Wars have always been waged on all sorts of fronts. They also have, of course, always been about words: who asserts what; what different people mean when they say, “That’s mine.” The internet has vastly increased how people can have these arguments and
how directly they can have them. Still, even so, it is a huge step up to hold, as the Israeli consulate in New York did last week, a public, government-backed “citizens’ conference” on the social site Twitter – and then to keep replying to comments from all over the globe. It has proved massively popular: the consulate’s Twitter site (twitter.com/israelconsulate) yesterday afternoon had 3,739 followers, and at one point was posting a new comment or answer to a comment, nearly every second.
You can see why it has caught on. Twitter allows notes of only 140 characters, so everything is admirably short and to the point. No space here for a waffle, just a surgical strike. Many of the Israeli consulate site notes are quick links to other sites: videos from the BBC, pieces in the Wall Street Journal, clips on YouTube (the Israeli Defence.
During the current invasion, the force has also become the first national army to broadcast an offensive directly to interested web users in real-time). But a lot of it is also direct answers to direct questions, squashed into text-speak to fit the space available. “We R pro nego … we talk only w/ ppl who accept R rt 2 live”, for example. Or “Isr. Left Gaza in 2005 to send a message of peace. Ans. More rockets.” Or “if Hamas’s goal were 2 btr the lives of its cit. They wouldn’t target IL. they would invest in edu/health, not in bombs.”
The consulate is, in effect, firefighting. The answers come from its PR office (no doubt somewhat harried, given the number of questions it has had to answer), and from its chief PR officer David Saranga, who has described his job as justifying the Israeli strikes, and making sure that there is detailed official information available to counteract the swirls of the allegation and counter-allegation available elsewhere on the web. Israeli military spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovich has been even clearer. “The blogosphere and new media are another war zone, and we have to be relevant there.”
Twitter is only two years old and, in essence, straightforward: like the status update function in Facebook, it asks “What are you doing?” and then gives you a tiny space in which to answer. And that’s all it does: no faffing about with profiles, photos, poking, or sheep. Just what you’re doing this minute immediately appears on your page and on the pages of people who have signed up to track you.
Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, has compared it to “flocks of birds, the way they can move around an object in flight. It looks so choreographed; it looks like it’s planned out ahead of time, but it’s not; it’s just rudimentary, simple communication among individuals. It’s just feedback that produces beautifully elegant, choreographed real-time movement.”
It’s a gift to celebrities, of course, for whom the size of their publicity footprint depends on how much the public knows about their everyday doings – and, by extension, a recipe for unrelieved banality. John Cleese recently told the world that it was a big “yes to Marmite ” as far as he was concerned. But an even bigger yes to mustard, particularly German mustard, of which I possess an epicurean collection.” Last week, former rugby player Will Carling announced he was making tea to welcome the new year. A year ago, Scott Karp,
formerly director of the digital strategy at the Atlantic magazine, now CEO of Publish2, Inc, a web-based newswire, wrote a heartfelt blog on his website about why he stopped using Twitter – “Twitter is a massive waste of time … Twitter has turned distraction into an art form” – which, predictably, triggered a tsunami of comment from Twitterers everywhere. His answering update was reasonable but firm: “Twitter may be the first step on an evolutionary path to something indispensable, but for me, it’s just not there yet.”