AmericanOpinion

Advance column

Twitter is revolutionising the world, much to the annoyance of its critics.

By Rory Medcalf

Foreign policy wonks in droves are turning to Twitter to make their ideas travel faster and further. In just a few years the technique has become so commonplace that established magazines such as Foreign Policy now annually publish guides to the top 100 twitterati—and these lists are of course hotly contested in social media the moment they appear.

But are we moving into an enlightened age of "I think therefore I tweet", or is it becoming too often a case of "tweet first, think later"?

From my own recent forays into the think-tank twitterverse, certain truths and tensions have become apparent.

The microblog is fantastically useful for the rapid spread of new commentary and analysis. Its critics miss the point when they assume that Twitter's 140-character discipline amounts to an intellectual straitjacket, dumbing down complexity and subtly.

Instead, it's a lever, a vehicle, a thoroughbred Trojan horse. Whatever your preferred metaphor, it is the ultimate tool to instantly connect the lone thinker with audiences old and new.

One way of doing this is to craft each tweet around a hyperlink to whatever form of online publication you are seeking to put in front of the reader: blog, news article, essay, report, video, podcast—even a good old-fashioned book.

That requires enticing readers with a pithy, provocative message. Twitterland is no country for nature's lawyers and bureaucrats. But toil and reputation remain essential. The aspiring policy wonk will tweet in vain if he or she has little original or sensible to say, or lacks existing research of substance to promote. (Of course, all tweeting is vanity of one sort or another; the truly humble need not apply.)

Yet the medium's most immediate impact for the professional interpreter of current affairs is the way it can connect with old media. Many mainstream journalists and editors, always time-poor, are becoming serious Twitter freaks.

Time and again in my own social media forays, I've discovered the media ripple-effect of a well-timed tweet. I've also found that Australia's Asian time zone is a real advantage in analysing breaking stories in this most dynamic region; by the time most of Europe and America is awake, the news is old.

When North Korea bombarded Yeonpyeong island last November, and I happened to be convening a security workshop in Seoul on, well, how or how not to deter Pyongyang, it took a single tweet about the surreal nature of my day to generate half-a-dozen international media interviews about Korean tensions.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, my early online speculation about the location of his sanctuary in a Pakistan garrison town picked up quick momentum—and a few hundred new followers—in India's fast-growing social media scene. (Of course, that's nothing on the microblogging legend Sohaib Athar, an Abbottabad resident whose inadvertent live-tweeting of the raid brought him more fame than he ever wanted, and an online following in the tens of thousands.)

While the then US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing in January, Asian social media networks erupted with rumours of a flight test of a Chinese stealth fighter. What happened next was a fascinating lesson in the agility and impact of social media, and the disadvantages faced by traditional news organisations and governments in handling fast-moving stories.

I chanced upon early rumours of the test, just minutes after it took place. An independent American security blogger was re-tweeting reports from Chinese, Taiwanese and Singaporean blogs and Twitter accounts. The first unverified, amateur photographs soon appeared (China has plenty of patriots who like to proudly post online their unauthorised snaps of secret military hardware) and, a few tweets later, were seen by thousands. I put up my own early assessments—that the reports of the flight test were credible, and that such an event was probably a deliberate People's Liberation Army snub both to Gates and China's civilian leadership. It took a few more hours before major news organisations were ready to report the story categorically. One hopes that Western intelligence agencies were ready to make a judgment faster than that.

Of course, speed is not everything: foreign policy experts in think-tanks are not strictly journalists or intelligence analysts. But social media is helping to blur the boundaries between these callings.

That is not always helpful. The contest for profile in the global think-tank bazaar can create the temptation for a timely opinion, at the expense of even trying to be right. And Twitter can be cripplingly addictive to those of an easily-distracted disposition: the ideal is to set aside a few short time slots each day to monitor and feed the beast.

According to a range of wonks I've consulted, Twitter is perhaps even more useful as a daily source and filter of information than as a promotional tool. For foreign policy professionals, Twitter is not so much replacing traditional media as becoming the smartest way to consume it.

Why read the world's great newspapers—or even consult their websites—when you can follow the Twitter feeds of their busiest, nosiest foreign correspondents, read what they read, watch their assessments take shape? Don't just take my word for it; plenty of younger and brighter wonks will tell you the same.

Yes, there's the danger of the echo chamber: if you choose to follow a largely like-minded crowd on Twitter, as in life, you will have your prejudices reinforced. Which is why I force myself to follow a motley and ever-shifting assembly, from China hawks to the Julian Assange cheer squad, from Hindu nationalists to brave Pakistan liberals, from Arab street democrats to the dullest of state propaganda, from soldiers to peaceniks, professors to precocious students, and, for my sins, the global updates from Australia's Foreign Minister and former prime minister, the ubiquitous Kevin Rudd. Still, it's the fellow wonks and journalists from whom I continue to learn the most.

Here are 10 of the best:

Nitin Pai: A young Singapore-based Indian, amateur commentator turned professional, editor of Pragati magazine and a founder of the virtual Takshashila Institution. He is one of a new wave of pragmatic Indian policy thinkers. Dynamic and provocative. @acorn

Andrew Erickson: China expert at the US Naval War College, combining original Chinese-language sources, balanced analysis and shamelessly regular use of social media. @andrewserickson

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Former senior State Department official, now Princeton University professor. Went from zero to 11,000 followers in a few months and, unusually for an eminent international relations scholar, is clearly enthusiastic about social media. @SlaughterAM

Blake Hounshell: Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, uses his Qatar time zone to excellent advantage in tracking global events for global audiences. His own selection of re-tweets and links is a priceless menu of the world's best current affairs commentary—most of the time. @blakehounshell

Joe Cirincione: Leading US nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament advocate and expert, president of the Ploughshares Fund. Best Twitter source on nuclear and arms-control issues, though Arms Control Wonk (whose editor Jeffrey Lewis is also on Twitter) is still the best blog in this space. @Cirincione

B. Raman: Former Indian senior intelligence official, now tweeting and blogging clear-eyed analysis of South Asian security. @SORBONNE75

Galrahn aka Raymond Pritchett: A tweeting star of Information Dissemination, the world's best maritime security blog. @Galrahn

Blogs of War: All things about US national security and the continuation of politics by other means. @blogsofwar

Mark Colvin: Intellectually omnivorous Australian current affairs radio helmsman and former foreign correspondent. @Colvinius

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt: The China and North Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. Intelligent, balanced commentary and links on the troubles surrounding China's rise and how China relates to conflict zones, with views from inside Beijing and out. @ska_kongshan

And you can follow Rory on twitter @Rory_Medcalf.