The significance of Twitter

On: October 8, 2009
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About Kimberley Spreeuwenberg
Currently I am a Master student of New Media at the UvA. In 2007 I graduated in Graphic Design at ArtEZ, Arnhem. During the study at ArtEZ I was introduced to some ‘grande’ theorists, like McLuhan and Manovich. After working as a graphic designer for one year I decided to expand my knowledge of the media I use as a professional designer and the way these media influence society. My interests in media are very broad, but I am especially focused on Internet and Internet culture. At this time I still work as a graphic designer. In my assignments I combine low and high technology tools (analogue and digital techniques). Visit my site!


Since its start in 2006 people have speculated about the significance of Twitter. Twitter has often been criticized for it’s lack of content, but it is also praised for the empowering possibilities it offers us. I question both these perspectives and propose to understand Twitter, not just as another tool that can be critiqued on the basis of it’s usefulness, but as a communication-tool that can be understood as a reflection of our current society.

Positive and negative views
The negative view on Twitters possibilities is well illustrated in the next quote from Wired: ‘[Twitter] might seem like blogging taken to a supremely banal extreme. Productivity guru Tim Ferriss calls Twitter “pointless email on steroids.” One Silicon Valley businessman I met complained that his staff had become Twitter-obsessed. “You can’t say anything in such a short message,” he said, baffled. “So why do it at all?” [1] Another example of Twitter’s lack of content comes forward in Ellen de Bruin’s comparison to the first season of Big Brother, ‘nothing happened but still you wanted to watch’. [2] Twitter is portrayed as a meaningless and useless activity. Something that has nothing to add to the communicative tools that already exist.

There are also people who see the usefulness of Twitter. Twitter is for instance portrayed as a new super fast news medium that can get round the traditional mainstream media. Even Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, explains how the development of summize, a search engine that was built by a third party, gives users this possibility. ‘They tapped in to the fact that if you have millions of people around the world talking about what they are doing and what is happening around them you have an incredible resource to find out what is happening on any topic or event while its going on. This really changed how we perceive twitter’. An example of this is the use of Twitter at the Schiphol airplane crash on the 7th of March 2009. It was said that the first reports of this crash were found on Twitter. [3]

On the website of Twitter it’s function is described as follows: ‘Because even basic updates are meaningful to family members, friends, or colleagues — especially when they’re timely’. In a short demonstration video, ‘Twitter in plain English’, that used to be on their website it is explained how you can use Twitter and why it is significant. They state that through Twitter you get to know the everyday things of someone’s day to day life that you can not get to know through email or blog. Through Twitter you get to know ‘the real world’. It makes us feel connected and part of each others lives.

The flow of Twitter
In these different views on the significance of Twitter people mainly look at the content of the short messages and the possibilities of Twitter as a new way to connect and inform us. I question if these aspects are the essence of what makes Twitter worthwhile. The creators of Twitter themselves point out that it is not so much about the content of the unique tweets, but about keeping each-other posted in just a few words of your daily activities and interests. Ardent Twitterers argue that, although most individual tweets say very little, the Twitter magic comes from following people over time, developing a sense of who they really are and knowing – at nearly any moment – what they are doing and how they feel about it. [4] In my opinion it is this fluidity and massive flow of short (insignificant) tweets in itself what makes Twitter worthwhile and special for our current society.

As Franco Berardi points out in his Post-Futurist Manifesto “Our society is still driven by an insatiable hunger for speed, the spread of globalization and the revolution of information and communication technologies have unmistakably led to a new temporal dynamics, emphasizing the increasing importance of connectivity and flexibility. The tyranny of clock time has given way to a complex web of diverging rhythms, cycles and tempos, which stimulate the temporal imagination as never before.” [5]

The characteristics of our society he describes can be recognized in Twitter. Tweets are not designed to be followed in a chronological way. The personal tweets of the persons you follow come together on your home page and form one flow of tweets. All with their own rhythms, cycles and tempos. There is no real first or last tweet. Twitter also provides us a way to stay hyper connected in a hyper flexible way. Writing tweets is not limited to your desktop, but can also be send with SMS on your cellphone.

