Very few companies focus exclusively on civic software. Cascade Software Corporation is one of them (though that will change soon). A lot more non-profits and foundations work for social good and the country and world are better off because of their work.
However, in many different ways, mainstream for-profit, non-civic-software companies have been far more effective in changing the world for good and some of these changes were probably unintended. The latest news about Twitter and Iran is a great example of this trend.
Here is an excerpt from today’s New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/17/world/middleeast/17media.html
This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’ ” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.
Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.” The network was working normally again by Tuesday evening.
At this point it is worth recalling that, a couple of months ago, protests (against alleged vote-rigging) in Moldova were described as a “twitter revolution”. At the time, the European Union had tentatively accepted the voting as fair. This week, the Moldovan parliament was dissolved and new elections have been ordered (for July 29).
It is unclear whether the protests in Iran will result in a change of government. Some analysts have also questioned whether twitter really plays a big part in these protests. However, news reports do seem to indicate that Twitter usage is helping the protestors and the state department’s actions indicate that they support this view.
It is unclear whether publicizing the state government’s involvement was a wise move. The Iranian authorities could seize on this information to claim that the “twitter revolution” isn’t home-grown and that it is sponsored by the American govt. However, regardless of how the story ends, it does seem clear that Twitter has played a big role in the Iran election protests.
This trend will probably continue in other countries as well. In developing countries, more people tend to have cell-phones than PCs and so microblogging platforms like twitter are likely to be used much more effectively in these countries than in the US. This trend will probably continue.
On another note, when twitter was first conceived, it was probably designed for the North American market and the founders had probably not thought about how their product could help democratize the world. However, that has now become an important usage scenario for the product. There is an important lesson here for all startup companies. [Update: More on this startup lesson at https://blog.cascadesoft.net/2009/06/17/usage-scenarios-how-users-can-surprise-product-developers-and-why-to-ship-early/]
[Update2: As a followup to June comments, it appears that the goals of the Moldova “twitter revolution” were accomplished. Repeat elections were held in July 2009 and the Communist party lost in the repeat-elections.]
[Update3 10/13/2009: Today’s Guardian has an interesting story on Twitter. The Guardian had been blocked from reporting parliamentary questions relating to an alleged toxic waste dumping company (Trafigura). However, the topic was picked up on Twitter and it soon became a trending topic.
The story is titled as “Twitter can’t be gagged..” and concludes by saying that “It might be a bit too exaggerated to call it a historic moment, but surely the real-time web passed its test today.” ]