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How revolutionary is Twitter, anyway?

People like to talk about all the things that have been lost in America -- I could spend the rest of the night compiling a list that would probably include everything from baseball doubleheaders to front porches to jukeboxes to newspapers, etc., etc., etc. How about adding this: The Middle Ground. Is there any discussion in which the issue at hand isn't either a) the event that changed the world, the greatest thing since sliced bread or b) totally worthless? In our overly caffeinated Internet era, nobody ever wants to admit the slightly boring notion that most things are somewhere well in between.

Take the case of Iran, and Twitter.

Regardless of whether you're somebody who tweets 40 times a day or whether you think Twitter refers to a Monty Python sketch, you've probably heard the same story every 55 minutes on CNN or seen it on the front page of your newspaper, that the revolution in Iran will be Twittered, that social media is what's fueling social unrest in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the most significant overt action taken by the U.S. government has been to successfully urge Twitter management to postpone some scheduled maintenance of the site, so that people in Tehran and their supporters could keep tweeting.

Check out the enthusiasm of NYU's Clay Shirky, one of the best New Media pundits around:

I'm always a little reticent to draw lessons from things still unfolding, but it seems pretty clear that ... this is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. I've been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted "the whole world is watching." Really, that wasn't true then. But this time it's true ... and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They're engaging with individual participants, they're passing on their messages to their friends, and they're even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can't immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.

But others are looking at all the hype over the role that social networking -- primarily Facebook and Twitter, and especially Twitter because it's the (relatively) new kid on the block -- and arguing that it's just that, hype. Even Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" went all curmudgeon the other night, wonder if Twitter wasn't just an excuse for news outlets to run away from actual journalism.

Of course, what no one wants to say is that the truth is out there, and it's right down the middle. Clearly, the Internet and other types of wireless communication, espeically cell phones, have been invaluable for the ingredient that is key to any revolution, which is spreading the word in the face of government censorship or interference. While the Iranian regime has been quite successful at bottling up traditional journalists, Twitter has been the place for 24/7 updates, even if the reliability of the source can't always be easily verified. This is the empowering ability of the Internet that has been shown all over the world, certainly here in the United States where President Obama election was arguably the result of his ability to rally support but especially raise money on the Web.

That having been said, it's easy to overstate the role of Twitter in Iran, and that is exactly what has been happening to some degree. The fact is that Twitter is used by only a fraction of the people marching through the Iranian streets, with as few as 8,600 Twitter accounts in all of Tehran, according to this reality-check article. (It's also not clear how well Twitter supports Farsi, the language most Iranians speak.) So how are Iranians learning about the nightly protests? A lot of the communication is through the relatively "old-fashioned" text messaging, or simply people knocking on their neighbors' doors. Indeed, some of the most powerful protesting I've seen is video of Iranians on their rooftops, simply shouting "Allah Akbar." Seriously...could you get any more low-tech than that (even if some of them first learned of the protest by Twitter)?

So why all the focus here in America on the social networking story? Well, it is "news," literally, since Twitter is only a couple of years old. What journalists don't want to acknowledge openly is that they're reporting so much about Twitter because it's easy -- anyone can log in from anywhere and read what people are saying. But reporting on the ground from Tehran -- spending all that money and somehow getting past the government censors -- that's hard work. On top of all that, Twitter is a way for a lot of Americans to feel they are somehow "taking part" in what seems like, for now, a cathartic global event -- even if the truth is that at the end of the day it will be Iranians, and not us, who decide whether this rebellion actually succeeds.

The larger reality is that Twitter is a medium, but it's not the message. If change really does come to Iran, it will not be cause of 140 characters but because of the character of millions, who are literally risking death to march for the things they believe in. It was like that in Massachusetts in 1775, when the news traveled at the speed of horse, and it is like that in Tehran in 2009. Same as it ever was.