Looking to find out what's happening in Iran? You're not going to see much coming out of the traditional media — Iranian officials have pulled the plug on news organizations trying to cover the presidential election controversy. Foreign journalists have been booted out of the country and forced to seek other means to get coverage out.
Enter Twitter and YouTube.
Ordinary folks like you and me, are using social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube to report breaking news. It’s a developing phenomena — politicization from the ground up, through digital channels. We’re talking not just the Internet, but mobile devices as well.
And Iran is just the Digg of the week. Remember last year when Barack Obama used Twitter and Facebook as part of his successful presidential campaign? More than 15 million Facebook users logged into the site on election day itself to follow the unfolding drama. And over a million people were signed up for his text-messaging program.
Scott Goodstein, the man responsible for Obama's venture into the digital realm begs to differ that new media was key to Obama's election victory. Rather, he attributes it to the man himself — his message of change — that so many Americans identified with.
But the then external online director for Obama's election campaign must have done something right. The digital strategy he created, using the web as a political tool, gave Obama a leg up against rivals, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
The way Obama harnessed the web to get his message out, organized his supporters and raised funds on such a massive scale, was a first in U.S. politics. Obama raised an astounding half a billion dollars online from three million donors.
His success in tapping the digital platform ushered in a new era not only in U.S. politics, but also in the corporate world. Key decision-makers in the private sector, looking for innovative ways to make money, are willing to venture into the unknown digital domain.
“Politicians in the U.S. are afraid to jump into something that may cause political backlash,” notes Goodstein. “I think that’s the lesson from the campaign -- the flexibility to do these experimentations, have an honest discussion with your organization about what we are trying to gain from going into social media, and how much it's going to help us.”
On the flip side, engaging one's audience on social media platforms has opened a direct line of communication, which could also potentially open a can of worms, drawing unfavorable flames (commentary) from netizens.
Goodstein tells of how Obama encountered smear campaigns, including the formation of a group that was against him on his very own website (my.barackobama.com). He didn’t shut them down, nor ignore them though. In fact, Obama actively engaged them, addressing their concerns, as well as refuting disinformation.
The ability to directly correct misconceptions is a very powerful tool. The two-way traffic allows the man on the street to get an insight into the minds and personalities of politicians and CEOs.
What's even better — these tools are more or less, free. And therein lies the problem for companies like Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and the like.
All of them so far, are running up huge losses. Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube will lose $470 million this year. This is a site that gets over 200 millions hits a day, a success by any definition, except in terms of turning a profit.
Tweets have hogged the headlines of late. Social media blog Mashable.com says there's been nearly a billion tweets on the political upheaval in Iran, with between 10,000 and 50,000 per hour.
But the popular site, which has seen a surge in user registration, is still deep in the red. Its founders aren’t even sure how they’re going to turn a profit, especially since they’re not keen on advertising.
Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, told Reuters, “There are a few reasons why we’re not pursuing advertising, one is, it's just not quite as interesting to us.” Adverts could annoy Twitterers, he added. And there's no one in Twitter's staff of 30, based in San Francisco, "who knows anything about advertising or works in advertising.”
With users numbering in the tens of millions, you’d think that these social media platforms would be able to make some money. But that’s proving to be a formidable challange. Goodstein himself, didn’t have an answer. He jokingly deferred the question to Biz Stone.
The dilemma of how to turn a profit is really what transforms a phenomena into a lasting platform. If a business is not financially sustainable, it will eventually wither away, no matter how popular it may be. Case in point, Pets.com. Now there's a name we haven't really heard of in years.
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So, whether Twitter and YouTube will stand the test of time in their present incarnations, remains to be seen. Hopefully, Sergey Brinand Biz Stone will figure out a way to rake in the dollars. For now, they’re basking in the glow of the revolution they’ve started. Now, let me go tweet that.