Last week, the US State Department got in touch with Twitter. Why, you might ask, is one of the most serious and heavyweight organs of the US government concerned about what is often seen as one of the most shallow and frothy of new media phenomena, where the majority of debate seems to obsess about the new iPhone - 'This time tomorrow I shall have a new baby in my life. My precious. My all. My love. My alpha and my omega. I shall have my iPhone!!!!!!!!!!'?
Hardly the Gettysburg Address. Yet it seems the State Department thinks something much more important is happening on Twitter - so important, that when it learned that scheduled maintenance would bring the site down for a while, it contacted Twitter directly, asking it to delay the work.
In the absence of having an embassy in Tehran, on-the-ground intelligence is hard to come by. Iran is a long way from Washington DC, politically, geographically and culturally; getting a sense of what ordinary people really think there is extremely challenging.
It turns out, however, that Twitter has become a key means of communication for protesters across Iran, enabling them to share news, organise demonstrations and expose human rights abuses using their mobile phones. More than 270,000 tweets an hour made reference to the Iranian election, and using a tool like Twitterfall to monitor conversations around #iranelection is a line of sight straight into the word on the street, letting the State Department take the temperature of Iran's electorate. As a user in Tehran said: 'The Gov is weakning, They r tryn to scare u with the last breath they have. Keep Strong, stay safe!'
From a distance, then, the US government has an idea of the scale and sentiment of dissatisfaction among voters - a skill that was honed in the last US elections by the Obama team, and used to shape publicity and policy development through the campaign.
At the same time, the administration is painfully aware of the reputation its predecessor gained for the use of democracy promotion as a tool of foreign policy, and is understandably reluctant to become directly involved. Yet it recognises the power of social networking to connect and empower grass-roots democracy, and turning off Twitter would undermine the opposition movement in Iran.
Twitter is unique in its mobile-centred model, and is proving to be a vital tool for users to share intelligence about the militia and security services' activities, lists of government-backed bloggers and information about the locations, dates and formats of planned demonstrations as they are out on the streets. As the campaign unfolds, Twitter users are being encouraged to turn their avatars green, giving a sense of the growing support for the group.
Before we indulge in what Wired refers to as 'a collective twittergasm', let me be clear. Twitter is not the only enabler of this movement - other social media are playing at least as big a role.
It's just that, like many people, I have struggled to see the point of Twitter. I am not interested in reading about Stephen Fry being stuck in a lift, or what Demi Moore thinks of SuBo. Neither am I really interested in the insight 140 characters can give me into 'Digital Britain'. What I have realised is useful about it is that it operates at a higher level than this. Rather than drawing from individual tweets, the power of Twitter is when they combine to draw a picture of people's mood.
Setting aside the hype and inflated expectations of Twitter, what it can do for marketers is what it's doing for the State Department - connect us directly to what real people are saying about the things that matter to us.
Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level
30 seconds on the Iranian election response online
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the US efforts to keep Twitter online, saying that although she 'wouldn't know a Twitter from a tweeter', it was important because it was 'enabling people to share information... when there [were] not many other sources'.
- Iran's Revolutionary Guard warned that bloggers using the web to 'create tension' would face legal action.
- Opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has been using his public Facebook profile page to organise demonstrations.
- YouTube said that it had relaxed its rules on violent content to let images from Iran reach the outside world.
- Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo! were among the sites blocked or filtered by the Iranian government in the post-election crackdown.
- Sympathisers worldwide have changed their Twitter time and location settings and are using green avatars to look like they are tweeting from Tehran, thus making it more difficult for the authorities to identify real protesters.