Twitter used to be my Boyfriend

On: September 12, 2009
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About Hannah Biemold
Artist and blogger who wrote a novel last year in the NaNoWriMo program (National November Writing Month). The book, called 'In het hooi', has been published by Uitgeverij Vuurpapier in june 2010. Hannah finished the master New Media program in 2009 at the University of Amsterdam. She wrote a master thesis on Twitter implications (twesis). Besides this, Hannah is trying to visualize ideas about the world through conceptual art, she is looking for confrontation with these borders and wants to know of they're stretchable.


The most commonly heard prejudice about Twitter is that users continuously write about what they are doing and tweets are nonsense, why would anyone care what any other user is doing? The truth is, users write about much more than what they are literally doing, they have conversations or practice art. Besides the content of tweets there is a social importance in collections of tweets, together they have a meaning which together with the simplicity of Twitter gives this medium a special place within other social media. The usefulness or possibilities in Twitter stems from the variety of platforms, websites, devices and programs that generate messages that are being sent to Twitter itself and then simultaneously and in real-time distributed to several (other) websites, devices and clients. Basically Twitter is a microblogging platform and routing service and a powerful communication tool that links together these platforms. Only people who follow you can read what you have to say, so in fact tweets are only read very selectively, especially with applications like TweetDeck or Twalala, both using a filtering mechanism against unwanted noise.

Besides updates on what users are doing or thinking, Twitter can be used to convey what people are reading, watching or listening to and is therefore interesting for third parties, like companies. This way, “Twitter is more and more becoming a key player in the attention economy, distributing comments about what its users are paying attention to, what they have opinions about, and what they have expertise in” (Milstein 2008:3). So what are the emerging effects of Twitter’s impact on the communication landscape and implications of these effects on Twitter?

My research seeks to understand what Twitter is, to explore its relations to older technologies and its uses. No one is exactly sure what Twitter is and what it can do, during my research a lot has happened on Twitter and because of Twitter in the world. To what extent is Twitter a remediation of older technologies (does this new medium, in its novel period incorporates or adapts previously existing media) (Lister, Martin 2003: 390)?

The huge number of external applications impressed me and I wanted to know why there are so many of them. Therefore I decided to do a participatory observation by using some of these applications and blogging about them. These blogs can be found on the domain I registered for this research; Twesis is a linguistic blend of the words ‘Twitter’ and ‘thesis’. The connection between Twitter and these applications are part of a convergence culture, as Henry Jenkins would put it, there is a “flow of content across multiple media platforms, the coorporation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences” (Jenkins, Henry 2006: 2).

Another aspect I am interested in is spam on Twitter, or its misuse. Indeed each new tool or communications technology seems to invite criminal behaviour and privacy issues. Because the basis of Twitter is to follow and to be followed, the issue of privacy is implicitly raised and my research examines how Twitter and surveillance are intertwined. Due to the limitation of 140 characters users are obligated to formulate their ideas or thoughts very briefly and thus use language in a different manner. They could use aphorisms, epigrams, or quotes. Following William Burrough’s notion that “all writing is in fact cut ups” , tweets are cut-ups of lives of individuals (Burroughs 2003: 90). Besides language, users came up with features to escape the limitation of 140 characters and I shall formulate an overview of those.

Twitter reminds me of notes on a fridge door but then publicly displayed for all to see (although one can have a private account). Is this phenomenon of following, a remediation of glancing at other peoples fridge or kitchen table? Could I compare it to some kind of bulletin board in a public place like a supermarket or market square? Like early cinema was based on existing theatrical conventions and computer games remediate cinema, or the website remediates the magazine. The term remediation was originally coined by Marshall McLuhan but more recently applied by Bolter and Grusin. The same cannot be applied to Twitter, which cannot be compared to a simple text message like an SMS, or written notes left around. This service can be transferred to blogs and RSS feeds and ‘hashtags’ make it possible to specify these RSS feeds and thus create groups. Corporations are starting to discover the service’s ability to facilitate business communications and others use it for small updates to their website newspapers or blogs. If there is no previous medium for Twitter, does the term remediation fit? Does another theory apply, or perhaps a metaphor? What would happen if my Apple computer could read tweets out loud or a user reads the tweets to the computer and it will post everything onto the web? There are probably applications which can read tweets out loud, and some people on television have already done projects based on Twitter by shouting tweets through a megaphone.

Though Twitter is not an old service, the practice of microblogging is much older than Internet itself. I already mentioned briefly the notes or yellow post-it on the fridge or kitchen table, left by a friend, lover, roommate or relative. Before this, people were sending messages through Morse code or on a piece of paper written in ink and on Twitter there is a possibility to tweet in Morse. But these all miss the advantages of features and interactivity.

Twitter users want to repeat, participate, and share feelings and opinions, be socially important, Twitter fills this need to communicate, to join in, like when Michael Jackson died, and it shut down Twitter because there were so many tweets about it. Also whether or not the reports were correct, Twitter had a big role to increase the media hype and public awareness of issues around the Iran elections, they did delay the planned maintenance in June 2009 so the news stream would not be interrupted. Although Twitter is very popular in the media in the first half of 2009 I do not think this had a big influence on getting more users, at least not in the Netherlands. Twitter could be superseded by another message service or social network site or it could be a part of a new way of communication or perceiving the world.

Burroughs, William S. ‘The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin.’ in: Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort. The New Media Reader. London: MIT Press, 2003: 89-91.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press, New York and London: 2006.

Lister, Martin. et. al. New Media: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, New York and London: 2003.

Milstein, Sarah. et. al. ‘Twitter and the Micro-Messaging Revolution: Communication, Connections, and Immediacy-140 Characters at a Time’. 2008.

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