The “Twitter Revolution”: A Revolution for Twits

Apparently the term “Twitter Revolution” is a thing.  If you haven’t heard this term before, consider yourself fortunate.  I hadn’t until someone used it in an attempt to make Twitter seem relevant instead of what it really is: the most obvious sign of vapidity in the most self-obsessed generation in history this side of the Baby Boomers.  (Are the Baby Boomers actually even worse?  That’s a tough call!)

The general thesis of the concept is that Twitter was somehow uniquely suited to communicating and organizing mass protests around the world since 2009.  Its adherents cite Moldova (2009), Toronto (2009), Iran (2009-10), Venezuela (2010), Tunisia (2010-11), Egypt (2011), the so-called Occupy Movement, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.  The reasons given for Twitter being somehow uniquely suited to the role include its ubiquitous nature and its oft-derided 140-character message length being somehow technically suited to the ancient SMS format of GSM systems.

There’s a problem with these claims, however.  They’re utter bullshit.

  • Twitter isn’t ubiquitous.  It isn’t even the most popular social media platform (by far!).
  • There is literally ZERO relationship, aside from a silly social fixation on  it, between the 140 character limitation and SMS.
  • Most of what is cited as Twitter’s influence is fiction spun by the press.

I’ll address these one by one.

Ubiquitous Twits

Let’s deal with the big gorilla in the lounge first.  Twitter is an also-ran of social media.  Consider these numbers:

Facebook has 1.6 billion active users as of 2016.  WhatsApp has about a billion. QQ (which includes QZone), a REGIONAL social media site, has about 900 million.  WeChat, similarly regional (albeit with an eye toward world expansion) has about 700 million.  Tumblr and Instagram claim 550 and 400 million respectively.  Finally we get to mighty, worldwide, influence-shaping Twitter.  At a paltry 320 million users.  WORLDWIDE.  The highly-regional QZone is twice the size.  Just Facebook’s messenger component is almost three times the size.  Another highly regional service, Sina Weibo, largely considered to be a failure here in China, weighs in at a similar 220 million.  Note that: a site considered to be a failure in a single region is within spitting distance of a worldwide site that is bizarrely considered to be such a resounding success that it’s grist for revolutionary mills!  How bizarre is that?

(Note also that I’ve been too polite to bring up the numbers for sites like Reddit or even cesspools like 4chan and 8chan…)

Twitter is, in short far from ubiquitous.  You can smell the panic coming from  Twitter’s HQ these days as they run from one random new feature to another in a  desperate bid to curtail the big stall they’ve encountered in their growth.

Twitter’s ubiquity is total fiction.  There is nothing in Twitters supposed broad availability that makes it uniquely suited to organizing and aiding in revolution.

Technology

“Ah!” the argument continues, however, as fans of the Twitter Revolution try to justify their delusion, “But Twitter’s message length is exactly the same as the message length of SMS messages, so it’s particularly suited to places that don’t have a lot of smartphones that can deal with the other social media sites!”

Again, I’m afraid, this argument is bullshit on several levels.  I’ll deal with two of them here; the two easiest ones to dismantle.  I’ll leave the rest of this as an exercise for the reader.

Old Phones

The wonderfully ditzy view here is that while yes, long before Twitter existed there were phones that had no problem breaking up too-long messages into parts, sending those parts as individual messages, then assembling them at the receiving end back into a single message (you know, like every packet-based protocol in history!), the poor people of Tunisia or Iran or Egypt (or … Toronto?  What?! …) couldn’t actually AFFORD modern phones and thus Twitter’s natural fit to SMS messaging was a godsend.  In this worldview (usually expressed by Americans who have a childishly naive view that the rest of the world subsists primarily off of American cast-offs) sure all mobile phones made since well before 2005 (Twitter started in 2006) could do the reassembly thing, but that’s not the phones people in struggling developing parts of the world use.  They have to deal with older technology, so Twitter is the natural choice; most people in these countries send SMS “tweets” (somehow) and don’t use Twitter directly.

