Twitter: Exposing the Idols

On: October 8, 2009
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About Rutger van den Berg
Rutger is a 23 year old New Media student living in Amsterdam. In March of 2009 he graduated in communication science at the University of Amsterdam, During his master he specialized in Popular Culture & Media Entertainment. Currently He's deepening his knowledge of New Media, studying for his second masters degree at the University of Amsterdam


Twitter is a perfect tool for getting an insight in peoples daily lives. It encourages the following of public figures as well as “ordinary people”, who might be interesting to you. Besides the role of a follower, you also get the possibility to share your own daily life with the rest of the world. This online exposure marks twitter as a true online identity constructor. Your twitter identity is not only defined by what you tweet but also by who you follow. In this blog post I want to focus on what twitter could mean in the case of role models. Lots of celebrities and other kinds of public figures put their lives on twitter, open to see and follow for everyone. That a lot of people actually want to follow the lives of public figures on twitter was proven last April when Ashton Kutcher beat CNN breaking news in a battle to acquire one million followers on twitter[1].  When you look at the twitter statistics to see who’s got the most followers, you will see that eight out of the top ten are public figures. This proofs the public figures popularity, but what does it mean on the subject of public role models?

A role model can be defined as a cognitive construction, based on the attributes of a person in a social role, to whom an individual thinks to be equal and desires to increase this equality by striving for those same attributes[2].The term “role model” is derived from two theoretical concepts”

–         The concept of role and the urge of individuals to identify with people in important social roles

–         The concept of modelling, the psychological matching of cognitive skills and patterns of behaviour between a person and an observing individual

The first concept is based on the role identification theories, which presumes that individuals are attracted to people they consider equal in terms of attitude, behaviour and/or goals, or desire the same status as these people. The individual is motivated to increase equality through observation and/or imitation. The second concept is based on the social learning theory, which presumes that individuals look at models because it is helpful for acquiring new skills, tasks and norms. The identification theories emphasizes on the inspirational and self – defining aspects of role models, where the social learning theory focuses more on the learning process[2].

It could be discussed whether it is possible for an individual to consider a so called public person, a person often portrayed in the media, as a role model, because for a lot of people, these public figures only exist in the media. They are not close enough to really get to know them. Because of this distance it could be hard to identify with them or to match their skills and behaviour, which are criteria for considering someone as a role model. Still I think it is possible to have a public figure as a role model. Giddens[3] argues that the search for our own identity is a feature of our modern western society. He claims that the modern individual is constantly reflecting on him/herself to see what he/she has to change to reach the desired identity. People are constantly working on the development of their own identity. The identity develops through the choices the individual makes. These choices will eventually lead to a lifestyle, which determines the identity. The presence of role models is an important factor in the choice of a lifestyle. people use role models to develop their identity. Within the modern individual there’s a need for role models.

The uses & gratification approach claims that peoples media use depends on their needs. People use the media to fulfil their needs. They are selective in the messages they receive. They only give attention to those that match their needs. Because role models are considered a need in the search for identity, I argue people select those messages within the media which could help them find a role model. According to Fiske[4] the meaning of the message a person decides to receive depends on the position of the receiver regarding the subject of the message at the moment of receiving. The receiver determines the way the message is interpreted. This means a media message concerning a public figure could be interpreted by the receiver in a way that fits his or her needs in the search for a role model. This subjective interpretation makes it easier for a person to find a desired identity in a public figure and to identify with that public figure. A requirement for being able to identify with a public figure, and to mention this public figure as a role model is a sufficient amount of media exposure of that figure. There must be enough media exposure of the public figure to satisfy the needs of the identifying person. The mass media of course are very present in western societies, supplying enormous amounts of information about the lives of public figures, so it looks like the needs for information about possible public role models can easily be fulfilled. On the other hand, a lot of this information is second hand information, created by others than the actual public figure and thereby not a true insight in the life and the mind of the public figure. This could be considered a problem when regarding public figures as possible role models. The rise of Twitter is a very interesting phenomenon when thinking about this. On twitter people can actually read what the public figure thinks about on a daily basis. Twitter can give you an insight about what’s on the mind of a public figure. This is very useful for a person who considers a public figure as his or her role model. When trying to identify with and trying to become more equal through matching of skills and behaviour Twitter looks like a very helpful device for acquiring the wanted information. More than any other information source Twitter provides first hand information. Only a personal blog could be considered as personal as Twitter, but people tend to put their spontaneous thoughts on twitter before they process them in an extensive blog post. Besides that there’s the possibility to read both the personal blog and the tweets of a public person so twitter simply provides extra information instead of creating a conflict between different sources of information. Twitter’s offering of up to date first hand personal information about public figures seems to increase the possibility of having a public figure as a role model.


[2] Gibson, D (2004) Role models in career development: New directions for theory and research. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 65 134 -156

[3] Giddens, A (1991) Modernity and self identity; Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity press

[4] Fiske, J.(1987) Television Culture. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.

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