For Twitter, the past year has been a series of coming-out parties as it jumped further and further into the public eye. But it wasn't until this month's post-election upheaval in Iran that it became really clear: Twitter, you're not in Silicon Valley anymore.
"They have a responsibility that goes way beyond what they originally imagined," said Patrick Meier, director of research at DigiActive, an organization dedicated to helping activists better utilize new-media communication and networking tools. "This is a tool that can help communication in politically volatile situations."
Up to this point, much of the hype about Twitter's use in crises and disasters (as well as political events like elections) has been how quickly it can spread raw eyewitness reports, sort of the ultimate center for participatory "citizen journalism." There was the U.S. Airways incident in January, in which a photograph posted with Twitter app TwitPic was one of the first close-up looks at the emergency landing of a passenger jet in the Hudson River. When a wave of terror attacks sent the Indian city of Mumbai into chaos, many turned to Twitter for the most immediate information available.
In the aftermath of the contested Iranian elections, however, it's been Twitter's potential as a communications medium, rather than simply a source of up-to-the-minute news, that has been front and center. It's usurped Facebook as the social-media tool in the spotlight. The U.S. Department of State even requested that the company reschedule a planned outage so that it would be less likely to disrupt the flow of information coming from Iran.
"It's humbling to think that our 2-year old company could be playing such a globally meaningful role that state officials find their way toward highlighting our significance," a post on the Twitter blog by co-founder Biz Stone read.
Therein lies the uneasy truth: In a major international crisis, one of the prime channels of communication and news for individuals, media outlets, and governments alike is a 2-year-old start-up in San Francisco with 50 employees, no discernible business model, a history of technical instability, and a misinformation-related lawsuit on the table. This is a problem.
"It's just a start-up, and here they are playing geopolitics in some of the most crucial events we've seen recently, and that's kind of worrying," Meier said.
"There's definitely a risk...There are always going to be, I think, dangers in relying on all different kinds of technologies for many different reasons," Meier continued. "A related question to ask is, well, what's the alternative? The cell phones (in Iran) were blocked intermittently, Internet sites were blocked, (but) a few people were able to use Twitter. That was one of the last things that people were able to use, and when you're in that kind of an environment, when things are coming to a showdown, you use what you can and you try and do so as securely and as safely as possible."
The question now is to what extent Twitter, which has declined to comment beyond posts on its official blog, is obliged to step up its game. This is not always an easy question to answer.
It's ambiguous, for example, as to how much responsibility Twitter should take for the content spread over its network. As a communication platform, Twitter needn't be held accountable for the accuracy of everything that its millions of members "tweet." But it already has misinformation problems: Twitter has been sued by St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa over a Twittering impersonator, something that led the company to start rolling out a "verified" accounts program.
"Part of the way that I look at Twitter is much the same way that I look at citizen journalism, and chiefly the sort of early-breaking, unvetted citizen journalism," said Rachel Sterne, founder of user-contributed news site GroundReport. "You take it as an early warning system, you take it as a litmus test where something is happening somewhere in the world, and then the next step for responsible news gatherers is to check your sources."
But if La Russa's lawsuit is any indication, Twitter can't take a completely laissez-faire approach when it comes to accuracy. It's not Wikipedia, with an army of volunteer fact-checkers that manage to self-correct errors and hoaxes most of the time. When something is "tweeted," it's out there, it's public, and it's searchable.
In addition to the content on Twitter, there's the service itself, and it's a service that was once known for embarrassing unreliability. The days when a Steve Jobs keynote could turn Twitter into the famed "fail-whale" error message are over, thankfully, but vulnerabilities remain--the fact that Twitter required maintenance serious enough to disable its service for several hours, for example.
Unstable servers and fail-whales are just the surface, though. It's even less clear as to how effectively Twitter could handle large-scale denial-of-service attacks, phishing, hacking, or more serious forms of sabotage or cyberterrorism.
These are things that Twitter needs to be ready to handle internally, Meier said. He brought up the incident early last year in which a network in Pakistan knocked out the entire YouTube service for several hours. "A government didn't react, the U.S. didn't react, (and) there was no public relations or diplomatic reaction," Meier said. "All that happened was that YouTube found out about it, got their tech people in a room for a few hours, got YouTube back online and did it, and yet it was an international incident at the same time."
But the Twitter situation is very different, and not only because governments have started to take note in this situation. YouTube is a hosting platform that relies chiefly on other communications channels to spread the word about content hosted there: if it goes down for one reason or another, people can upload videos elsewhere. With Twitter, the technology itself isn't the only piece of the equation. What's equally important is the constantly updating, searchable mass of short public messages being broadcast and received around the world. This cannot easily be uprooted and replicated elsewhere.
Both the possibilities of mass misinformation and technical problems lead to another issue for Twitter: revenue. Pundits' calls for Twitter to get cranking on its yet-to-be-unveiled business model have turned into little more than a broken record, but the prominence of Twitter as a communications channel in the Iranian crisis raises the question of whether a pre-revenue company--no matter how cushy its venture backing--is up to task.
If Twitter is going to continue to have this kind of role in international affairs, it's going to need infrastructure so rock-solid that it drives the "fail whale" into extinction. It will need to hire employees with expertise in public policy and communications and a legal team capable of handling issues much more serious than a ticked-off baseball team manager. Those things take money, and this is a company whose co-founder once hinted that hiring an advertising sales staff would be too labor-intensive and costly.
Sterne, however, thinks that might be asking too much of Twitter. "I think the most important thing for Twitter is to focus on their technology and make sure their platform is up," she said. "They're not in the diplomatic game, and they're not a news outlet, so it's not up to us to hold them responsible for the content that goes across their network, it's up to us as consumers to be responsible consumers."
But, as Meier pointed out, turning things up a few notches could be in Twitter's own self-interest. If it doesn't make some moves to be ready for the international stage, it could be a major missed opportunity for the company.
"The activist will adapt if the environment changes," he said. "If Twitter goes down, they'll find something else."