Before the Social Media Revolution, before Twitter, before blogging, before even the internet itself there was the Iranian Revolution.
In 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was able to mobilize his supporters and fire the Islamic shot heard round the world with the subversive, emergent media of the day--- cassette tapes and the telephone. The Shah may have had complete control over mainstream media, but nobody was in charge of all the cassette machines that copied Khomeini's message of Islamic fundamentalism from France to Iran and ultimately into mosques across the country. So there is some irony that the revolutionaries of that era who now run the place are cast as today's reactionaries, on the receiving end of uncontrollable social media which relentlessly and inevitably are spreading the word, despite the state's desperate effort write history in its image and control the message. Honestly, Stalin would have been just as annoyed at Twitter and would have dispatched the KGB to shoot up the internet.
Back in the day the United States was on the wrong side of history as we watched the Shah's power crumble and then endured revolutionaries occupying our embassy and holding Americans hostage. Today things are flipped as the Iranians are outraged at a regime backed by Fundamentalists Gone Wild. Or to quote the 1968 Chicago Yippies who were the media influence for the 1979 Iranian radicals, "the whole world is watching" as the credibility of the Iranian state and its elections are challenged. Which raises a tempting question: are the forces that led to Islamic fundamentalism in the first place now about to self-organize once again and begin to lead to its undoing? After all, the first great manifestation of the Fundamentalist Islamic state was Iran 30 years ago. Al Queda and the Taliban simply open-sourced the Khomeini idea and extended it. The greatest challenge to fundamentalist Islam ever seen is being witnessed right now, in Iran as its people question the legitimacy of their ruling regime.
Well, almost. After 9/11 the USA mounted he greatest, most intense challenge to Islamic fundimentlaism ever. But that took untold billions of dollars, thousands of lives and ultimately ended up picking a fight with a non-fundamentalist regime that wasn't responsible for 9/11 in the first place. Which hurt us at home, hurt us in the eyes of many people of the Middle East, and will take us years to clean up. One could argue that what has been accomplished in the name of self determination , freedom and the power of democracy in the last 100 hours by the thoroughly pissed-off and energized people of Iran is more leveraged, sustainable and likely to spread virally that the efforts of the USA over the past 100 months in its endeavor to bring democracy to Iraq by force. This is not to diminish the valiant effort of our armed forces or our diplomatic successes. But it does point out that the top down, were gonna impose it approach we took is incredibly expensive and has a lot of annoying side effects that you don't have to worry about in bottoms-up people led movement. Many a CEO might note that top down imposed change in a corporation is a lot tougher to make stick effectively than engendering a bottoms-up movement among employees. This seems to be part of the fundamental grammar of the distribution media of our day.
President Ahmadinejad would like the world to believe that the forces opposing him are so much American and western hooligan meddling (Has any state that blamed hooliganism for its woes ever been anything other than a bad joke?) Its true that we Americans are contributing to the Iranian proto-revolution, but not in the state led manner that Ahmadinejad imagines. His problems stem from the modern version of the cassette tape. A set of thoroughly western, nee American, nee practically Northern Californian innovations: Twitter, the blogosphere and the Internet. There is a certain symmetry that the very nation that ushered in the Islamic revolution a generation ago with bits of subversive western technology may be returning to their playbook to remake themselves today. So, viva la revolution! Viva open media! And viva the first mass self-determination movement made possible by APIs! ( Okay, Obama used a lot of these techniques last year. But he had the advantage of operating on the home turf of a great Democracy. So watching all this play out in Iran is particularly stunning. )