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US: Iran takes centre stage at Twitter conference

By Chris Lefkow
18 Jun 2009 5:43 PM

NEW YORK, June 18 AFP - Some members of the audience in the darkened New York theatre had paid nearly $US1,200 ($A1,515) for their seats.

But they weren't settling in to watch a hit Broadway musical.

The show they were attending was a conference about Twitter.

And almost as if on cue, the micro-blogging service was making headlines around the world because of its use as a primary communications tool by protesters in Iran angered by the results of their presidential election.

That came as little surprise to the gathering of devoted Twitter followers at the 140 Characters Conference -- a reference to the number of keystrokes allowed in the real-time Twitter messages known as "tweets."

"If ever there was a time that Twitter mattered it was this past weekend in Iran," said web entrepreneur Jeff Pulver, organiser of the two days of Twitter panel discussions and networking that ended on Wednesday.

Among those attending or addressing the gathering were venture capitalist investors in Twitter, programmers who have designed some of the hundreds of applications surrounding the two-year-old service, technology bloggers and representatives of both "new" and "old" media.

Twitter itself may not yet be profitable but the conference program was heavily laced with advice on "social media strategy" for companies and how to use the messaging service as a marketing and advertising device.

"I'm hesitant to call Twitter a marketing tool for us but of course it is," said Brook Lundy, the co-founder of Someecards, a web company that makes free electronic greeting cards.

Corporate use of Twitter was not the only focus, however, and among those making presentations was a diplomat from the Israeli consulate in New York who explained how Israel is using Twitter to burnish its image abroad.

The web-savvy Obama administration was also on the stage, represented by a State Department official who shared his thoughts on "digital diplomacy."

"We've been trying, some of us in the Department, to move forward in social media, really one small step at a time," said Michael Jay Friedman. "There are many of us who at least like to think that we 'get it.'

"We'll continue pushing the envelope with the understanding that my envelope is a bit tighter than your envelope," he told the audience.

Twitter's use as a newsgathering tool was examined during a fiery panel discussion featuring CNN anchor Rick Sanchez, who fended off accusations that Twitter had done a better job covering the protests in Iran than his network.

"It's a compliment that everyone looked to us at CNN," Sanchez said. "At no time did we drop the ball in covering the story itself."

Other topics for discussion included the use of Twitter in the music, sports and book publishing industries and there was even a panel titled "Exploring the Way Moms Use Twitter."

Haitian-American musician and Twitter devotee Wyclef Jean, formerly of The Fugees, provided the star power, appearing on stage in a bright green shirt, the colour of Iran.

"I have a couple of friends from Iran," Jean said, adding that they told him to "make sure you wear green and show your support for us."

"So this is for the people of Iran," said Jean, whose Twitter feed @wyclef has nearly 300,000 followers.

One of the final panelists, Dean Landsman, who heads a media, marketing and communications firm, summed up the general feeling of most of the participants after two days of non-stop talk about Twitter.

"Twitter is going everywhere," he said. "Twitter is part of the online ecosystem."