What a world

by Russ Roberts on June 15, 2009

in Technology

From Twitter:

A critical network upgrade must be performed to ensure continued
operation of Twitter. In coordination with Twitter, our network host
had planned this upgrade for tonight. However, our network partners at
NTT America recognize the role Twitter is currently playing as an
important communication tool in Iran. Tonight's planned maintenance has
been rescheduled to tomorrow between 2-3p PST (1:30a in Iran).
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Ray Gardner June 15, 2009 at 10:19 pm

And of course, that they proclaim themselves to be so important will not be questioned by most of the enlightened people in the media.

What a world or what a gimmick?

seanooski June 15, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Oh, I think it's kind of cool. Maybe they exaggerate their importance, but maybe not. I don't twitter, so I'm not in the know.

Russ Roberts June 15, 2009 at 10:50 pm


I don't think it's a gimmick. People were begging them not to do any maintenance tonight.

Bret June 16, 2009 at 12:11 am

From Michael Ledeen ( http://pajamasmedia.com/michaelledeen/2009/06/15/so-hows-it-going-in-iran/ ):

"The regime has been waging a cyberwar against the dissidents, shutting down websites, cell phones, Facebook, and the like. As most people have learned, the basic communiations tool is Twitter, which somehow continues to function. Bigtime Kudos to Twitter, by the way, for postponing its planned maintenance so that the Iranians can continue to Tweet."

I've seen numerous reports that Mousavi's group is completely reliant on Twitter. If he succeeds in changing regime, Twitter will have changed the world, while our government (and all the rest) are sitting by impotent. Twitter should be very, very proud.

mike farmer June 16, 2009 at 12:31 am

People shouldn't mistake the silly name for a frivolous fad — it's a powerful means of communication, connecting people from all over the world. It's creating a global brain, sort of, with millions of thoughts and pieces of information running through — some lightwieght, like "I'm going to the store to buy some beer", to the latest real-time happenings in Iran. For the information age it's like a direct hook-up to the flow — and once the filtering is perfected, it will be even more powerful.

Devin Snead June 16, 2009 at 1:28 am

Newspapers and TV are "aged news." They are so old school. This new-age style of information is a good way to fight the status quo. I would love to see a study about what really caused Twitter to reach its tipping point. It's like I woke up one day and everyone was using Twitter.

Rocky June 16, 2009 at 4:26 am

I feel as though people are getting the idea of how Twitter can be powerful, as Bret has said, as a global brain of sorts. What I want to know is whether google wave's launch will magnify that power by an order of magnitude? If you've watched the developers presentation then you know exactly what I'm talking about. All of the disparate sources of information filtered into one source similar to the way the price mechanism works. Or at least this is how I'm imagining the technology to evolve, especially if applied to a news wiki, or a market-information wiki.

My question is; will that kind of power of information give collectivists the idea that they have enough information to adequately allocate resources efficiently? Maybe thats a stretch, but thats the first thing I started to think after thinking about the possibilities.

vidyohs June 16, 2009 at 6:11 am

Before waxing too poetic and enthusiastically about how twitter communications may be like the "new" global brain, or how ever it was phrased above, it would be good to stop and remember that someone who tweets is still as anynonomus to you and as beholden to be truthful to you as is this man typing these words now.

I can be anyone or anything, and can tell truth to you or lie to you as I please, while I sit here at this keyboard.

Someone using a CP keyboard is no different.

Twitter may be like a global nervous system, but not as a brain. No matter how huge twitter grows there is no cognitive center.

SaulOhio June 16, 2009 at 6:16 am

As I have always said, I LLLLOVE technology!

Ike June 16, 2009 at 9:45 am

Twitter was amazing for allowing those organizing help during the Mumbai attack.

Over two years ago, I established the @redcross Twitter account, which (along with a Wordpress-powered online newsroom) is used now to push disaster information to media and individuals in affected areas.

Don't discount the power of the tools.

@vidyohs – Don't discount the emergent nature of people sharing information. I'm pretty sure that individual neurons have no sentient clue they are a part of something bigger.

(and if more consumers had that same understanding about their individual roles in an economy, we wouldn't be as susceptible to persuasion by slick politicians.)

Richard June 16, 2009 at 10:06 am

On the other hand, it's not like you can trust your actual brain not to be lying to you.


vidyohs June 16, 2009 at 10:48 am

BTW, for all of us who might feel a little smug about our own situation as we watch the protests in Iran, take a moment and view the document.


Want to engage in a little low-level terrorism, hmmmmm?

vidyohs June 16, 2009 at 10:53 am


My own experience with electronic networking began in 1960, poor as our communications could sometimes be, we did network as a crucial part of our job.

Each network had the equivilant of a cognitive center where the information provided by all those unaware individual nuerons was formed into actual intelligence information.

Twitter, no matter how wonderouslysplendificextraordinaryfantastic, will never become a brain without a cognitive center and it won't happen as spontaneous creation by any individual nueron sharing information with another individual nueron. We can call it a network of brains, but not in and of itself, a brain.

