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From TXTMob to Twitter: How an Activist Tool Took Over the Conventions

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, August 25 2012

The journo-political industrial complex is headed for the national party conventions this weekend, with more than 15,000 journalists along with thousands more Republican delegates, activists, party operatives and outside protesters and hangers-on expected in Tampa, Florida by Monday. This year, along with the expensive sky-boxes and even more extravagant night-time parties that the chattering class uses to mark its turf (remember, national political conventions are just like high school, only almost everyone has expense accounts and the bad kids are kept out by the Secret Service), some folks will also be showing off their tech bling.

It appears, as my colleague Miranda Neubauer reported yesterday, that it isn't enough just to personally have a fancy smartphone or tablet to wave around, the journo-political heavyweights have also been competing over who will have the fancier mobile app or online partnership with a tech heavyweight. You also need to have a HubFloorPassAppLounge that you're doing with Goobooksoft. The head spins, especially as none of these fancy tech apps will matter to the unfolding story.

That is, except for Twitter, which was barely a blip on the landscape in 2008. Now, the chattering class has become the twittering class. Ironically, they're all going to be using a tool that conceptually had its birth in the streets outside the halls where they will all be tweeting.

The relationship between new media and the establishment has always been a complex one. Back at the 2004 Democratic convention, the last one I bothered to attend, the big news was the credentialing of bloggers. (It might have been the only real news of the convention, though Barack Obama's maiden speech to a national audience obviously mattered in retrospect.) It was fun to hang out in the nosebleed section of the Boston Garden and watched delegates and politicians march up either to be interviewed by the bloggers, or, in many cases, to snap photos of us and coo excitedly, "Are you really blogging right now?" (To the left is a shot of me talking with then-DNC chair Terry McAuliffe after he finished chatting with blogger Ari Rabin-Havt. My colleague from Public Campaign, Nancy Watzman, is between us. Photo by David L. Sifry, 2004.)

But did the presence of bloggers actually change anything? Not much. In 2004, we in the nosebleed section watched during an afternoon rehearsal as TV commentator Jeff Greenfield marched up for a photo-prep, and then told his producers there was no way he was going to stand up there with the bloggers during the evening keynote speeches when everyone knew the real action was on the floor of the hall.

Of course, now everyone is online, and Greenfield (@greenfield64) himself tweets constantly.

That's not the only change. Many of us watching on TV aren't part of a passive audience any more, either. While most Americans have been tuning out the conventions in recent years, there's still about twenty million people who will watch, and this group undoubtedly maps pretty closely to the "online participatory class" that not only follows news closely, but helps make it by uploading, commenting, rating and sharing content with each other.

Many people--whether we're at home or in the convention cities--will be online during the big speeches, and we'll be tweeting and retweeting too. Which opens the possibility that the conventions could go off-script. A stray comment or candid photo could go viral, and overwhelm the message that the show's producers want the audience to consume, the way that Rep. Todd Akin's remark about "legitimate rape" took over the news this past week. And so we tell ourselves, things just might get a little interesting.

If that happens, there are a few developers who could take some satisfaction in the way some code that they wrote that was originally designed to help protesters coordinate with each other in real-time via text-message during events like the 2004 Republican convention inspired a tool that insiders and outsiders alike now use to gossip, share and expose each other to news, criticism and maybe even a little protest and rebellion.

I'm talking about TXTMob, one of the forebears of Twitter, which was developed to enable people to create groups and share mobile text messages with each other on the fly. The original work was done by Tad Hirsch, who was then an MIT doctoral student, and John Henry of the Institute for Applied Autonomy. They were later joined by people like Nathan Freitas, who worked on its implementation around the RNC in New York in 2004, and Evan Henshaw-Plath (aka @rabble on Twitter), who later was part of the team at Odeo that helped develop Twitter.

Some 5,000 people used TXTMob during the 2004 RNC to share timely information around the convention, according to this history by the Ruckus Society, a nonviolent direct action group that was involved in organizing protests at both the Republican and Democratic conventions that year. The first message to go out over the system read: "Aug 26 8:06PM Successful banner hang this morning at Plaza Hotel. See" If that isn't a tweet, I don't know what is. But this was two years before Twitter was loosed on the world.

