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Tweeting the American Revolution

Written by: Bill Sherman on Monday, 15 June 2009, 2:05 AM

Yesterday, I wrote about the impact of social network technology on the Iranian protests.

It’s interesting to compare this past week’s events with other protests:

  • Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004-05)
  • China’s Tianamen Square Protests (1989)
  • Czechosolovakia’s Velvet Revolution (1989)
  • Poland’s Solidarity Movement (1980)

Would Poland’s change have occured quicker if the union members and organizers had access to today’s social media? How would Tianamen Square’s protests have changed (if any)?

Yet, the thought-experiment becomes even more striking when we move further back into history and look at popular uprisings–The French Revolution of 1789; the Revolutions of 1848; and the American Revolution of 1776. Here are a couple early-American examples:
Paul Revere
Paul Revere would could have saved himself a long midnight ride with just a few keyclicks.

  • @PaulRevere. “The Redcoats are coming out. Please RT.” (RT = re-tweet/pass-it-on)

After a quick Tweet, he could have gone back to sleep. Generations of students would be spared the task of memorizing Longfellow’s poem. But, on a more significant level, more information would have passed than just that one single tweet. Bostonian Twitterers would have erupted with distributed information passed peer-to-peer rather than through a single network node. The structure (and communications) within the early days of the American Revolution would have looked very different.

Malcolm Gladwell explores the story of Paul Revere and a less-successful rival in The Tipping Point and comes to the conclusion that Revere succeeded because he was a connector with pre-established connections (essentially someone with a large social network and a high degree of social capital within that network).

Declaration of Indepndence

In the 18th century, word of the Declaration of Independence spread slowly. It took weeks to spread through te Thirteen Colonies and the announcement didn’t appear in the British Newspapers until mid-August (almost five weeks later). The Continental Congress relied on printers to distribute broadside sheets with the Declaration. They didn’t have Twitter, tinyurl, and the Internet:

  • @Continental Congress Independence declared
  • @John.hancock /signed. @king_george_iii do u see this?

Imagine YouTube used by both sides to show their sides of the story directly. King George appearing in a video to Loyalists, while Washington appeals for shoes for his nascent Continental Army.

What if Thomas Paine’s Common Sense appeared via a blog or The Federalist Papers were posted under pseudonym nicks on a political blogsite (such as today’s FreeRepublic or DailyKos) during the debate to ratify the U.S. Constitution?

The flow of information and social capital has changed on the macro-level in the digital age. We take digital technologies for granted these days, so it’s worth comparing today’s events vs. the pre-digitial social networks. We still need the connectors–such as Paul Revere to share information, but it operates on a very different level now.

It’s possible to build an ad-hoc social network for information on-the-fly, which is what we’re seeing now in the Twitterverse on #iranelections. New social bonds can be created quickly. However, even there, pre-established twitterers have had an advantage of established social connections through previous blogging and twittering. The network of followers has grown, surely. However, the network already had “pre-existing” structure and authority hubs–for both Farsi and English.

So, while few people were following @Change_for_Iran, @PersianKiwi, or @Tehranbureau before today, the social network has flexed and reconfigured itself to allow people to find and share information. The network reconfigured itself.

Again, I’m not equating # of followers with authenticity or reliability. Someone can become quickly popular without being authentic or reliable. And certainly some people will take advantage of a situation for their own benefit.

Yet, even despite these caveats, there’s a resonant similarity that cannot (and should not) be ignored.

Compare Revere’s “The Redcoats are coming out” with a Tweet from @PersianKiwi earlier today: “streets very dangerous now. groups of militia on motorbikes searching for protesters.”

They’re essentially the same message, two-hundred and thirty four years apart. One was delivered house-to-house by a silversmith, and the other broadcast via Twitter.

Sure, there’s a difference between secrecy and broadcast that’s worth exploring. The delivery method carries a significant change to our understanding of macro-level social networks and social capital. It’ll be the subject of my next post.

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