The different faces of Twitter

On: October 4, 2009
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About Charlotte Hendriks
Now a Bachelor of Arts, Charlotte has mainly focused on new media throughout her academic career. At the University of Amsterdam she started the Media & Culture BA in 2006 and earned the degree mid 2009. Apart from studying New Media, she also focused on Art History, Philosophy and Science and Technology Studies. This year she is aiming to earn my Master Degree in New Media, also at the University of Amsterdam.


The enormous growth of the social networking site that is Twitter has many a person wondering. Suddenly every self-respecting website, newspaper, enterprise or person has a Twitter account, which enables Twitter users to follow. Even though the amount of press attention is through the roof and the hype is definitely worth looking at, what strikes me most about Twitter is the different ways in which people use it.

Twitter_256x256Before getting into this though, first needs to be defined what Twitter actually is and does. Basically, the website gives its users the ability of ‘microblogging’: as the term already suggests a denser version of blogging. A blog is “a web page that is made up of information about a particular subject, in which the newest information is always at the top of the page [= web log]” (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). The weblog is seen as one of the central features of the Web 2.0, making journalism more open since anyone can join, and more up to date, as the Internet does not need to deal with things like printing time. The microblog in its turn is even more up to date, since it costs less time to type a microblog message than it would take to write a normal blog. In his article on microblogging Vance Stevens notices that microblogging did not exist before Twitter came along and has since then been incorporated in other web applications as well. Twitter than has put microblogging on the map and into the everyday Internet use of many.

Twitter thus offers a service to microblog and send these microblog into the world using different platforms. One can for instance use the Twitter website, but also applications like Twitterific, Tweetdeck or Facebook in order to update. Messages can contain up to 140 characters, limiting the users ability to spread their thoughts, but increasing the speed behind the action.

A lot has been written about Twitter usage and the number of users registered on the website. Comscore reported in may 2009 a growth of 3000% in a year, to 17 million visitors from the United States alone. However, the question remains how many of those visitors actually become users and how many of those users update frequently. And to make it even more difficult, one also has to take into consideration that ‘using Twitter’ is something different for different users. In their article “Why we Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities”, Akshay Java, Tim Finin, Xiaodan Song and Belle Tseng divide four categories of the intentions of Twitter usage, which I found to be very clear and useful: daily chatter, conversations, sharing information and reporting news. The first category obviously covers the tweets about everyday events and occupations. Conversations are between users, where the Twitter interface is used as a chat box. In the third category tweets with for instance links in them are placed. When an Internet users stumbles upon an interesting website or applications, Twitter very often is the platform to share it with the world (according to the article 13% of all tweets fall under this category). Finally, news and events are a big part of the Twitter community, with a lot of current events first being reported via Twitter.

Twitter users can be one of three things, according to Java et al: he can be an information source (regular updates, many followers), a friend (ratio of followers and following more or less the same, with regular updates) or an information seeker (following a number of users, rare updates).

For every individual user, the Twitter experience then is something entirely different, for these three stereotypes are in now way absolute. It may however be the key to explaining why Twitter is such a success: if every user can determine for themselves what they want from the service, more people will fit the glove. And this notion of personalization is exactly what Web 2.0 is all about.


Java, Akshay et al. “Why we Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities” Joint 9th WEBKDD and 1st SNA-KDD Workshop ’07 , August 12, 2007

Stevens, Vance. “Trial by Twitter: The Rise and Slide of the Year’s Most Viral Microblogging Platform” TESL – vol 12 no 1, june 2008.

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