Too much information

It's difficult to know what to make of events in Iran because I don't know what has happened in the last seven seconds. Quick, someone tweet me.

Oh, didn't you hear? Coverage of this semi-revolution was another triumph for the new media. In the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, Andrew Keen described a conference of big-time tweeters in New York, unpronouncably called "@140conf," where a CNN anchor was berated because "While Twitter automatically exploded with tweet after tweet of rumor, falsity and fact" and "the streets of Tehran were jammed with furious Mousavi supporters, CNN's major news story on Saturday June 14 focused on American consumers' confusion about the domestic switch from analog to digital tv signals."

OK, so I don't care about the latter. But I didn't learn a lot from various twits sending out 48 billion news reports a minute from Iran full of events, rumours, plans and various other electrons either. What did it all mean?

Here, I submit, is where the old media wins, at least if we're smart. The old slogan attributed to the Chicago City News Bureau was "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Actually I trust my mom. But when a twit tells me Iran is having a revolution I think checking it out makes sense. And how is Twitter going to do that?

I'm not saying the "Main Stream Media" has given us a good feel for what the Soviets used to call "the correlation of forces" within Iran. I certainly wasn't impressed by this New York Times E-mail teaser on June 15: "NEWS ANALYSIS/ Iran's Leader Emerges With a Stronger Hand ... Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory demonstrated that he is the shrewd front man for a clerical, military and political elite more unified than at any time since the 1979 revolution."

I concede that it's no easy task to say "what's really going on" in Iran. I suspect the theocracy is falling apart and I certainly hope so. But we don't really know whether the regime has forfeited much of the support of ordinary people or whether it ever had it, and we also don't know if it needs it. I doubt the Iranian government knows either, especially after its persistent and largely successful attempt to prevent the spread of information, including obstructing or expelling western journalists. But Twitter does not help our mission here, does it?

I'm not knocking Twitter (you can even get a feed off my own website). It's doing two very good things in this crisis. First, it lets Iranian dissidents plan and share rumours faster than the state can possibly react. Second, it furnishes the raw material for foreign news stories. But it's just raw material.

Someone still has to filter it, check it, then publish a reliable summary. Like the piece by Stratfor chairman and CEO George Friedman, published online at on Tuesday. He makes a discouragingly persuasive argument that most Iranians do not support the protesters, based on detailed factual insights of the sort most newspapers and TV news outlets did not offer because, pretty obviously, no one on their staff knew any of it. But they could have, and should have.

Friedman even makes the unhappy point that when we had access to the protesters, they seemed overwhelmingly English-speaking and tech-savvy. In short, it was a revolt of people like us. Of whom there don't seem to be enough in Iran. In this regard Twitter may actually have confused us.

It gets worse. I think the seductive lure of immediacy to a society with ADD makes Twitter seem far cooler than it is as a tool for news gathering.

Consider Paul Reiser's complaint from Couplehood: "Here's my thing with the news: I don't know what I'm supposed to do. ... Now, if you told me that tomorrow a bus was going to go sailing off the Himalayas, I would get involved. I'd pick up the phone and warn them. 'Don't get on the bus. Didn't you see the paper?' But if I read on Sunday that something happened on Saturday, what can I do? At best I can call to console. 'I only just now heard.'"

He wrote those words in 1994, when I was busy installing my first (external, 14.4k) modem. But all E-mail and Twitter have done is let us know, or think we know, on Saturday night that a bus went off the Himalayas 12 minutes ago instead of 12 hours. It doesn't cross the critical barrier between learning after and before it happened, so it doesn't let us do any more than we otherwise could have. And for that worthless immediacy we pay in certainty.

The result is not harmless. We only have so much time, and the more of it we spend chasing titillating rumours the less we spend properly informing ourselves. Worse, we can accustom our mental palate to intellectual junk food.

Uh, hang on. This just in: Situation in Iran unclear. Maybe.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson