There has been a lot of hype in recent days that the events taking place in Iran constitute a "Twitter revolution," and it's easy to understand why many people might see it that way. Since the protests began last weekend, Twitter has been flooded with tens of thousands of posts per day showing solidarity with the protesters, as Iranians post information on marches and crackdowns alike. But does that mean innumerable Iranian activists have planned their protests on Twitter? Not exactly.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to gauge just how many Iranians are on Twitter. The Web analytics company Sysomos estimates that only 8,600 user profiles indicate they're from Iran, and it's likely that only a subset of them are currently active on Twitter and involved in protests. More likely, text messaging, phones and face-to-face interactions are playing a much larger role in their activities.
Why is Twitter getting all the attention? For one thing, Twitter has become the social media darling of journalists. Between its utility as an information-gathering tool and the exuberance resulting from celebrities embracing Twitter, it's become a pop culture phenomenon that is hard for them to ignore.
Now combine that journalistic enthusiasm toward Twitter with the Iran protest story, and it's hard to resist covering it as something momentous. But how do you reconcile this pronouncement with the fact that only a small number of protesters are actively using Twitter?
It's all about the hashtags.
For the uninitiated, a hashtag is a way of telling people on Twitter that you wish to associate your tweet to a specific event or discussion. For example, if I posted the tweet "Getting ready to fire up the BBQ. #July4th," I'd be signifying my tweet is related to July 4th. This is important because Twitter's search tool and other services make it really easy for anyone to track all the tweets that use identical hashtags.
Since the protests began, the number of tweets using the tag #IranElection has skyrocketed. According to the hashtag tracking service wthashtag.com, more than 220,000 tweets from over 55,000 people have been tagged #IranElection this past week. If you made the highly improbable assumption that all of the estimated 8,600 Iranian Twitter users actively participated in the tagging, only around one in seven tweets tagged #IranElection would've actually come from Iran.
Which brings me to my main point: The power of Twitter this week hasn't been as a primary organizing tool for the protesters among themselves. Rather, it has served as a conduit for the world outside Iran to rally and organize — particularly in terms of showing moral support for the protesters.
So when a handful of people within Iran post a tweet conveying new information, their use of hashtags like #IranElection helps that information go viral. Twitter users around the world, including the media, monitor these tags to get the latest news — or rumors, in many cases — and propagate them worldwide through re-tweeting or covering them in news stories and blogs.
This tagging extends well beyond Twitter. On the photo sharing site Flickr, for example, nearly 3,000 photos have been tagged either IranElection or 1388, in reference to the year on the Persian calendar. For YouTube, there are 6,000 related videos, with some of the most popular ones having been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Were it not for tags, this content would fall through the cracks.
Whether or not Twitter ultimately plays a measurable role in the outcome of the political standoff in Iran remains to be seen. But Twitter's ability to keep the world plugged in and engaged is immensely important in itself. With so few international journalists on the ground in Iran, even having a handful of Iranians posting updates on Twitter has proved to be an invaluable asset to everyone trying to track down the latest news and rumors. But it's the use of tagging on Twitter and other social networks that has propagated this information well beyond the borders of Iran.
The revolution will be televised? Not anymore. In Iran, at least, the revolution will be tagged.
Andy Carvin is senior strategist for social media at National Public Radio. You can find him on Twitter at @acarvin.