Secondary oral culture
If you look at our society from this point of view Twitter seems to be the perfect tool for communication. Another concept that explains why Twitter can be seen as significant for our society is Walter Ong’s concept of secondary orality. He claims that communication technologies, like writing and print, determine how we think and cope with the world around us. [6]

Ong explains that our time, the twenty first century, is characterized by a transition from a literacy culture – that was oriented on linearity – towards a secondary oral culture, that is non-lineaire oriented due to the use of computers and digital media. [7] Twitter gives the user the possibility to cope with data on a more associative, non-lineair and non-hierarchical manner. All the tweets of the people you follow are mixed together on the home page of your Twitter account. And many tweets contain links to other websites to extend the content of a tweet.

With secondary oral culture Ong refers to the return of a culture that is directed towards speech, a primary oral culture. In a primary oral culture people did not have the possibility of writing thoughts down. It was of great importance that thoughts were structured in such a way that you could recount them. You had to think through something in formulaic, patterned, mnemonic terms to be able to recover the thought. [7] It is argued that this formulaic way of formulating thoughts is also one of the characteristics of Twitter.

“Twitter isn’t necessarily turning us into twits. That’s because brevity doesn’t equal stupidity. Both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche might have been challenged by Twitter’s aphoristic culture. The next media stars will be masters of intellectual brevity. Be famous in 140 characters. That may not generate a digital Tolstoy – but it will force all of us to get our point quickly.” [8]

Keen points out that Tweets are written in an aphoristic style. “Aphorism is a term used to describe a principle expressed tersely in a few telling words or any general truth conveyed in a short and pithy sentence, in such a way that when once heard it is unlikely to pass from the memory.” [9] Predating the written word, aphorisms allowed people to carry around accumulated wisdom in their heads. They resemble the description of the formulaic way that thoughts were formulated in an oral culture. This comparison to aphorisms also points out that even if messages are short they can still contain a lot of knowledge. “Twitter does not necessarily turn us into twits”.

Another comparison I see between secondary orality, as described by Ong, and Twitter is that they both do not present the written as facts. Print has a feeling of closure to it, what is written is a fact, it is completed. Written statements seem self-contained, they don’t refer to anything outside of themselves. They do not contain any possibilities of change.

“Catechisms and textbooks presented ‘facts’ or their equivalents: memorizable, flat statements that told straightforwardly and inclusively how matters stood in a given field. By contrast, the memorable statements of oral cultures and of residually oral manuscript cultures tended to be of a proverbial sort, presenting not ‘facts’ but rather reflections, often a gnomic kind, inviting further reflection by the paradoxes they involved.” [7]

Tweets are written, but because you have the possibility to add, change or delete content at any given moment, they stay open and fluid. Twitter is an ongoing process that cannot be captured, the content is not self-contained. The stories in Twitter rise from the whole flow of tweets and to make any sense these tweets have to stay in context. “Twitter is a most “ahistorical medium”. While tweets can be technically stored for indefinite time like Email or Blog entries, there is often not much reason to do so, because when they are read months or years afterwards, their meaning is hard to assess as the situational context of their origin can no longer be reconstructed.” [10]
This fluid and “not self-contained” aspect of Twitter refers to Franco Berardi Post-Futurist Manifesto. “The tyranny of clock time has given way to a complex web of diverging rhythms, cycles and tempos.”

It is easy to dismiss the importance of Twitter due to a lack of content. Or to see it as another possibility to dismiss the traditional news media. I think the most interesting thing about Twitter is that it can be seen as a reflection of the way we organize and understand the world in a time where internet and computers are the dominant tools for communication. If you look at Twitter from this point of view you can see that a short messages can contain great wisdom. You could even state that it is a more “natural” way of communication.

[2] Bruin, Ellen de: ‘Twitter. De nieuwe verslaving.’ nrc – next, 19 maart 2009: p. 4, kolom 5 en p. 5, kolom 2)
[5] & for the manifest
[6] ‘Rhizomatic cyborgs. Hypertextual considerations in a posthuman age.’ Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research, jrg. 2, nr. 1 (2004): p. 3-15.
[7] Orality and literacy. The technologizing of the word. New York, London: Methuen, 1982.

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