"Twitter is the people's tool, the tool of the ordinary people, people who have no other resources," Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei said at the Paley Center for Media in New York Monday night, after challenging Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to make Twitter's web interface available in Chinese.
Speaking on a panel he referred to as a "blind date" with Dorsey, Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb, and Emily Parker of the Asia Society -- Ai Weiwei pressed Dorsey for a commitment to open Twitter to Chinese language translators, saying: "I need a clear answer, yes or no."
Dorsey, who was participating via screen from San Francisco, clearly felt the pressure, but cautioned that, while Twitter's goal was "end to end translation in every language," it would take time.
"The Chinese people think you are some kind of god," Ai Weiwei told Dorsey. "You created a possibility for people in this very dark room to see a ray of light... to freely give their opinion." If Twitter were to create a Chinese language interface, he suggested, Dorsey would become "one of the most important heroes in Chinese political development."
Saying he spent a minimum of 8 hours a day on Twitter, Ai Weiwei said that Twitter was well suited to a language where each character is an entire word. "With 140 characters in Chinese you really can write a novel," he quipped.
Ai Weiwei, who sustained a serious head injury after he was beaten by police while attempting to testify at a colleague's trial, made it clear that Twitter was a lifeline for Chinese activists eager to get their message out to the world. Access is limited to approximately 50,000 people currently, however, due to both a strong firewall and to the need to register in English.
On a day when the American Twitter stream was full of Foursquare check-ins from BBQ parties at the SxSW Conference and the news that Kate Winslet was separating from her husband, it was important to be reminded that, in many countries, Twitter -- like IRC before it -- plays a serious role in facilitating freedom of speech.
Ai Weiwei described the disappointment Chinese activists felt during Barack Obama's recent trip to China, not only about his avoidance of Human Rights issues, but also because he made a point of saying that he had never used Twitter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, drew praise however, for her strong stance on Internet Freedom.
Though Ai Weiwei did not walk away from the panel with a clear commitment or timeline from Dorsey about when the Twitter interface would be available in Chinese, the discussion did end on a positive note. Dorsey said he was now following Ai Weiwei on Twitter and that he'd be Direct Messaging him soon.
One fifth of the world will be waiting to hear exactly what that DM says.
Follow Catherine Ventura on Twitter: www.twitter.com/catherinventura