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The fire and the food: Why there's no such thing as a Twitter revolution

Bedouin campfire

In the past two days, posts began popping up on TwitterTwitter is a social network built around short status updates — a combination of microblogging and instant messaging, with the ability to post from mobile phones through text messages. with the tag “#pman<” — short for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, the largest city square in the capital of Moldova. Students were organizing<:

Ever since yesterday’s announcement that Moldova’s communists have won enough votes to form a government in Sunday’s elections, Moldova’s progressive youth took to the streets in angry protests. As behooves any political protest by young people today, they also turned to FacebookFacebook is a social network encouraging real identity — each user has a single account under their full, real name. Facebook began among US college students but has quickly expanded to people of all ages around the world. and Twitter to raise awareness about the planned protests and flashmobs.

Writers like Evgeny Morozov, above, initially characterized this as a “Twitter revolution<,” modeled in the real-time use of Twitter seen during the G20 protests<, election monitoring< and crowd-sourcing the location of a certain torch< when it was passing through San Francisco. (Thus a little different than the traditional nonprofit use of Twitter<.)

It’s certainly exciting to see technology being used in ways that amplify and extend the impact of movement organizing. I think it’s easy, however, to misread the technology as the cause of the movement rather than as simply a tool of it.

Fire, for instance, was a society-changing tool. Its revolutionary potential, however — cooking food and thus making it more digestible, nutritious, and lasting — was only realized through its strategic use.

Some people, awed by the fire, seem to confuse it with the food. This is represented most clearly by Jon Pincus, who writes<:

Twitter is a strategy.

He cites a number of campaigns that have used Twitter in successful ways as evidence of this claim. To me, though, this simply shows that Twitter can be an effective tool for a given strategy — but that’s not automatically the case.

Consider this: Why did organizers execute a given campaign on Twitter and not, say, Identi.ca, FriendFeed, Jaiku or Ping.fm (similar microblogging services) — or, for that matter, through Facebook statuses or MySpaceMySpace is a social network that is not built around a single identity. Users can and do have multiple profiles, with no restrictions on the “names” they use. MySpace is used by many musical groups. bulletins?

There’s a tendency to collapse the strategy and the tool — to attempt to feast on the fire itself. To say, “This is what we want to accomplish, and, hey! there’s a tool that does that!” — and then equate the tool with the strategy. But they’re still separate thought processes and separate stages in developing a campaign.

It appears that Twitter was a good tool to use in the cases Jon cited and I mentioned above. But if organizers limit themselves to seeing Twitter as a strategy in and of itself — without considering the strategy apart from the tool — they risk overlooking ways to run a more effective campaign on other platforms, or augmenting a campaign using multiple platforms.

Worse, organizers risk giving supporters feel-good activism that quenches their desire for social change without actually moving the movement closer to a concrete goal, or putting any pressure on powerholders.

The strategy always comes first, and then you figure out which tool fits. The alternative? A forest fire.

Political pamphlets, phone trees and jam-the-faxes must have seemed like strategies in and of themselves when each technology first came out. But a campaign that didn’t begin with a strategy to deploy those tools in an effective way wouldn’t have been successful.

The “real-time coverage” use of Twitter, in the style of TXTMob<, can be effective, and can even form part of the organization of a protest, as it did in the case of the Olympic torch. But that’s not a strategy or even a revolution — it’s simply street-level news. And in the case of Moldova, the organizing was happening elsewhere<:

In fact Twitter did not play that big role. The story is quite simple — young and active bloggers decided to have a flash-mob action, lighting candles and ‘mourning Moldova’ because of Communists victory, which nobody recognized due to the multiple violations before and during the campaign. They agreed on the time and place of the action through the network of Moldovan blogs (blogs aggregator blogosfera.md), and social networks like Facebook/Odnoklassniki, etc.

In other words, the most effective tools to execute the strategy in question — organizing opposition to the regime and making it visible to other Moldovans — didn’t include Twitter.

In Evgeny Morozov’s analysis of Twitter in Moldova<, he says:

It’s really good that the Moldovan students didn’t organize this revolution via Friendster or LiveJournalLiveJournal is a social network built around blogging. Users can “friend” one another and restrict some or all blog entries to their friends. Users can also join blogging communities built around particular topics. (which is still a platform for choice for many users in Eastern Europe). If they did, they would never have gotten as much attention from the rest of the world.

This perspective is an example of collapsing the strategy and the tool. More specifically: Getting attention from the rest of the world is not automatically the objective of any given social change movement.

Most social change organizers know this. There are moments when you want to focus on building awareness and/or getting media attention, but that’s often not the primary focus of the campaign. In the case of the Moldovan students, it could be that what was most needed was a way to get organizers to identify and strategize with one another — in which case Twitter would have been a very poor (or at least fantastically blunt) tool.

Such perspective is possible only if you think of Twitter as one possible tool, perfect for use in some strategies and rather ineffective in others. A near-religious belief in Twitter (or any technology) as a strategy leads to a narrowing of the actual strategy — getting the world to pay attention becomes the goal, because, hey, that’s what Twitter can be effective at doing!

In this case, organizers might have gotten attention from beyond Moldova with a few dozen Twitterers, but failed at their primary goal of making opposition to the regime visible to other Moldovans.

As Alan Rosenblatt writes<, different technologies have different ideologies, and tools that are more “inherently democratic” like Twitter can be used as tools within a strategy that empowers people to a much larger degree than one-way media like television. That doesn’t negate the fact that the strategy — the reason for the campaign itself — must be laid out first.

Begin with your campaign’s strategy — the food you want to eat. Then determine which technologies will best cultivate the fire within your supporters to achieve the social change you seek.

Update: I misattributed something to Jon Pincus that was actually written by Evgeny Morozov. It’s fixed, above.

Image credit Flickr user susanneanette