Tom Chatfield: Two cheers for Twitter and its democratic potential

The SMS network dwarfs the internet. Over five billion people can text. Its global reach promises some of the great transformations of the 21st century

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Just a few years ago, it seemed clear enough who the digital goodies and baddies were. On the dark side were censoring governments, profiteers, malicious hackers and scammers, while ranged against them were enlightened new media corporations, cyber-activists, free media outlets and the occasional wise politician. Done right, the internet represented democracy and freedom. Done wrong, it meant snooping, lies and political disengagement.

These waters have got muddier almost by the day. Is Wikileaks a force for truth and justice – or a quasi-terrorist organisation? Are Google and Facebook benign giants – or data-hungry profiteers? Is a free press a precious national asset – or a worse offender against individual rights than many odious dictatorships? Such dichotomies may seem far-fetched. Increasingly, though, any truths to be found within them look at best like a mucky, compromised business.

It's a grim time for digital optimists – or even for optimistic realists. But another recent item in the news points towards the flip-side of the relationship between new media, politics and public life. Yesterday, the California-based microblogging site Twitter was valued at $8bn. Launched in 2006 as an ultra-simple service allowing users to express themselves in 140 characters or fewer, the site now has more than more than 200 million people registered users. Yet Twitter's ascent embodies not just the force of raw statistics – but also something little-discussed since its leading role in kick-starting the Arab Spring: how technology can shift many of the terms in which politics and public debate are framed in the first place.

In June, I interviewed Dom Sagolla – one of the original team who created Twitter at the technology firm Odeo. Since leaving Odeo in 2007, Sagolla has focussed on organising developer communities around the world. And, he argues, the world's most powerful political form of digital collaboration is not the complex audiovisual exchange of a service like Facebook: it's the text-messaging Internet or SMS network. "It is built into every phone, as a testing mechanism. It reaches every cellular location, and was at the heart of the first Twitter design. That is why messages must be 140 characters: to leave room for the username in a text message."

The size of the SMS network dwarfs even the internet's two billion users. Today, more than five billion people can use 140-character text messages – around 90 per cent of the world's population. And it's the truly global and inclusive scale of this simple, low-cost technology that promises some of the greatest transformations of the 21st century. Twitter, and services like it, are central players in this process – and a far more vital political force than any number of data leaks, LulzSec assaults, ranting-hacker manifestos or privacy breaches.

As the Arab Spring demonstrated, a critical mass of ordinary citizens now has access to robust tools for information dissemination and self-organisation, after decades in which autocratic states enjoyed near-monopolies over these. Their global reach and visibility, moreover, helped ensure that Western leaders were no longer able discreetly to prop up ailing dictators. Such power is by no means a predictable, certain or easily regulated good, as the farce of British superinjunctions withering in the face of the global rumour-mill suggested.

In forging an arena of near-instant connections between disparate peoples, events and ideas, however, tools like Twitter suggest the outlines of a new kind of democratic structure – one evident both in the swelling ranks of MPs using micro-blogging and in the steady migration of civic life itself towards digital platforms, from political campaigning and debate to tax payments and voting.

This year, before the full force of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal broke, I discussed the pitfalls of politics and new media with one of its most prominent crusaders, the MP Tom Watson. Were these misdemeanours, I asked him, a last gasp of the worst habits of old media – or a first glimpse of alarming things to come?

Watson didn't have a definitive answer. But he did list a combination of failures that did not convince him that it would not happen again: failures of self-regulation, of effective law-enforcement, of comprehension and confidence on the part of the political class, and of any adequate initial response by those involved.

Most of these concerns apply doubly to the new media. Online groups and organisations potentially enjoy even less accountability or self-regulation than newspapers or broadcasters. They're also more easily able to maintain anonymity, or simply to locate themselves outside inconvenient jurisdictions.

Anonymous, unaccountable, elusive – it's this image of online disinformation that the American legal scholar Cass Sunstein had in mind when he described the "echo chambers" of the internet becoming an existential threat to "the proper functioning of democracy itself". As Sunstein is only too aware, today information is itself an inherently political commodity – and disinformation, censorship and the breakdown of trust in information systems all carry an unprecedentedly intense political charge.

The sooner we take on board the full consequences of this, the better. Even the best and bravest of causes have always tended, on closer inspection, to reveal a mess of compromises, mixed motives and human fallibilities. Yet fears that technology is ushering in an era at once uniquely vulnerable and politically disengaged are not only exaggerated, but perversely toxic towards the very values most critics claim to cherish.

Twitter and the SMS-net are not the heralds of a utopian future. But they do suggest the power that a truly global, inclusive communications structure can bring to bear on political life. It's up to us to decide where the battles worth fighting really lie.

Tom Chatfield's new eBook 'Activism or Slacktivism?' is out now from Vintage Digital. He tweets at @TomChatfield and blogs at tomchatfield.net

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