Berkshire's Twitter king sees untapped potential of the Internet


Ethan Zuckerman sees the world in 140 characters. From the comfort of his living room couch, the director for MIT's Center for Civic Media is able to serendipitously scroll through his Twitter feed and read about the revolt in Bahrain, genocide trials in Guatemala, and sectarian clashes in central Myanmar.

Online tools have made it simple to learn about the world, even from his rural Lanesborough home.

"If we learn how to use the Internet correctly, it could be the most powerful tool we've ever known for increasing international connection and understanding," Zuckerman says.

Zuckerman is a principal research scientist with MIT studying the use of new media and he's started multiple ventures to bridge understanding between countries. He is one of the most popular Twitter users in Berkshire County with 26,762 followers, according to Twitaholic.

Those in Berkshire County who don't follow him on Twitter, though, are more likely to know him as a founding member of the early 1990s Internet startup Tripod, which allowed one to build a free Web page. Tripod would go on to be bought by Lycos.

For the last four years though, Zuckerman's been collecting research on his upcoming book, "Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connections," which will be released in June.

The book examines why the Internet failed to bring the world together as some anticipated.

Zuckerman's book research has shown that the U.S. and Britain, for example, are beneficiaries of a significant amount of media attention, while a significant portion of the world goes unacknowledged.

"The book is about [how] in the 1990s we talked about ideas to connect the world and make us all neighbors, and it would connect countries and other cultures and religions without barriers," Zuckerman said. "That has turned out not to be true, and it's worth looking at why it's turned out not to be true."

Inequalities in media attention first became evident to Zuckerman when he was in Ghana in 2000. He noticed U.S. newspapers were ignoring the emergence of stable democracies on the continent.

Twitter is a tool that can create better understand about the world for Zuckerman, although he knows most people don't use it in that way.

"Our attentions tend to be drawn to the people we already know and care about. We rarely take advantage of the powers the Internet gives us to connect with the unfamiliar and foreign."

Zuckerman follows more than 1,000 people, although he'd like to follow fewer, if only because this gives him a chance to concentrate and establish a Twitter user's context: "Who is this person? What do I think they are knowledgeable about? And how seriously I should take this and what are the biases?"

He has an emphasis on finding "bridge figures" who tweet about what he doesn't know.

His wife, Rachel Barenblat, who serves as the rabbi at the Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, said she was encouraged to start blogging by her husband when she expressed an interest in learning more about Judaism and other religions. Her blog, "The Velveteen Rabbi" (named by Time magazine as one of the top 25 blogs in 2008), would lead her to explore her culture in a broad way.

Through Twitter and new media, Barenblat said she's explored religions that bare similarities but also differences from what she knows.

"There is something wonderful and broadening seeing the similarities from two paths from the outset that look different," Barenblat said

Across the globe, Zuckerman said the Internet is being used in exciting ways. He described one Web developer who used a website called Mashada to overcome the fractious tribal culture in Kenya. In Africa, social media has been used to pressure companies to act in a more transparent matter, Zuckerman said.

There's a world of activity that routinely goes unnoticed.

"If we feel we don't know enough about China, there are ways that we can use the Internet to have a much richer and fuller understanding of what's going on there."

Follow Zuckerman @EthanZ and read his blog.

To reach John Sakata:,
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @jsakata.


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