June 17, 2009

Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (center, arms raised) in Tehran on June 15, 2009. (Behrouz Mehri/Courtesy Agence France-Presse)

From Carrier Pigeons to Twitter: Timely News Still the Goal

In 1832, French journalist Charles Havas started Agence Havas, a news service in Paris that sold translations of foreign news to the city’s newspapers. Agence Havas was the first major private news agency in the world.

Getting the news to readers in a speedy manner was crucial to the agency’s success, so as early as 1835, Havas used carrier pigeons to transport stock prices.

Fast forward to 2009, when Iranian protesters are using Twitter — an online social-networking site that uses a bird as its unofficial icon — to send messages about the protests and police crackdowns to the rest of the world through their cell phones and the Internet. The Iranian government has restricted foreign journalists from reporting the events in Tehran.

The tweets, or "microblogs," as the messages are called, have been so vital to behind-the-scenes information in Tehran that the U.S. State Department asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance to allow the messages to continue. This request has users cooing over the technology and is considered a milestone in the rapidly evolving world of instant communication.

Twitter, which was founded in 2007, grew from its founder’s simple idea of wanting to know what his friends were doing. Two years and more than a billion tweets later, subscribers are doing just that — and more — in 140 characters or less.

In May 2008, one of the first reports about the earthquake in China’s Sichuan province was a Twitter message, which beat a Bloomberg News wire flash by 23 seconds. Six months later in November, eyewitnesses posted thousands of Twitter updates about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

Twitter’s site on June 17 carried up-to-the-minute messages about the protests in Iran.

One user posted live from Iran: "More than 100,000 people at Tehran protest. ‘We students do not chant death to America we want the American constitution.’"

Another user said, "After watching Twitter essentially save democracy in Iran, Mafoo is re-evaluating his Twitter apathy."

The story of Twitter is told in the Newseum’s Digital News Gallery. The story of Agence Havas and other news agencies can be found in the News Corporation News History Gallery. Follow the Newseum on Twitter.

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