What’s happening, Twitter?
One of the latest trends on the World Wide Web is micro-blogging. A micro-blog is a platform for short text updates, usually not more than a sentence or two in length. The most famous micro-blog service is Twitter where the user can update a text containing no more than 140 characters. And there is no doubt that these short updates can tell a storie. One of the most well-known accounts is that of the so called Twitter revolution in Iran; but there are also less political stories being reported such as a mother tweeting during child birth.
Since the essential idea behind the micro-blog is that you have to express yourself in just a few words, it is possible to update a statement fast and often. You can write about what is happening exactly when it is happening. It is up to the user what they want to tweet about, but the question posed by Twitter is: What’s happening? And although not everyone interprets that as literally as the woman who tweeted while in labour, millions of tweets document what is going on in the world right now. According to Vin Crosbie this form of communicating represents something new in society. In his essay What is New Media?, he states that there are three communication media: the interpersonal media (one to one), mass media (one too many) and new media (many to many). The characteristic of new media are:
Individualized messages can simultaneously be delivered to an infinite number of people, and each of the people involved shares reciprocal control over that content
When you update a post on Twitter you communicate an individualized message to a (potentially) large audience, and the members of the audience in turn are not dependent on each other when or where they want to receive this message. Therefore, Twitter belongs in the category of new media.
Crosbie states that the new media are completely dependent on technology and he believes that future innovations will continue to inspire creation of entirely new concepts of forms and content. New media will never replace interpersonal media or mass media, but Crosbie believes that new media will reduce and limit the two other media of communicating. If we look at the way Twitter is being used as a completely new way of communicating, then what is being said is not the most important thing. Instead we can investigate the impact Twitter has on society beyond the effects of the content. As Marshall McLuhan so famously stated:
The “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human life. (p.8)
In September Evan Williams, co- founder of Twitter, wrote a post on the Twitter blog announcing that there is now more than 145 million registered users of Twitter. A high number indeed, even though it also includes inactive and spam accounts. To find out how Twitter is being used and what the effects are one must know more about the users. Many have asked the question how Twitter is affecting society overall, but it can be just as interesting to turn around the question and instead ask how Twitter is affecting the life of each user.
One can assume that there are at least two different groups of users. The term user refers in this case to those who have a Twitter account and update it regularly which does not including those who only follow Twitter with or without an account of their own. One group would be people, companies, organization or others who already are public figures and have followers in mass media. In this case Twitter is just an additional forum for communication to or with an existing audience. Examples of this could be broadcasting companies, political parties or politicians, and businesses. The other group would be private persons. For this group of users Twitter will be an addition to communicating in the interpersonal media.
Jim Macnamara raises some interesting questions in his book The 21st century media (r)evolution: emergent communication practices. How do new media impact our construction of identity? Michel Foucault is often referenced when the topic about identity comes up. He believed that identity is created through communication and interaction with others. Your identity is not predetermined, but rather something that can be constructed and reconstructed through your life. If the modes of communication change how will this affect our identity? It is not only our self image that is dependent on discourse, also our view of others are based on interaction. How is our physical community being affected by less face-to-face interaction and more mediated communication? Even though one can observe immediate changes in peoples everyday life caused by communicating with the help of the internet, it is also a fact that lasting and essential change do not happen overnight. As Jim Macnamara writes
”…changes need to be studied longitudinally, as emergent properties and significant effects usually cannot be identified in snapshots taken in small intervals in space and time.” (p.139)
Researching new media can be a challenge as new trends and innovations seem to be right around the corner. Twitter is still here today, but who knows what will happen tomorrow?
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964
Crosbie, Vin. What is New Media? (1998) Available at http://www.sociology.org.uk
Macnamara, Jim. The 21st century media (r)evolution: emergent communication practices. New York: Peter Lang Publishing (2010)v