Twitter and Facebook can either bring us together or alienate us, depending on how they're used. People make real-life social and business connections on social media, it happens all the time. On the other hand, you also see people standing alone in a crowd, ignoring the flesh-and-blood humans around them while tapping away on their iPhones. That happens all the time too.
Twitter and Facebook are the 21st Century equivalent of the local pub --- a place you can go to visit, to play a game, and to get to know people a little bit better.
In a business context, social media are a worldwide, 24x7 conference. Everybody knows that the best stuff at any conference are the hallway conversations and random encounters. Twitter and Facebook are all about the hallway conversations.
Social media's advantage over real-world gathering places: Social media is right there at your desk, or on your cell phone, all the time -- you don't have to go anywhere. The disadvantage: You don't get face-to-face content as long as you're just sitting at your desk or tapping on your cell phone (although many people do use social media to get real-world connections, hence the popularity of "tweetups.").
Twitter and Facebook fill the need for neighborhood and community that 50 years of urban planning and suburban sprawl have taken away from us, as famously documented in the 1995 book Bowling Alone, which used the decline of bowling leagues as an example of the decline of community and social capital in America. Fifty years ago, bowling leagues were popular forms of recreation. It wasn't because people loved bowling all that much.
One thing that troubles me a little: When I first became active on social media two or three years ago, I followed anyone who looked interesting. Now, on my three main social media -- Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn -- I only follow people I know, either directly or by reputation. I'm no longer using those media to make new connections with people.
I'm still meeting new people in Second Life, but SL, by design, throws up barriers for RL connections. Often, those barriers can be overcome: I had a lovely conversation a few weeks ago with my next-door-neighbor in Second Life, an extremely talented jazz singer from Berlin who goes by the SL name Jaynine Scarborough. When the heck am I ever going to meet a jazz singer from Berlin in my real life? Here's a video of Jaynine singing in Second Life:
We're seeing the real-world ramifications of social media connections playing out in the streets of Tehran today:
In the crackdown following the disputed Iranian presidential election results this weekend, the authorities shut down text messaging, blocked Facebook and YouTube and cut off the BBC Persian-language service - but they forgot about Twitter.
Because of that, the simple microblogging service has become Iran's lifeline to the outside, a way for Iranians to tell the world what's happening on the streets of Tehran in real time - and a vital means of communication among themselves.
Iranian Twitterers, many writing in English, are posting photos of huge demonstrations and bloodied protestors, detailing crackdowns on students at Tehran University and giving out proxy Web addresses that let users bypass the Islamic Republic's censors.
Dozens of posts were coming in every second on the Web page http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23iranelection Monday morning, with and a slower stream at http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23iranrevolution.
Most of them had to do with a huge rally in central Tehran featuring Mir Hossein Moussavi, the challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The social media blog Mashable has a guide to tracking the Iranian news on Twitter and other social media.
As my colleague Michael Hickins points out, people, not Twitter, get the credit for social change in Iran (assuming social change, not a tragic and bloody crackdown, is the end result of the demonstrations in Iran).
The blog Red Alerts makes the same point more forcefully, calling the Twitter community to task for arrogant hypocrisy. The blog criticizes "people who truly believe that sitting in front of a keyboard Tweeting these events will change the situation on the ground for the better."
This is complete nonsense.
There is only one way to help the Iranians, and "microblogging" the massacre of protesters isn't it. A heavily armed theocratic regime will not be toppled by people with silly nicknames like "Imabuggin32″ Tweeting their support for the protests. Those people in Iran will either overthrow the government or, more likely, will be mowed down in the streets while the arrogant keyboard cowboys of the web type out their cyber finger wagging.
There was a time when Americans went to other countries and fought for the freedom of people. The Spanish Civil War, Japan's invasion of China, the list goes on and on of conflicts where Americans who were against a regime picked up arms and fought for their convictions. Now they Tweet each other, and will pretend to be shocked when the blood of freedom fighters runs in Iran's streets and this rebellion CNN isn't covering does nothing.
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