the official election data and read through result analyses done by Nate Silver and Walter Mebane.

By the time ‘big’ media stepped in (that is, when the NYT and the BBC started churning out serious amounts of material), I was standing on top of this giant pile of ‘stuff’ that continuously informed and improved a set of personal analyses and conclusions that I could compare with analyses and conclusions provided by professional journalists. The two ‘spheres’ of information – one in which the degree to which I understood the situation depended upon the amount of effort I was willing to put into understanding the situation, and another in which reliable aggregation, refinement and analysis were done for me (and, not to mention, professionally) – complemented and played off each other perfectly.

The glaring differences between these two spheres (not to mention their newness to me) however, drew my attention to the assumptions I had been making in approaching them. For some, concerns about reliability, priority and thoroughness manifested in a critical reproach of cable news and its failure to deliver the kind of coverage it advertises. Some of this critique, I think, was insincere and ultimately missed the point – many of those who lambasted CNN and its lack of ‘expertise’ (I’m talking to you, new media whores) were the same people who didn’t fully believe in ‘mainstream media expertise’ in the first place. I was more interested in something else: why had I neglected (not rejected, neglected) Twitter for so long, and why had I not read more blogs?

After all, young Iranians have been blogging for a long time. And regardless of what one thinks about the importance of Twitter in organizing the uprising and relaying information to the outside world, it would be ignorant to say that this is the first the world has heard, through the internet, about regime atrocities in Iran. Many Iranians talk about how the world is finally realizing how brutal this regime is. It seems that it has taken a major political crisis and an overflow of information from these sources to grab our attention and make us enthusiastic enough to try to engage with Iranians using less conventional means.

Maybe what’s really important here, at least when we’re talking about new media and the ways in which we perceive and process information, is the simple fact that we’ve been drawn close enough — and for long-enough periods of time – to these new sources to understand them, and to find ways in which they can be useful to us. By being drawn towards Twitter streams and blogs, we are indeed forced to look for value in them.

Perhaps what I’m trying to say is, maybe it was a good thing that CNN dropped the ball for the first few days of the uprising. Maybe our search for sources to fill in the gaps that big media left behind resulted in our discovering and paying due attention to something new and valuable and complimentary to what we already had.

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Nick is an undergraduate studying history and economics at UBC. Nick is interested in international relations, philosophy of mind, creative writing, design, marketing, and a bunch of other things. Nick produces music, does graphic design, and sometimes plays tennis.