Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

"Inane and Half-Baked" Twitter Is the Forrest Gump of International Relations


In what is quite possibly the most spot-on comment about Twitter that BoomTown has heard thus far, Harvard University Professor Jonathan Zittrain said:

“It is easy for Twitter feeds to be echoed everywhere else in the world. The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what make it so powerful.”

Zittrain was being quoted in a New York Times piece today about the use of Twitter by those protesting the election results in Iran, as other means of modern mass communications–such as email, Facebook and texting–got blocked.

In other words, Twitter is so simplistic and silly that it is a perfect digital tool to overthrow a government–which is kind of makes the trendy microblogging service the Forrest Gump of international relations.

Stupid is as stupid does, of course, but what it does illustrate quite smartly is that word of mouth–a concept as old as humanity–remains the most powerful way of distributing information.

While not always reliable, masses of people chattering away has always been the most fluid way in which news has been disseminated and received. Although much of that can be mundane and borderline idiotic, one cannot deny its impact.

What one can deny, though, is the hype that inevitably follows in the wake of every one of these breakthrough technologies like Twitter.

That’s a mistake, because it is how the tools are used by people, more than the tools themselves, that should be the focus.

Still, the media hyping of tech tools as savior is reliably annoying.

Television, of course, changed the presidential elections, as radio had before that.

And, more recently, weren’t mobile phone cameras critical in reporting the bombing in London’s Underground in 2005?

Or wasn’t Facebook key to protests in Burma in 2008?

And, even more profoundly, didn’t the simple fax machine get lauded during the uprising in China’s Tiananmen Square in Beijing as an heroic gadget?

Reported Time magazine in 1989:

“When word of the massacre in Tiananmen Square first reached the University of Michigan, the 250 Chinese students studying there jumped into action: they purchased a fax machine. Daily summaries of Western news accounts and photographs were faxed to universities, government offices, hospitals and businesses in major cities in China to provide an alternative to the government’s distorted press reports. The Chinese students traded fax numbers back home along the computer network that links them around the U.S. The fax brigades at Michigan were duplicated on many other campuses.”


Ironically, hardly anyone today uses a fax machine at all, having moved onto more effective methods of sending out critical news, data, pictures, updates and more.

Like Twitter today, which deserves this moment in the sun, to be sure, as long as it lasts.

Which it won’t, as people move onto the next way to do what they have always done, which is to connect.

As for tomorrow, who knows?

After all, digital life was, is and will always be like a box of chocolates–you never know what you’re gonna get.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald