In the waning days of the Bush Administration, rumors ran rampant that the White House was plotting another front in the War on Terror — regime change in Iran. Such a fight could come in many forms, or so it was told. Maybe invasion. Probably an air strike carried out by Israel. No matter, something was underfoot to bring the Persians down a notch or two.
Whether any of that was true hardly matters anymore. What's apparent today is that from San Francisco, Calif., we unleashed a far more potent force on Ahmadinejad and his followers, and that secret weapon was ...
Yes, as has been explained many other places already, the political winds blowing through Iran have been fanned by little bluebird wings, 140 characters at a time. What has been a toy for online narcissism here in the United States is a weapon of mass instruction in the Middle East. Social media — Twitter, Facebook, SMS, YouTube and Friend Feed — are winning a war no officials here meant to declare.
If that seems silly to you, then you need to take a second look. Because if Twitter and Facebook can abet a political insurgency in Tehran, is it really a stretch to imagine something similar happening in Birmingham or Montgomery?
Last year, social media were crucial to putting Barack Obama in the White House. Facebook founder Chris Hughes left his company to lead Obama's new media strategy. When Obama finally got to Washington, he fought his own advisers to keep his Blackberry. Sen. John McCain, a candidate who didn't use email, got beaten by YouTube. Since then, however, McCain has learned to Twitter, too.
Still, I'm sure there are plenty of you who still think Twitter is a fad, the Pet Rock of the 21st century. Or you might realize that social media are somehow important but you find them unapproachable or alien. Either way, I'm telling you now, this is incredibly important, with the potential to alter media, capitalism and even representational democracy.
Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody is the veritable Bible of social media, and I encourage anyone with an interest in what's coming next to read it. Shirky identifies a few key concepts at play today. Before the Internet, communication technology mostly fell into two categories, Shirky argues. First, there were tools of conversation — letters, the Pony Express, the telegraph, the telephone. Second, there were tools of broadcast — books, newspapers, radio, TV. Either a tool was good for two people exchanging information back and forth, or it was good for sending information in one direction to a large audience.
The Internet does both of these things at the same time. Or as Shirky put it recently in a speech at the State Department, it is as if when you buy a book the printing press now comes with it.
All this seems obvious once you think about it, but the effects are potentially tremendous. What all this means, Shirky says, is that it is easier now for people to organize into groups and share information than ever since the first tribe of humans split into two.
For as long as we've been practicing democracy in this country, two components have made it cost prohibitive for most people to participate: the cost of organizing and the cost of spreading a message. In the past, these have been things institutions alone could accomplish, be they special interest groups, lobbying firms or political parties. Organizing took phone banks, flyers, PA systems. Broadcasting a message took advertising on radio, in print and on TV. All of these things cost a lot of money.
Increasingly, though, they don't.
The momentum of the Internet is this: Things that used to be difficult, impossible or expensive are becoming cheap, easy and eventually free.
It used to take a couple of semesters at a community college to learn the skills necessary to build your own web page. Today, people do it on Facebook almost by accident. A few years ago, it took technical expertise and thousands of dollars of equipment to shoot and edit video, not to even think of putting it on the web. Beginning this week, you can do that from an iPhone.
These forces won't change the political process overnight, but they might change it faster than the political establishment is prepared to handle.
In 2004, Howard Dean bragged about the number of donations he had that were $100 or less and the punditry class treated it as a quaint sign of weakness. Less than four years later, Obama bragged the same thing, only this time it was an indication of strength. The problematic force of big money in politics was being cured almost by accident, and earlier slipshod solutions such as public financing were no longer adequate or useful. This year, the Alabama Legislature did damn near nothing, but it did raise the legal limit of alcohol in beer. It didn't do this because one of the big lobbying firms, such as Fine and Geddie, asked for it, nor because Paul Hubbert and AEA pushed it. Instead, a small group of political hobbyists who believed very strongly in something organized, mostly online, and pushed and pushed and pushed. When the Legislature passed the bill, Free the Hops had a following on Facebook and Twitter that made a veto politically perilous for Governor Bob Riley.
And none of this should be dismissed anymore as tools for political youth only. Age, as Sen. McCain learned the hard way, is no longer an excuse. If you're interested in being president, you need to be plugged in, even if you're 72 years old.
More locally, if you're interested in being the next mayor of Birmingham, social media will be crucial in that election, too, even if you have political experience and killer instincts to have won the job several times already. Just ask my new 74-year-old friend on Facebook, Richard Arrington.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org