Anon June 16, 2009 at 1:41 pm

someone earlier wrote:

"Twitter may be like a global nervous system, but not as a brain. No matter how huge twitter grows there is no cognitive center."

What is a cognitive center?

If you looked at any single neuron in the brain, you'd see that is merely a curious electro-chemical implementation of a rather simple mathematical function of the input signals. The magic is in the how they're connected (i.e., the network topology).

Ike June 16, 2009 at 3:16 pm

@vidyohs –

Fascinating stuff, we'd have a blast over a beer.

I would posit that "Twitter" in aggregate does have an emergent order, much in the same manner that an ant colony does. It does indeed make "decisions", in that certain people, behaviors, and preferences are "chosen" by the network and then get locked in.

Specifically to the situation in Iran — the "brain" doesn't decide what reality is, but the overall network is indeed promoting certain individuals (neurons) in Iran as being more-trusted or better sources than others. Yes, much of that is a matter of chance, but once the network locks in to certain people, it has in effect made a decision about who will shape the agenda. (Just like you make decisions about whether you are hungry enough to leave your PC for a candy bar, or exhibiting enough will to lose weight.)

Like the individual neurons, the holders of individual Twitter accounts may not know the role they play in distributing influence or attention in a Social Media Economy. They just do.

It's an emergent system.

(and I really like Hofstadter's "Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid". Once you understand that work, it's difficult to NOT immediately grasp where Hayek is coming from.)

vidyohs June 16, 2009 at 4:40 pm


I am no more than a streetwise dummy so I can't tell you fancy theory. With that said, my networks in the Navy had a net control station(brain) to which all others reported (a nervous system) which I relate to a cognitive center.

All input from the system was analyzed by the center in a way that no single nerve in the outlying system could, because the center had the input from all the outstations(nerve endings) and not just the single response from one.

My brain operates the same way. Yes, I have lots of little tweeters out there in my body, but none of them have the complete data that my brain does. For instance if I have a light match in my left hand, and an ice cube in my right, the nerves (tweeters)
in my left hand say we are in danger of being burnt, while the nerves (tweeters) in my right hand say we need more warmth; only the center (brain) can massage all the information to come to the correct conclusion.

Okay we exhausted the limitations of my ability to make mo' clear.

Brew? Anything except light beer. I am particular to the McEwan's Ale I got when visiting in Merry Ole England, or the real Grolsch I got when in Holland, beats the crap out of Budweiser any day.

Regarding the debate, my point about "who am I" in regards to electronic communications holds under any scrutiny. Regardless of whether some tweeters are seen as more reliable than others does not ensure accuracy in assessment, nor in results. The Iranians, you, and I will do well to remember that. It is easy to be strong and focused on a keyboard, try it with a policeman, club in hand, coming at you with intent to kick ass.

This is one reason why, though I excoriate muirduck relentlessly on his social and political views, I will not criticize his education in medicine or his skills as a kid doc.

I know him electronically, and in that aspect he is a complete fool, but having labeled the concept of "Tunnel Intelligence" I know that a man can be outstanding in his chosen field and be totally clueless in the real world. It is a fact, I have witnessed too many people who demonstrate all the attributes and actions of "Tunnel Intelligence".

Now we have "Blind Twitter Intelligence"? Lord, I hope no one makes that mistake.

Lee Kelly June 16, 2009 at 5:44 pm


The brain doesn't have a "cognitive centre".

While people online are free to lie, they are also more free to tell the truth than at almost any moment in their daily lives. Both extremes find expression.

Ike June 16, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Vidyohs –

While the brain itself is a Cognitive Center for an extended nervous system, there is no one spot within the brain that is the primogenitor of consciousness. Consciousness is an emergent consequence of millions of individual electronic relays in our brain.

I have my own thoughts about what Twitter means in this case, and it has more to do with how it increases smart filtering and less to do with whiz-bang technology.

And Twitter is learning. Not @ev or @biz or the company. The network. It is getting smarter.

vidyohs June 16, 2009 at 7:49 pm


"While the brain itself is a Cognitive Center for an extended nervous system, there is no one spot within the brain that is the primogenitor of consciousness. Consciousness is an emergent consequence of millions of individual electronic relays in our brain."

There was no one spot in our control center that was the single spot where information became intelligence, it happened in various departments and rooms.

Your gut feelings about Twitter may prove to be correct, and though I can not tell you that you are wrong, I certainly do not have the same gut feeling, so I guess we just wait and see. I freely admit that I have not kept up with the communications world once I walked away from the field in 1983.

Lee Kelly,

"The brain doesn't have a "cognitive centre"."

Your cognitive center may be in your armpit or colon, I dunno; but, I am certain mine is in my brain.

Go ahead and pick another nit, please.

Ray Gardner June 18, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Yes, I stand corrected.

I didn't find an online article, but these guys:

have a Counter Terrorism magazine that I browsed at Borders last night, and they ran a full feature article on how Twitter is used in such instances. And they're print, so they ran their article before the Iranian elections.

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