MirHossein Supporter  on TwitpicOn this subject, I know so much, and yet, so little. I know what most of you know from watching the news, following the tweets, reading the blogs. I know a little more because I’m half-Iranian and lived there as a kid for three years before the Revolution. I’m not sure that experience gives me any meaningful insight, but I feel as if I know the people, understand their passions, and share their longing for freedom.

I could weigh in on the current uprising, the politicians, the process, the government, the mullahs, but there are smarter, more informed bloggers and reporters (See Andrew Sullivan, the Lede, Nico Pitney)  that can better educate you on those topics. So while I am blown away by the movement, and the courage of the protestors, what I want to write about today is the marketing of the movement.

Time magazine calls Twitter the “medium of the movement.” Much has been said about how Iranians are using Twitter to communicate with one another and with those of us outside the country who are watching. They are using it as an organizing tool (tweeting out what time and where the protests are occurring) and as an information-dispenser (tweeting out in real time what is happening, the beatings, the violence, the non-violence, etc.). The government shut down texting and almost shut down the Internet (they slowed it down to low, dial-up speeds to discourage people from uploading videos), but folks were able to use Twitter. And because the regime is monitoring Twitter, folks outside of the country helped the Iranians set up proxy servers to hide their Internet trails.

I’m sure Tom Friedman would call the revolution “flat.” In the past, when people protested (think Tiananmen Square), all most of us could do was helplessly watch it on TV. Today, Americans are engaged with the protestors, setting up the proxy servers, retweeting their news and information, helping to spread the news and photos to the world, all in defiance of the Iranian government. While we aren’t physically there, we are able to show our support, albeit limitedly. Hence, the “flat” world.

” . . . as a medium gets faster, it gets more emotional. We feel faster than we think. But Twitter is also just a much more personal medium. Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement.” – NYU Professor Clay Shirky

It really is remarkable how the Internet has changed things. Before, if a government clamped down on its citizens, we might hear rumors and whispers. Today, we have thousands of cell phone pictures and videos distributed online almost immediately. We have real time, unedited “man on the street” reports in the form of tweets and blog entries. We have Facebook updates from the incumbent candidate and his opponents, like Mousavi. The Ayatollah reportedly even has a Facebook page.

What we don’t have enough of are reporters in the region, giving it all context. Most of what we’re receiving is raw and unedited, so “buyer beware.”

The protestors are controlling the conversation right now. From a marketing standpoint, whoever controls the conversation “wins.” If I jump out of the box and claim that I’m supporting freedom, I’m automatically implying that you aren’t. If I get a whole bunch of people to agree with me – and find a way to get that word out – then guess what? I’m the freedom lover and you hate freedom. This is what we call positioning. And in the battle for the minds, the protestors are winning right now in spite of the government’s vast tools (they control the mass media and are reporting little on the protestors, they control the army, etc.). Social media has allowed the protestors to spread their news quickly all around the world. And the world is watching.

There is a lesson here for marketers as well. While we talk about social media and help our clients develop programs, at the end of the day, WE DON’T CONTROL THE CONVERSATION. The users do. We can set up the Facebook fan pages, the Twitter accounts, build initial followings, and create promotions to draw attention to our efforts. But at the end of the day, the people decide what they’re going to talk about and how often they’re going to talk.

And as the Iranians have shown us, if the people are passionate about their subject matter, nothing will stop them from communicating.