Twitter as Discourse

On: October 17, 2008
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About Guido van Diepen
Guido van Diepen is a freelance journalist and cultural anthropologist specialized in new media. He did empirical research in Uganda on internet usage. He is interested in the effects of new media practices on culture, focusing on the idea that different cultures react differently to - and make different uses of - new media.


On a first encounter with twitter, one may understandably think: ‘what are these twittering twats tweeting about!’ The twats bother each other constantly with utterances too short to be meaningful. A common reply is: Just try it for yourself!

Twitter, a micro blogging platform, is not about individuals expressing their personalities or giving ground breaking analyses. Twitter is about sharing everyday thoughts over a  period of time. These thoughts, written down in one or two sentences, are not interesting until you see them in the greater context, which is created over time. The attraction here does not lie in the content of these messages, but it’s the creative complement or personal touch to the already-going-on narrative that is the interesting and fun part. The story is to be part of the story.

In order to understand Twitter it might be helpful to use the concept of discourse. The Latin word ‘discursus’, where the term (discourse) originated from, literally means ‘running from and to’. Looking at the the speedy interactive character of Twitter and the meaning today of discourse as ‘an ongoing debate with social boundaries of accepted speech’, the concept seems to be a fruitful way of understanding this phenomenon.

According to Grosz&Sidner (1986) discourse has three interacting components: the first is linguistic, the second is intentional and the third is attentional. The linguistic component is the structure of the actual sequence of utterances in the discourse. Since the text-messages on Twitter are very short, the linguistic expressions will have to consist of clear keywords that should be repeated once in a while to follow a narrative and to be actually ‘heard’. Therefore it is relatively easy to pick up and engage in different discourses on Twitter. The first step is easily made.

Narrative coherence is partly achieved by intention, the structure of purposes. These purposes can be found in the linguistic segments or in the relationships between those segments. Individual intentions of discourse-participation however, can be found only if a certain amount of time has been taken. Time is therefore a crucial factor in Twitter(ing). The intention of a discourse as a whole on the contrary can be found very easily. For example by looking at the linguistics on ‘election2008’ it is easy to note that the intention here is for people to express their political opinions and exert a certain political influence. The other side of this overview, is the ease with which companies or political leaders can perceive these pointers and get to know how to trigger the mass. So we also have to keep in mind the intention of mister Big Brother.

Finally, the attentional component is part of the discourse itself. It is an abstraction of the participant’s focus of their attention as their discourse unfolds. In Twitter the participants have to follow the discussion in order to make a relevant connection. The more people participate and share their thoughts, the more it is necessary to identify relevant discourse segments. The aspect of ‘following’ then, is an important part of the dynamics of Twitter. More focus means more fun.

To stay in one’s room away from the place where the party is given…is to stay away from where reality is performed.
(Goffman 1975: 35)

Step by step this discursive organism engages its participants in Tweeting. Because no deep analyses are given but quick thoughts on what’s happening a dynamic surface of discourse is created in which we can participate and live it, or look at and hate it.

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