Twitter elections 2008: a landscape of thoughts

On: October 12, 2008
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About Heleen Kerkman
After finishing my BA in Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam I recently started the Ma New Media.


The popular micro-blogging service of Twitter offers its users the possibility to update their online profiles with up to 140 characters at a time. These updates emerge on their profiles so they can be read by other users and appear on the home pages of users that optioned to ‘follow’ that particular member of Twitter. While initially the posting of updates were meant to give an answer to the Twitter-question what are you doing?, the posts that users update these days actually serve several purposes. In Why we Twitter, Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities* four main reasons for people to post on Twitter are named. The main intention of updating is indeed to share and find out what people are actually doing. Through the use of the @ signal, a conversation to a certain user can be signaled and the updates start to take the form of a conversation. For example:

RandymH @wendelldotme But Palin lost the pet owners & animal lovers with her “hunting” from airplanes about a minute ago

Two other user-intentions mentioned in the article are the sharing of information, such as URLs and the reporting of news or updating comments about current news and events. This last user intention of commenting on events and news is especially interesting since it gives a new dimension to the initial purpose of twitter as stated on the site, namely: ‘Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?’

The question what are you doing is transformed by the users to the question what is your opinion? New twitter groups are formed to share these thoughts with more than friend, family or co-workers but as a more broad platform to share thoughts and ideas on a certain topic. In election 2008, twitter updates are filtered to create ‘a new source for gathering public opinion about the election and a new way for you to share your thoughts.’ This political engagement in twitter can be seen in a more broad development of the web as a public space for sharing thoughts on political issues. According to a study by the Pew Research centre, 40 percent of all Americans have used the internet to gather information on the ongoing campaign and 19 percent uses the web to engage politically once a week. While the users of Twitter are often updating more than once a week and therefore differ from the users named in this study, the Pew Research does show an trend in using the internet as a way to engage politically. In the election 2008 debate on Twitter, the main use of Twitter is combined with this trend of engaging politically online. Due to the more immediate form of interaction of Twitter – updates are filtered for election 2008 every minute-  and the fact that users can respond to each other using the @-signal, Twitter is sometimes seen as a sort of chatroom. Although this comparison is tempting and some replies to certain are indeed being made, most updates just take the form of a though or an opinion on the topic. The amount of updates is also a lot and the election 2008 page only contains the latest updates which would make true interaction impossible on this forum.  Some examples of updates are:

ZanP Will Obama help us become Oil INDEPENDANT?? NO!

Wickus Been a busy week, up at 5 am this morning. Trying to catch up on all the Obama campaign news and plan the week ahead

velvethammer If Obama & his supporters were so confident, why evoke racism and deal

from the bottom of the deck by playing the race card at every turn?

peggyjeanlouis Taking an opportunity to have some IHOP before I leave the Quad Cities. Wonder if McCain ate here yesterday?

These comments show the combination of the posting of thoughts, opinions but also still updates on what people are doing, such as ‘trying to catch up on all the Obama campaign news…’

While the updates on the Twitter election 2008 only contain short (140 characters long) thoughts of individuals, these short notes offer a new interesting way of discovering the discourse around a topic. Twitter and other micro-blogging media have been said to create a social landscape of a group of people: ‘They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.’ The power of the short updates on Twitter is that they are cumulative; they all add up to create an overall view on someone’s actions, ideas and whereabouts. This can be said about the election 2008 Twitter as well; the short comments may not provide an in-depth inside into a user’s option on the elections such a normal blog would do. But these engaged micro-blogs offer something of maybe even more value; they provide the reader of this blog with an overall view on the most important thoughts, opinions and considerations on this topic. The combination of the micro-blog and the more politically engaged use of the web such as in Twitter’s election 2008 provides the researcher with a whole landscape of ongoing discussions and could therefore become an important tool in research around these topics such as the elections. While politically engaged blogs indeed offer an interesting view on current debates, they cannot offer the landscape of thoughts that micro-blogging forums such as Twitter election 2008 offer. In discovering the public discourse about the ongoing elections, Twitter election 2008 offers a whole landscape of ideas and thoughts instead of just one opinion as in any opinionated article or blog.


Why we Twitter, Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities

Pew Research study

Wired: Clive Thompson on how Twitter creates a social sixth sense

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