There is a problem with this viewpoint, however.  It is ignorant to the point of stupidity.  Take China as an example.  A huge percentage of the population still exists as, basically, barely-above-subsistence rice farmers, yet these same (shockingly poverty-stricken) farmers all have new phones.  About half of them have new smartphones (obviously not overpriced crud like Apple’s but still actual smartphones).  The rest have brand-new “feature phones” (read: older-style phones with small screens and real keyboards).  NOBODY USES PHONES FROM PRE-2006!  (Hell, almost nobody uses phones pre-2012.)

There’s a good reason for this: new phones aren’t just technologically superior to the old kit, they’re CHEAPER.  Yes, it’s far cheaper, really, to buy a new low-end phone than it is to buy a second-hand pre-2005 phone.  (This doesn’t even get into the costs of ownership, just purchasing.)  This is one of those fascinating things about electronics.  It just gets cheaper and cheaper and cheaper to the point that keeping old kit around is silly.

(So, no, my naive American friends, when you toss out your current iPhone for the model that’s 3mm longer and 0.5mm thinner and that now comes in a slightly different shade of silver and black, the phone is not being handed down to the poorer people of the world.  It’s getting tossed into a huge pile of industrial waste and contributing to one hell of an environmental catastrophe that’s moving in slow motion in southern China among other places.  Thanks, guys.  It’s appreciated.)

Twitter, it seems then, isn’t really a natural fit to poor people using old-style phones that can only deal with SMS messages individually because those people simply don’t exist in any meaningful numbers.

Oh, and talking of Twitter’s natural fit to SMS…

SMS Format

Even if the insulting argument that Twitter is useful because third-world people only have western castoffs wasn’t obviously untrue, there’s still a problem: The SMS message format limit is not 140 characters.  It was 128 bytes originally.  Then with encoding tricks and a few more bits squeezed out here and there that 128-byte limitation (that was there for sound technical reasons I won’t get into) was made so that it could support 160×7-bit ASCII characters, 140×8-bit characters in the various venerable Europe-centric encodings, or 70×16-bit characters in the venerable UCS-2 encoding format.

Note that.  SMS’s limitation is not Twitter’s 140 characters, it’s 160 or 140 or 70 (depending on which encoding you choose) characters of specific language groups and types.  Twitter’s 140 character limit is a twee call out to a misunderstanding of SMS technology.  Twitter is limited to 140 characters of any kind in any language no matter what the actual transmission length.

This means that if I’m typing just plain English text I’m losing 20 characters off of the real SMS standard.  If I’m typing any kind of extended characters from the 8-bit encoding sets (like LATIN-1, say) then I can type exactly the same amount that I can throw into an SMS.  If I’m typing Arabic, however, at 140 characters that’s two SMS messages.  If I’m typing Chinese that can be … well it can be a real problem since not all Chinese characters can be encoded in UCS-2.

(Note, also, this other problem with Twitter’s approach.  140 characters in Chinese is a good chunk of an essay.  140 characters in English is barely a coherent thought.  This shows in the results.)

No, there is no technological relationship whatsoever that ties Twitter to SMS messaging at any meaningful level.  The number 140 was pulled out of Twitter’s founders’ ass based on a misunderstanding of what SMS’ real standards were (or, perhaps, as a cynical attempt to tie the two together given how SMS-crazy people were c.2005 instead).  Given this, any pretext that it is somehow easier to bridge SMS to Twitter falls apart at even a nominal level of inspection.  If social media really was being used to export and organize revolution around the world, there would be no particular reason for selecting Twitter over any other format.  All the supposed technical problems that you’d have to deal with using, say, Facebook would apply to Twitter as well.

Real-world Impact

I have a friend in Iran.  Tehran, to be specific.  Ground zero for the various bits of unwanted excitement surrounding the Iranian elections in 2009-2010.  He has a word for the people who think that Twitter was somehow instrumental in organizing the opposition and protests: “idiots”.

It seems, strangely, that Twitter was simply unavailable to most participants of that mass debacle/horror.  Almost nobody had access to it (seeing as how it was heavily blocked) and almost nobody used it as a result.  The claim that Twitter was used by people with secret bridges to the outside world who would then spread Twitter messages via SMS was also risible on the face of it.  The state controlled the  supplier of SMS services, see, and would have been trivially able to follow along on the SMS messages to find out who was going to be where when had Twitter/SMS (a specious pairing anyway, c.f. above) been used.

