Iran, Twitter, and the Human Spirit

The events overseas in Iran have been nothing less than breathtaking. Just weeks ago the conversation within the U.S. was focused almost entirely on Iran’s nuclear weapons, but today the most powerful weapon in Iran may be the smallest voice that comes from a Tweet. And, by far, the most important lesson of all may be about the human spirit itself. I remember watching TV during the weekend when the Iranian election returns had been “counted” and many pundits and onlookers declared that U.S. foreign policy would need to go back to square one. The incumbent in Iran had been declared the victor, and the U.S. policy of engagement had been declared over. But what these observers failed to notice was the strong undercurrent within Iran, the sheer force of people declaring that enough was enough.

Many of us rushed to focus on the role of Twitter in this surge of public action, and there is little doubt of the power and force of this technology. Twitter and other technologies helped to create the enabling environment in which people no longer felt isolated and alone, where they could believe that if they stepped forward others would be there alongside them, and that collective action was possible. Every study I have ever done has pointed to the need for these very conditions to be present in order for anyone to step forward.

And yet, technology is simply a tool, an instrument that ultimately must be employed by someone. In Iran, its use demonstrated that something powerful and filled with meaning existed deep within people’s hearts. A deep desire for change already resided within them. Such desire transcends any specific technology or policy or speech. It lives within people, and is made real when people find one another.

Last Saturday I spoke at the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp at UC Berkeley. At one point, in one of my talks, I found myself saying that what we are witnessing in Iran is the exercise of the human spirit, and that the human spirit can be kept down for only so long. It has an undeniable currency and absolute beauty. I said that we can find the same spirit closer to home, in communities like Detroit, and in many others.

My point is this: I am excited about the use of Twitter and the conditions it can help to create in Iran and elsewhere, including our own communities. But I am moved most by the rise of the human spirit, and what can happen when we find ways to tap into it, give rise to it, help people find one another, and create real ways for people to take action together. In our society, with all the technological inventions and innovations it is easy to become enamored with them; I do from time to time. But what often remains hidden beneath these gadgets and applications, and all the celebrations of them, is the most enduring and simple element of all: the human spirit.

Make no mistake, finding the right mechanisms to help create positive enabling environments is no easy or small feat; it requires good minds and hard work. Part of my own Institute is dedicated to this work.

But making room for the human spirit to come forth, express itself and turn into meaningful action is the actual work we must do to make hope real. In the end, the human spirit may be the most powerful weapon we have.