Journalists like nothing better than to talk about themselves. But this has gone beyond us. There's a battle out there about the role of social media.

It's the evangelists versus the sceptics. And right now the sceptics are gaining ground. But I think they'll concede it in the long run.

I confess, I speak with the zeal of the converted. Thanks to @cward1e and the BBC's Social Media Workshop, in the past 12 months I've made new contacts all over the world via Twitter. And since August I've been exploring the business of new media as a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard.

I signed up for my first course with Nicco Mele at the Harvard Kennedy School. The man who ran Howard Dean's online campaign for the White House, putting internet politics on the map (no, he didn't talk about The Iowa Scream), told us: "To understand the digital age, you need to live it."

His 'Media, Politics, Power' course required us to get tech-savvy. It meant a lot of online 'homework' as we bought domain names, set up blogs, workshopped with the Wikimedia Institute, and joined LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. For starters.

It also meant diving into the flurry of debate about new media, e-politics and e-government. Of course, CoJo readers know better than most about the ideas and initiatives flying on all three fronts. But here's my two cents, for what it's worth, on the value of social media:

First, the literary hand grenade. Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted. The October essay from The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell set off a storm of online debate.

Gladwell described Twitter disdainfully as a way to stream "feel good" exchanges about the challenges of our time, rather than a tool to contribute to meaningful social change. "Weak ties seldom lead to high risk activism."

The onslaught wasn't just philosophical, it was personal. That day, I was taking another Harvard class with new media evangelist Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, and the target of much of Gladwell's ammunition. The class, on 'New Media and Public Action', was analysing the role of media from Twitter to Facebook to Ushahidi in coordinating social movements like the Green Uprising in Iran, the Mad Cow Protests in South Korea, and the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women in India.

We emailed back and forth about it - Shirky acknowledging that it's easy to overstate the role of social media; Iran being the obvious example. "Twitter was a shiny object in the Anglo-American media environment, and we looked at those uprisings using a mirror instead of a lens."

But still, Shirky and those on his side in the social media wars insist that the role of the new networks, the power of online organising, is an historic development.

And I'm with them.

Just look at a handful of recent examples. The organisation of British protests against Vodafone in October. The experience of Rio's favela dwellers during riots in November. The Queensland Police Service providing its latest information on the Brisbane floods. All using Twitter.

Where I do think the sceptics are right is this: it's not smart to be starry-eyed about social media now. It's not automatically on the side of the angels, if it ever was. From the US government demanding access to the tweets of Wikileaks supporters, to Iran's Revolutionary Guard trying to monitor dissident activists, it's clear - you can be watched, you can be followed, and you can be punished for your thought crimes.

And who's stopping the most unsavoury regimes from playing you at your own game - subverting your cause online? That's the argument developed by Evgeny Morozov in his new book The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. And, yes, it makes sobering reading.

So, it's not so much that 'The Revolution Will Be Tweeted'. But it's foolish to deny that today's revolutionaries will have Twitter in their arsenal. It's too late to put our heads in the sand, as if we can choose between online and off. Journalist, activist, politician, diplomat: we're all in the digital world together.

UPDATE: There was an interesting piece by Timothy Garton Ash in Wednesday's Guardian, considering the significance or otherwise of social media in the revolution in Tunisia. He reports that before the fall of the regime, it had mounted "phishing" attacks on Facebook and Gmail accounts, and arrested bloggers. In the recent crisis, social media acted as a catalyst:

"It seems that here the internet did play a significant role in spreading news of the suicide which sparked the protests, and then in multiplying those protests. An estimated 18% of the Tunisian population is on Facebook, and the dictator neglected to block it in time."

Philippa Thomas is a BBC News Special Correspondent on sabbatical at Harvard. She tweets at @BBCPhilippaT and blogs at


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