No, for him and his friends organization was the old-fashioned way: word of mouth, telephone trees, etc.  Twitter had literally zero impact on anything he got involved in.  Lest you try to object that perhaps it was the more  technically-minded revolutionary-wannabes that did the Twitting, keep in mind that the friend in question is a communications engineer who even now, with blocks in place that are FAR stronger than those used in 2009, routinely  penetrates to the outside world (like I do from within China) to converse with people using various blocked communications media: Facebook, IRC, Skype, etc.  Had Twitter been in active use during those troubles he would have known and, indeed, participated (likely even facilitating; among the many services he does provide you can number a business that provides people with ways to penetrate Iran’s blocks from the outside).

You will find similar stories in pretty much every other “Twitter-influenced revolution” out there.  Was Twitter used?  Yes.  By a small number of people. Mostly to tell their side of events to the outside world.  Or to demonize the other side.  Or to be the other side pretending to be the first side demonizing the other side in a bout of tomfoolery that rivals Spy vs. Spy.  But these people also used Facebook, Google+, Orkut, and several social media sites you’ve never heard of.  Twitter was by no means unique in this regard.

So Why?  Why “Twitter Revolution”?

In brief: lazy journalists.  It’s no secret that journalists are incredibly lazy these days when it comes to fact checking.  The dominant approach to journalism these days seems to be “let’s just report whatever we think our audience or our owners want to hear, and we’ll retract and apologize on page 1700 if we get caught spreading lies again.”

Now to be fair Twitter was actually used quite a lot in the time frames mentioned.  It did have a lot of press coverage as a result.  But that’s the whole point: Twitter was reported on because it was the hip, new, attention-gathering thing.  It was a “different twist” on Yet Another Story of horrible governments getting their comeuppance (for a few weeks) from the downtrodden masses.  Twitter got free press and publicity as a result and got paired with revolutions.

Had the first of these chains of revolutions started a couple of years earlier we’d be here talking about the Orkut Revolution or something.  Or had it happened a bit later maybe the Pinterest Revolution or the WhatsApp Revolution or some other Flavour-Of-The-Day Manufactured “Revolution”.  We just happened to be unlucky and got the most asinine of social media sites being praised for its purported impact on revolutions worldwide.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Twitter is constructed almost specifically to support slacktivism.  Hashtag activists, social justice dogpiles, and a whole host of other no-work trivialities have replaced previous do-nothing “activism” like ribbon-based “awareness” campaigns.  People want Twitter to be great for revolution because it takes literally no actual effort to do “activism” on it.  In this regard journalists, in their abiding laziness, are merely channelling the zeitgeist.  People want something simple and trivial to become the root cause of revolution; people want to #notalltwits their way into change.  Media, of course, to keep the interest of their waning consumer base, report that yes, indeed, Twitter’s lazy-assed hashtivism is making Real Change™ Worldwide!

And this is why assholes are still in charge in Egypt, in Iran, in Tunisia, in all the places that the “Twitter Revolution” took place.

Thanks guys.  Your hard work is appreciated.

—Michael Richter

About ttmrichter

Michael is a largely auto-didactic polyglot with a confusing family history that branches now across three continents over the past three generations. There was once a point where the bulk of his career was spent twiddling bits in computers to make them dance and sing at his behest, but the utter soul death that programming for a living entailed drove him to instead teach English in China “for a year or two”. (It presumably made some kind of sense at the time.) Fifteen years later Michael finds himself still living in central China and still teaching English. His initial passion for programming (sans “making a living”) remains unabated; he keeps his fingers and brain alive as he learns programming languages or hacks away at embedded systems at his whim. He has also cultivated a good sense of the ridiculous and blended it harshly with a solid sense of outrage that makes him break out into entertaining(-to-some) rants on a variety of topics. One point of interest Michael has is profanity. The topic makes him laugh, and not in the way of his inner twelve-year old sniggering at bad words. (Well, not *ONLY* in that way.) The very nature of the concept of profanity is endlessly amusing to him as it is, to him, the last vestige of “magical thinking” left in a society that prides itself on being rational and pragmatic. What a bunch of utter fucking bollocks!

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