Through Protests, One Man Helps Define Twitter During the social-media-driven revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, many Americans discovered Twitter for the first time. Meanwhile, Sultan Al Qassimi tweeted minute-by-minute updates of the events.
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Through Protests, One Man Helps Define Twitter

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Through Protests, One Man Helps Define Twitter

Through Protests, One Man Helps Define Twitter

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

During the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, you could find instant information and breathless accounts online, all in 140 characters. Tweets were followed closely by people in the highest offices of the U.S. State Department. And in a few minutes, we'll hear from the man at State responsible for harnessing the power of social media for diplomacy.

BLOCK: First, NPR put out a list last month of people to follow on Twitter for information about the uprising in Egypt. Sultan Al Qassemi was one of the most prolific and popular tweeters.

NPR's Deborah Amos caught up with him in Dubai.

DEBORAH AMOS: He's in constant motion. His body language matches the pace of his tweets. Sultan Al Qassemi, a 33-year-old businessman, tweeted a revolution in Egypt. He wrote the first draft of Middle East history in short sentences, tapped out on his computer and on his cell phone.

SULTAN AL QASSEMI: At the height, at the very peak, it was one every 45 seconds.

AMOS: When did you sleep?

AL QASSEMI: The first two weeks of Egypt, so if you're looking at January 25th to February maybe 8th or so, I slept for three hours a night.

AMOS: But Qassemi wasn't even in Egypt. He covered the story from his home in the United Arab Emirates. He watched Arabic broadcasts, clicking through dozens of satellite channels at lightening speed. He got tips from his followers by email or tweet. He read Arabic news services. He translated interviews from Arabic to English. For example, tweeting the translation of Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, word-for-word in real time.

AL QASSEMI: For instance, with the Qaddafi interview, I think I added two or 3,000 followers, literally, by the end of the hour because people wanted to know.

AMOS: And he wanted to tell them. He added new followers with every live translation.

AL QASSEMI: And I didn't seek to do this. It just happened naturally. I thought, I want to tell my friends, I want to tell people what's happening right now in the Arab world, this is important. People must know what is going on. They must know what Arabs are saying, so that they speak for themselves rather than it going through other media channels.

AMOS: As the pace of protest picked up in Egypt, his tweets were picked up by major news outlets, from NPR to Wired magazine, and 30 newspapers around the world. He offered something new for non-Arabic speakers: Translations without editing or delay. He developed a loyal following of Americans who only knew Egypt as tourists. They learned Egyptian politics from reading his tweets.

AL QASSEMI: I have Americans who sent me poetry, very powerful poems on Egypt. And they said that this is something that inspired us. This freedom that people are trying to achieve is something that we all believe in.

AMOS: But how does one passionate young Arab with bundles of energy become a one-man news service far away from the heart of the story? Television, the dominant news source for Arab audiences. He watched at home and on his cell phone.

AL QASSEMI: Sometimes when I'm driving, I'm using the phone because - because I park. I always pull aside and I type.

AMOS: And on one of the most dramatic nights of the uprising, when millions of Egyptians waited for Egypt's president to resign, Qassemi continued tweeting in a formal dress suit.

AL QASSEMI: I was able to get someone to drive me to a wedding. And during the wedding, I was able to tweet. I had to carry on with my life.

AMOS: So at the wedding, you were still watching television?

AL QASSEMI: At the wedding, I was still watching television, but I had my iPhone and I had this headset in one ear. And I was shaking people's hands, congratulating the groom, congratulating his family, but I was listening to the breaking news coming in from Egypt.

AMOS: Before Egypt and Tunisia, Qassemi had dabbled in journalism, writing editorials for U.S. and Gulf newspapers. He's a businessman by training, founding an investment firm. But when his generation took to the streets in Cairo, he defined a new kind of journalism. He wanted to tell the story in the words of people themselves, hundreds of miles away in Tahrir Square, living a revolution in the most important country in the Arab world.

AL QASSEMI: I think Egypt - the weight that Egypt carries at 80 million people - Egypt is a planet in the Arab world. It's not even just a country. Egypt is huge. There will be a knock-on effect, whether we like it or not. I think the Middle East will never be the same.

AMOS: And Sultan Al Qassemi is still tweeting about that knock-on effect in the region, from Libya to Bahrain.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Dubai.

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