The celebration of our country’s independence this past weekend made the harrowing Twitter and blog posts of the resistance movement in Iran even more poignant. As they continue to challenge the legitimacy of that country’s elections and crack the foundation of the theocratic regime, it’s important to remember the role of "social media" in our own painful, violent birth. Iran’s bloggers and Twitterers are the modern-day offspring of the American Revolution’s pamphleteers.
More than 230 years ago, ordinary citizens across the colonies printed and distributed the passionate words of "amateur" writers to shape public opinion and galvanize the independence movement virally. Like the Iranians, these colonial social media pioneers faced violent suppression from a powerful ruling class. But their simple pamphlets proved to be even more powerful. They offer hope not only to the courageous Iranians, but to anyone interested in harnessing the collective for change.
My grandmother first introduced me to the bravery of the American Revolution’s pamphleteers through stories about one of my ancestors, Samuel Loudon. In addition to publishing the newspaper The New York Packet, he was part of the underground network that printed and distributed pro-independence pamphlets This included the a popular response to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for which, legend has it, Loudon was tarred and feathered.
This description of pamphleteering from 1940 by Homer Calkin for The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, could be about the blogs of today, "From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century the pamphlet was the chief instrument to carry one’s ideas to the public…The pamphlet, forerunner to the newspaper, was well adapted to this use because it was small and cheap and could reach ‘a larger audience than the orator in the House of Commons.’"
These childhood tales of how Samuel Loudon’s pamphlets changed the world may have helped me recognize the potential of blogging in early 2006 when I started my Work+Life Fit blog, way before most people even knew what a blog was. At the time, I was frustrated. For more than a decade, I’d been part of a vibrant, dynamic field that helped organizations and individuals partner to flexibly and creatively manage work and life. Yet the broader world had no idea the field existed much less how our work could help them. I wanted to change that.
Almost four years later, both my original blog as well as my expert blog for Fast Company have exceeded my expectations in terms of helping to rethink work, life and business. Without fail, after every post, at least one person contacts me to say, "That made a difference." Huge. And a few of my long time work+life colleagues have started excellent blogs including Families and Work Institute’s blog, Kathie Lingle’s Blog at the Alliance for Work Life Progress, and the Sloan Work and Family Network. Further expanding the community.
Now, Twitter. It’s been six months since I joined Twitter (@caliyost), and I’m equally as impressed by its power to share information, create community and drive change. Tweeting for the pamphleteers of the Revolution would have meant printing and distributing eight to ten short 140 character statements daily. Impossible. But that’s what’s different about Twitter—it’s quick. It’s fast. It’s real-time. It doesn’t replace the thoughtful, longer form writing of a blog post. Twitter augments it by allowing you to:
- Experience Events Live as They Happen: For a roundup of live tweeting from the Iranian resistance movement, check out Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog at The Atlantic.com. Since signing on to Twitter, I’ve live-blogged and tweeted from work+life events that were important and interesting but might not have received coverage in the mainstream media. These events include: The Conference Board’s Work Life Conference; Cornell’s Preparing for the New Century—Innovative Work and Family Strategies Conference and Families and Work Institute’s Work Life Legacy Awards.
- "Follow" People from Different Industries and Cultures: Twitter keeps the ongoing struggle of the Iranian protestors alive for me, even as the coverage in newspapers and network television trails off. I’m in New Jersey, but I’m connected. On Twitter, I’m following and am being followed by an international group of work life experts, journalist/authors, musicians, HR experts, social media gurus, career experts, publishers, astronauts, tattoo artists, environmentalists, eldercare experts, elder caregivers, financial planners, moms, dads, and students, just to name a few. I learn from and "retweet" or share their often thought-provoking and informative tweets everyday, and am better for it.
- Share Information Quickly, Instantly: I can sit at my desk, read an interesting article, blog post or tweet from someone else and within 20 second share it with my network. And then watch as others in my network "RT" or retweet what I’ve sent out.
- Read Each Person’s Twitter Bio: Every time someone follows me or I reach out to follow them on Twitter, I love reading their bio. Even though a bio on Twitter is only a couple of sentences long, it’s amazing how much unique personal and professional information people include. It confirms what a wonderful, complex world we live in where no two people are the same.
- Get Updates Related to Personal Interests: Here’s a benefit of Twitter I didn’t expect but value. So far I’ve linked to a person who lives in Lancaster, England and goes to Lancaster University, the school I attended for a semester in college. Fun to get his updates. I feel like I’m right back in the Lake District. I also follow a newspaper reporter who covers the beat that includes the town in Maine where my grandparents lived for many years. Through them, I’m linked to two different parts of the world that were very meaningful to me.
- Join Virtual Community: Where did I share my surprising grief on the day Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died? Twitter. As the news spread, people where shared their shock and often funny memories real-time.
As the Revolutionary War pamphleteers proved, even the earliest forms of social media can bring democracy to life in the face of the most powerful foe. Hopefully, this will be the outcome in Iran, as long as the global community continues to hear their voices. In my own work, I’ve seen the power of blogging and Twitter to share and expand the work life discussion and sustain meaningful change. What’d your passion? How can social media help you connect and spread the word?