During the RNC, TXTMob was used to share reports of other unfolding protests and marches, and give people real-time details like where to congregate, how different streets were moving, where the cops were, and the like. (Read "TXTMob: Text Messaging for Protest Swarms" by Hirsch and Henry for more details.) As the NYPD started making mass arrests, people used the tool to coordinate solidarity work for those jailed. The system was more of a hub-and-spoke model, where one primary person received, filtered and then sent out critical information, than the many-to-many model that we take for granted today. But as developers like to say, the "use case" for something like Twitter was well established by the TXTMob experience in NYC.

Nathan Freitas, who came on board with TXTMob for its use around the RNC (and now runs the Guardian Project, which is focused on building safe mobile tools for activists), told me,

"I think the idea of using SMS to organize, communicate, congregate and activate people had been in the air for a number years, though primarily outside of the US. Once people learned how to forward text messages to their entire address books or groups of friends at once, it was inevitably used to rally people together, whether for social or political aims. Services like TxtMob simply demonstrated how integrating that with the web could amplify the capability, connecting you to more than just the people you know directly, and allowing you to gather around topics or events."

He added, "Twitter's heritage is definitely tied to this breakthrough, as much as it is tied to other service predecessors such as Dodgeball or UPOC. What the work we did in 2004 showed however, is that people would find the ways to use these new tools to try to make real change happen in the world, and not just to 'tell[] people that the club he’s at is happening' (to quote @Jack [Dorsey]'s original pitch for Twitter)."

Henshaw-Plath provides the direct human connection from TxtMob to Twitter, as he went to work at Odeo, the start-up that turned into the incubator for Twitter, after helping on the RNC protests in 2004. "The idea of twitter came from a hackday project of Jack, Noah Glass, and Florain Webber," he wrote some time ago on Hacker News. "But they were all aware of TxtMob as we'd done a presentation and evaluation of TxtMob a few days earlier."

He emailed me yesterday that TxtMob couldn't have taken off in a vacuum. "TxtMob was created and used in tight coordination with protest groups. Without coordinating with, tech isn't useful." Indeed, technology itself is neutral; what matters is who is trying to use it and why. But as Henshaw-Plath noted in his earlier comment on Hacker News, "The problem with txtmob was the group creation process was always clunky. If you could solve that, make it easy to create groups and start participating, then it might still take off."

By the 2008 conventions, activists had shifted to using Twitter to help with real-time organizing of protests. Henshaw-Plath told me, "For 2008, we actually built a tool on top of Twitter, but the police raided the comms center and arrested everyone before the convention." An anti-war, antiBush activist going by the handle of @notq, Nathan Oyler, served as the central dispatcher of information flowing up from the streets--all while living 1,800 miles away in Tempe, Arizona--a story our Nancy Scola wrote up in glorious detail four years ago. Back then, Henshaw-Plath notes, access to Twitter's service was a lot looser than it is today. "We got all limits to the API lifted for the dispatch system that @notq hacked together. It was a mess of a drupal system, but I helped a bit out on it making sure it'd work well with the API and that he got support from within Twitter."

It took the NYPD four years to figure out what activists had been doing with TXTMob in 2004, and to then subpoena Tad Hirsch for the content of the messages sent over its servers. According to the New York Times, the city sought "all text messages sent via TXTmob during the convention, the date and time of the messages, information about people who sent and received messages, and lists of people who used the service." Hirsch fought the subpoena, arguing that some of the material no longer existed and the rest was protected and private speech. The city eventually withdrew the subpoena, says his lawyer David Rankin. His case was a harbinger of many more recent efforts by authorities, ranging from the NYPD to the British government, to clamp down on free social media in order to control dissent.

Now, everyone knows about the power of real-time networking, not just activists in the streets, but political insiders and law enforcement as well. (Hard-core street activists are more likely to be using for group coordination than Twitter, or other tools that are less likely to retain and potentially expose their data.)

And so, it's fair to ask, will the existence of a two-way open medium like Twitter, where hundreds of thousands or even millions of people are watching and commenting in real-time, actually alter the trajectory of the political conventions? Probably not, because these aren't unscripted live events like the TV "debates," where no one knows who is going to say what, and thus the argument over "who won" can be reshaped in real time.

At most, what we're going to experience as the conventions unfold these next two weeks is a frisson of freedom, a hint of what could be if America politics was actually open to mass participation. But as that happens, remember where it started: in the fertile minds of coders who dared to imagine how we could reboot democracy for the digital age.