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Iran: The Whole World is Watching
Jon Lebkowsky, 19 Jun 09


I just turned my Twitter avatar green in a show of support for Iranian democracy, using a simple tool created by Arik Fraimovich of, and this made me think of the 1996 campaign to turn web pages black to protest the passage and signing of the Communications Decency Act as part of the 1996 Omnibus Telecommunications Act. Orchestrated by activists Shabbir Safdar and Jonah Seiger, the black web page campaign created a perception - that the CDA was not about pornography (which the act was meant to suppress), but about censorship. It was a powerful campaign, thousands of people and sites signed up, including Yahoo and Netscape. It created the right context for the Supreme Court case that overturned part of the law and supported free speech on the Internet. The thinking behind the campaign was that you could on the Internet, as Jonah Seiger once told me, "increase the public sense of opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the process." He quoted Thomas Jefferson: "The engine of a healthy democratic process is an active and informed citizen." Jonah went on to say that "the Internet is so powerful because it's so open and decentralized." And it catalyzes the creation of Jefferson's engaged citizen, on a global scale.

Worldchanging activists can use the Internet to coordinate action, and can be quite effective. That's what's happening inside Iran, and outside, with the global ad hoc movement that's forming in support of the Iranian protests. Before the Internet, coordination at a popular or grassroots level was much harder and didn't scale well. In the case of Iran, we see a powerful national protest rippling globally, with much of the organization occurring on Twitter. Clay Shirky refers to this as "the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media."

I've been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted "the whole world is watching." Really, that wasn't true then. But this time it's true ... and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They're engaging with individual participants, they're passing on their messages to their friends, and they're even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can't immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.

Turning your Twitter avatar green is a visual demonstration of support, and it can be symbolic of a deeper emotional engagement. Says Shirky, "Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it. Even if it's just retweeting, you're aiding the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the outside world is paying attention is really valuable."

Of course, you won't get to paradise through Twitter or other social media, but what's happening with Iran shows that you can coordinate action and leverage global networks of participation to substantial effect. Perhaps we can evolve coordination to the point of achieving very real cultural transformation, the kind that sustainability will require, and effectively tackle wicked problems like tyranny, hunger, poverty, war, climate. With that in mind, we're watching developments in Iran, with hope.

Photo: "Silent demonstration for saying condolence to family of this week martyrs" Photo credit: flickr/Hamed Saber, Creative Commons license.

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From Steve Weissman in Truthout:

"Watching the protesters in Tehran, many Americans feel a strong sense of empathy, exhilaration and hope. I strongly share those feelings, especially since I know firsthand the danger the protesters face from government thugs on motorcycles, provocateurs and the secret police. But none of this should blind us to the likelihood that our own government is dangerously meddling in Iran's internal affairs and playing with the lives of those protesters."

Posted by: Lorraine Suzuki on 19 Jun 09

Jon I appreciate your exploration of the GREEN AVATAR in support of IRAN. And while I agree that Something is Better than Nothing, the point that I would like to make here is that the GREEN AVATAR is a pretty small something. A bit like putting a pink ribbon icon or yellow wristband icon on you twit pic. While it shows your sympathy or connection to the cause -- again, better than nothing -- it does not contain any real action or "activism" in this case.

Turning your Twitter avatar green is a visual demonstration of support, and it can be symbolic of a deeper emotional engagement. Says Shirky, "Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it. Even if it's just retweeting, you're aiding the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the outside world is paying attention is really valuable."

In your own words it CAN be symbolic of a deeper emotional engagement. It CAN aid the dissidents in showing that the world is watching.

What I WISH it did was represent ACTION that the person has taken in support of the cause. Perhaps an ICON that showed "I have contributed $5 to the Help Iran Campaign badge" would at least have some Action behind it.

As it is, in my opinion, this "keystroke activism" that gives us the warm fuzzy of activism and tribal joining that may be reduce some "social media enabled events" movements to symbolic gestures. In an ACTIVIST's dream all these green avatars and green peace signs of support would carry more weight than a pressure of a click.



Posted by: John McElhenney on 19 Jun 09

John, I absolutely agree that doing more is better. However I believe that doing something is better than doing nothing, and I suspect the Iranian citizens who are coordinating action via Twitter appreciate the growing visible show of support for their efforts. And I have to say I don't feel warm fuzzies over the greening of my own avatar on Twitter, just increasing concern for the safety of Iranians and the stability of the Middle East. Perhaps you should examine what is driving you to opt out when others are showing support, and judge less quickly the motives of those who are doing so.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowksy on 19 Jun 09

The majority of the people in Iran don't have access to internet, twitter or mobile phones. Those are the poorest people, mainly farmers and they voted mainly for Ahmadinejad. You have to have nuances in this debate.

Posted by: wannes on 22 Jun 09

To add to Jon's more eloquent response, the bottom line is this. If I choose to have a green avatar that is my choice. I do not now, nor have I ever, been under the disillusionment that my little green avatar was going to bring an end to the violence nor sweeping reform to Iran. I do, however, wish to connect in some way, no matter how inconsequential you and the current group of green avatar haters think it may be. Instead of wasting time articulating all of the reasons you find someone else's show of support to be inadequate you might channel that energy to helping the cause in a manner that suits you.

Posted by: Pyrrah on 23 Jun 09

I've started recently reading this blog and I like a lot of it quite a bit. However, since you folks seem to be pretty well on the up and up politically, I was a little surprised by this posting, and honestly questioned whether I want to continue reading. While trying to support a stronger democracy in any state is a worthwhile goal, and it is important that the crackdowns on information and political assembly be protested in Iran, we should be careful not to fall into propaganda traps. The leaders of the opposition are Rafsanjani, one of the wealthiest, most corrupt, and most western-connected politicians in Iran (he ran in the last election against Ahmadinejad and lost by a similar amount), and Moussavi, who lead one of the most oppressive periods in post-revolution Iranian history, went about purging the universities of leftists, Jews, and those of the Baha'i faith, and sponsored Hezbollah during it's most violent times.

While Ahmadinejad is not good for the people of Iran, we should keep two things in mind; first, in Iran, the President's power is very much second to that of the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The second, is that a civil war is even worse for the Iranian people.

Posted by: Michael on 24 Jun 09

Im only 13 years of age. I know most kids don't pay attention to whats going on around them, but I fugured its something I need to comprehend. I have also turned my twitter Avatar green. Im for the green movement. I have red into it and have done a lot of research. I am supporting as best as I can. I hope you choose to do the same.

Posted by: HannaRae on 17 Jul 09

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