Twitter be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, especially since the people who invented the internet never were. But that's what Deputy National Security Advisor, Mark Pfeifle, argues this week in The Christian Science Monitor, because of the company's role in supporting the ongoing uprising in Iran. Pfeifle isn't the only one making this argument, either.It's hard to imagine anything more far out than the suggestion that the founders of
MG Siegler found Pfeifle's editorial and reported on it; he seems to think it's funny - and it is. I think the idea is also serious enough, though, to warrant some closer consideration. I think those little narcissistic bites of information and the platform people publish them on are serious enough to warrant taking this opportunity to consider what it all really means. You might assume that these most recent platitudes are just about Twitter's celebrated role in Iran - but in fact there's a lot more going on. Twitter is changing the human experience in important ways, for those fortunate enough to experience it.
Why Do People Care?
Some people believe that Twitter represents a general state of self-absorbed thoughtlessness in a culture drowning in pointless, irresponsible, self-indulgence and celebrity obsession. And they think it's stupid.
In fact, almost everyone thinks it's stupid until they give it a good honest try. I certainly did, until I decided to give it one single week of attention in a limited professional context. That was several years ago now and my embrace of Twitter ended up being anything but limited. I wrote once that Twitter is paying my rent, because I get so many story leads, quotes and other valuable tidbits from it. This week three out of my last four articles here have been about Twitter and I am about to buy my first house.
That's not why Twitter should be awarded a Nobel Prize of course, though I do appreciate it. At this point there may only be a few thousand people in the world making extensive use of Twitter for work - but that number will grow.
Some people try Twitter because the media talks about it a lot, some try it because friends are on it and others try it because they are told that they must, lest they become terminally un-hip and get put out to pasture.
Once you're there, though, and once you make a meaningful number of connections on the service (something that's still too difficult for new users to do) then Twitter becomes much more than just another website.
There's a reason why so many journalists, lawyers, moms, animal doctors, students and other normal people are so obsessed with Twitter - and it's not because they are flighty, superficial people intent on telling the world what they ate for breakfast.
Remember when Wikipedia was laughed at, because anyone could edit it? Most people feel differently about that site now, and it's not hard to see a future in which many more people will come to appreciate Twitter as something more important than they do today. Just like Wikipedia has become one of the best tools to include as part of any research project (no one argues that it's a definitive source) so too could Twitter in particular and "microblogging" in general end up on the short list of the best ways humanity has to communicate with each other.
What Is It, Really?
The creators of Twitter deserve big accolades because they have invented what could be compared to a newly discovered, very usable, radio-wave frequency. It's a new plane of communication. It's truly world changing.
Twitter isn't like SMS text messages because the visibility of Twitter messages isn't limited to a finite set of intended recipients. Twitter messages are both personal and public, targeted and broadcast, experienced individually and available for aggregate analysis by anyone who cares to process them.
Twitter is synchronous and asynchronous. It's for one on one, small group and very large group conversations. All at once!
It's a place for serendipitous discovery of the unexpected and it's a place you can go to find answers to very specific questions.
Perhaps most importantly, it's a tool that lets messages leap from person to person, from one friend network to another, in a matter of minutes, all over the world. Email enables that as well, but there's honestly a significantly greater amount of friction to sending an email than there is retweeting a tweet.
It does all this and yet it's just a box that asks "what are you doing?"
By looking into the flowing river of conversation, made up of the contents of all those little "what are you doing" prompts, a simple program can tell you (for example) that people who like knitting and live on the West Coast of the United States have been particularly active in discussing topics X, Y and Z in the last hour. What other tool on earth allows for all that?
Twitter is like a field of energy, buzzing with thoughts, feelings and information around the clock and accessible in many different ways.
An Open Network of Networks Could Be A Real World Changer
At least, it could be like a field of energy. Instead, right now, it's just a company that made some software. It's like the telephone, but it's not like the telephone. There are other telephone companies, but you can't call them and they can't call you if you are on Twitter and they are on, say Identi.ca or Yammer.
And that's why the founders of Twitter probably don't deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. They have built a company that is threatening to transcend into being a phenomenon, but for now it is still a company. It's not as bad as the hermetically sealed Facebook, a related service with more bells and whistles, far less flexibility and visions of a cradle-to-grave empire. But Twitter remains limited and colored by its own business limitations. It remains a closed network, for one thing.
It's being used to change and document history in Iran but those messages won't be publicly available in a matter of virtual moments - try going back through Twitter search results, they just stop at a certain not-too-distant point in the past. If someone isn't doing something to change the lack of accessible archives on Twitter, it's absolutely criminal. (Martin Luther King Jr. probably wouldn't have won the Nobel Prize if he'd been unable to recount anything he'd done prior to a month before!)
Twitter is too opaque in its management and noxiously condescending in much of its official communication with its own users. That condescension is frustrating but it would be a mistake to assume that there's not a whole lot of thinking going on behind the curtain of PR at Twitter. Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, was a co-founder of Blogger, another world-changing company that largely gave way to the paradigm it helped usher in and to other service providers. He's a smart man and is, no doubt, surrounded by smart people pumped up and thinking about the fact that they work for one of the most exciting companies on the internet.
Twitter is a magical thing. It will be even more magical once it opens up to communication with other networks, solves the problem of archiving what could be historically important conversations, facilitates greater amounts of conversation analysis and of course, grows in size. It's safe to assume that all of that is being worked on, at least by some people working at Twitter.
Those are the kinds of changes that will make Twitter a more powerful tool in the service of global communication and understanding, of peace. Decentralization, archiving and other foundational features of a robust communication system could make a big difference in the next Iran-type situation. Once those things happen, this new medium will be all the more worthy of really big public recognition. Even before that point, it's not at all an absurd idea to discuss.
For a counterpoint to much of this thinking see this long post critiquing the Twitter/Iran connection by Max Forte of Open Anthropology.