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Twitter Shows Its Purpose

Even though DC is all abuzz about Twitter, the service still has plenty of skeptics and even some of its regular users don't understand its potential.

That is why it is worth paying attention to this week's political protests in Moldova.

Yesterday, more than 10,000 young Moldovans converged on the capitol in opposition to the Communist leadership after the communists won a recent set of parliamentary elections that some believe were rigged.

The protesters caught the government off guard. They materialized seemingly out of nowhere and reported to no leaders.

This kind of instant crowd formation has a name -- flash mobs -- and it isn't a new phenomena. But Twitter and social networks like Facebook make it easier to form these crowds and make them far more adaptive to situations on the ground.

For the most part, before Twitter, communications technology was either broad and immobile or limited and portable.

In 2005, I could send my friends a text message to tell them to join me in a protest -- limited and portable. Or I could put my rally cry on a blog -- broad and immobile.

Even if every single one of my friends had a cell phone, the network I could reach from the streets of a protest was limited. That shortcoming is even true of email (all the more so because most people still cannot access email on their cellular phones).

Of course, I did have access to a world-wide audience with a blog. But even if I had the ability to update my website as the situation on the ground changed (no sure thing), most of those joining me in protest would not be able to access that information.

That's the genius of Twitter -- the means of targeting a massive audience on the go.

The protests in Moldova illustrate this point perfectly:

[T]he gathering on Monday night drew only several hundred people. The protesters agreed to gather the next morning and began spreading the word through Facebook and Twitter, inventing a searchable tag for the stream of comments: #pman, which stands for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, Chisinau’s central square.

The government, not understanding the forces at work, responded to the rallies by shutting down the Internet in the capitol city. At that point, the protestors simply began to generate updates using their mobile phones.

In other, less-violent settings, Twitter has the same utility. The immediacy of the format has made it the application of choice for all kinds of real-time events. Users have created hashtags to aggregate comments about moments in time ranging from the presidential debates to college basketball games. Last year, tech-savvy attendees of the Democratic National Convention used the service to navigate crowds, find parties, and meet up with each other. In August, Republican members of Congress organized a “Drill Here, Drill Now” protest on the floor of the House using their Twitter feeds.

All proof that some in DC are starting to get it: Twitter is a powerful tool for political organizing, and its potential is only now being fully realized.

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Excellent article, Matt. As you say it's great to see people in DC starting to get it about Twitter. As well as last summer's #dontgo, there are also US examples of Motrin Moms, Twitter Vote Report and international successes like #longmarch in Pakistan. The way Moldovans have employed social networks in the "Twitter revolution" sets a new bar ... Steve Ellis' Twitter-strations on the rise on Bulletproof blog does a good job of setting this in context.

Twitter is a powerful tool for political organizing, and its potential is only now being fully realized.

With only a few million users on Twitter so far and rapid evolution of Twitter-based tools like clients and analytics, its potential is only beginning to be realized. From a strategy perspective, I think one of the keys is to realize that it's not just a tool. It's also a community of users, a technology platform, a communication channel, and an emerging language filled with @, #, RT, and URLs wtht vwls.

More controversially, I've suggested that Twitter is a strategy as well, part of the family of social network activism strategies that also includes blogging, Facebook, and my.barackobama.com. To date, the examples are clearest in the corporate world (for example TweetDeck's funding strategy or Digg's attempt to revive their flagging potency with WeFollow and the DiggBar) but I think we'll see more and more of this in the activism and political space as well. @adrielhampton's #CA10 congressional campaign is a particularly interesting example to track.

jon

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