Fail Whale: Studying Discourses by Means of Twitter

On: October 11, 2010
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About Mareline Heijman
Prior to the master New Media, I've completed the ba Media & Cultuur at the University of Amsterdam. Interests: virtual reality, identity, future, creation, the way new media shapes us.


It’s a bit difficult to study Twitter when you’re not on it. Hence I log in with the user account I’ve created a while ago, 18 months ago to be exact. Again, I don’t really get the excitement. Despite the airy web 2.0 graphics interface, the service feels rather claustrophobic, enclosed. Twitter seems at first nothing more than a list of routine one-liners and links. Or is it? How do people use this form of microblogging?

From blogs to microblogs: a definition

Microblogging is definitely not the same as blogging but in the tiniest form. It’s indeed alike in that people are able to broadcast their subjective view on whatever (free of charge). Tools to transmit personal ideas and perspectives usually consist of a body of text (around 200 to 2000 words), images, links, video and sound clips. In that blogs are often sculptured around news facts and links or personal events of the day, they exist in a particular standardized format. This format differs from microblogging. Because microblogging comprises very short published messages, software makes it possible to easily follow more publishers at the same time, at one page, without scrolling. What’s more, microblogging is usually labeled as social networking service. It’s easily accessible by smart phone apps.

Twitter is the case

One of the most popular microblogging services is Twitter (over a 100 million users). The site offers the opportunity to post what you are doing (additionally a possible ‘where’), share links, make announcements etcetera in posts a.k.a. Tweets up to a maximum of 140 characters. People can subscribe and thus follow each others’ updates, just like people in YouTube can subscribe to each others’ channels. Twitter is similar to status updates at Facebook and the Dutch (who, what, where?) @ Hyves.

Relevance and method

Apart from my personal choice not to actively participate in this form of social media, Twitter as a phenomenon is very interesting to look at. Since Twitter was created in 2004, this piece of popular culture is eagerly taken up by public figures like politicians for campaigning purposes. It’s proven a source for gossip and counter gossip on and by celebrities. The posting of Tweets are a means to inform followers in a flashy way. Even royalty is on. Via Trending Twitter can be used to inform ourselves about what is happening right now; what is hot in topicland. Furthermore Tweets are often remediated in several media: glossy magazines, newspapers (NRC next) and television programs. The public loves witty one-liners. I suppose it sort of fits the Anglo-American culture of shallow readers nowadays. Twitter became popular because of its simple format. But it’s also “dangerous” because of its simple format. Microblogging sites like Twitter make it quick and easy to post a nasty text, click the button and there it is out in the open. There is a possibility to take it back though. But it’s fascinating. The choices of what to post has to do with public identity management. All the fake accounts hosted by people pretending to be someone famous suggest that there’s a lot of role playing game on different levels. Studying twitter can reveal a lot about our society today.

The method of interviewing different users seems an accurate research approach to discovering how Twitter is used. It might uncover something about the desires, needs and discourses of the present society. What are possible underlying motivations of using social media and microblogging; what do we value? To increase reliability, at least 8 persons should be interviewed in depth. The resulting sound clips ought to to be transcribed in detail. Then keywords have to be marked, consequently topics need to be clustered. In this way, the researcher will find themes in the separate interviews that fit the general framework altogether. The concerning Twitter accounts can be taken in account as well: How do the interviewees express themselves online and how does this differ from the interviews? The texts and aesthetics of are also worth taking a look at. As a result our understanding of general subjects and topics will be enhanced. The way the interviewees articulate topics, the words they use, can inform us about general themes in our cultural society as much as the things they actually say. Finally the researcher will be able to extract the acquired knowledge to a concept of current themes in society. Eventually this might add to our understanding of oneself as well.


Wodak, R., Meyer, M. (2009) Methods for Critical Discourse Analysis. Sage Publications Ltd

Comments are closed.