Tech + content = results

We’ve seen the power of social media this week as reformist supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi used Facebook and Twitter to organize their daily peaceful protests against an election they believe was stolen. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has closed down virtually all communication save the government-run TV channels, but the protesters have used the Twitter underground to organize their forces, direct them to specific locations and insist that protests remain peaceful. The Tweets read like military communications, not social-networking chatter. The digital tools seem to be working inside Iran. The power of the protest movement has forced the ruling regime to offer a partial recount as a compromise, although, as of this writing, it has resisted the reformers’ demands for a new election.

Digital media have carried the message around the world as well. The regime has sent international reporters home, banned cameras from rallies and generally locked down the country. But the word is still getting out through Tweets and e-mails — some carrying photos of the protests and the government’s reaction. Network and cable news shows are showing grainy, jumpy footage from the cell phones of those in the heart of the action. These I-reports, as they are sometimes called, have become the world’s best source of information about what is going on inside a very closed society. They too are having an impact. President Obama has moved from a hands-off attitude to suggesting there are troubling events happening and expressing real concerns about the validity of the election.

Contrary to what Joe Trippi so famously predicted, the revolution is being televised. It is just that the footage is being shot on a $50 cell phone instead of a $5,000 HDCAM.

The powerful role social media have played in keeping the Iranian protests alive and the speed with which news of it has spread around the world tell us a lot about when and how social media work. The various digital media are powerful tools. But like any tool, they have a specific purpose. To those concerned with political messaging, it is important to understand how that purpose is evolving and what it means to our ability to reach audiences with our messages. Facebook, Twitter and e-mail have played such a powerful role in Iran because the messages they carried were so important — important to the millions of Iranians who now have access to cell phones and the Internet and important to tens of millions around the world anxious to know what was really going on over there.

Think, for just a moment, about where Twitter came from. Originally it was designed as a tool for close friends and family members to stay in touch. It grew rapidly — 1,382 percent in the last year, according to Many subscribers now have thousands of “followers” or follow hundreds of Tweeters. But statistics show that the technical problems caused by Twitter’s exponential growth and the banal quality of most messages is starting to have a negative impact on use of the medium. Nielsen Online reported in April that nearly 60 percent of U.S. Twitter users abandoned the service a month after creating an account. Other researchers report that 55 percent of users have never posted a Tweet, 56 percent are not following anyone and 53 percent have no followers.

A lot of users have abandoned the site because of the quality of messages they get. “Went to the store” is not the sort of narrative that keeps you coming back, as one user told me. But “Went kickboxing. Got a black eye” is the sort of Tweet that you’ll spend the day wondering and chuckling about.

The principle applies to politics as well. A few weeks ago I wrote about San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Twitter announcement speech, so I decided to follow up on his social media campaign. He has over 550,000 followers now and has posted 365 Tweets, all of them relevant, each of them newsworthy.

The message is, content counts. The new media can have a worldwide impact if the message strikes a responsive chord. If it does not, you are simply shouting in empty cyberspace. Relevance to your audience is one important lesson political communicators must master to make new-media tools work for them. Don’t just report what you did, say why it is important in less than 140 characters.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.