The Truth Behind Twitter

On: October 13, 2010
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About Onur Yilmaz
I have a BA in Film & Culture from the University of Amsterdam, and now follow the New Media masters program.


Since its meteoric rise in 2007 Twitter has been hailed as a revolutionary service that was sure to change all social interactions and structures of communication. The hype has reached such levels that mainstream media actually report on instances when Twitter is down or has been  hacked. But how important a tool has Twiter actually become for the communication of ideas and information? Is it really as revolutionary as advertised, or is this simply a case of bandwagon jumping gone too far?

There have been a great many claims made about Twitter, but very little actual research. It is certainly notable that many politicians are now using the service;  in the US, over 160 members of congress have Twitter accounts. There are even services that keep track of which politicians are active on Twitter. Presumably, the service would help you communicate with the politicians that are supposed to represent you while at the same time allowing these politicians to stay in touch with their electorate. Whether this is the case is questionable. There are no real studies on the modes of communication that politicians employ through their Twitter accounts. It is impossible to say whether there is actual interaction taking place or that Twitter has become just an extension of the PR machine. Unfortunately the latter seems the case, as the politicians using Twitter to actually have a conversation with their voters are mentioned as exceptions.

The few researches into Twitter can be useful in evaluating the service and its current implementation. For instance, one research by the Harvard Business Review shows how the top 10% of users account for 90% of tweets, and according to a Nielsen Report more than 60% of Twitter users fails to return to the service after a month. This means that the active userbase of Twitter is not very large, and a minority of that userbase produces most of the content.

A Pew Research Center study into the different topics discussed on different media, including Youtube, Blogs, Twitter and traditional media shows that an overwhelming majority-43%- of the discussions on Twitter revolve around tech related news. This indicates not so much a conversation or interaction taking place, but simply a new mode of syndication aimed at a very specialized target audience. To make matters seem even more bleak, another research into the uses of Twitter seems to indicate that tweets that can be categorized as “news” make up only 3.6% of the total output and 37.55% of all tweets are “conversational, while 40.55% of all tweets can be categorized as “pointless babble”.

Finally, a research by HP labs into Twitter approaches the issue from the perspective of influence. Instead of looking at numbers of followers or popularity, influence is measured by the rate that a message from a single user is retweeted throughout the service. The most influential users are those who know how to effectively spread their message. The study shows that the most influential accounts are tied to commercial institutions, like tech blogs and news aggregators.

The picture of Twitter that arises from these researches is of a service for syndication of commercial content at best and of “pointless babble” at worst, not of conversation and interaction.

What then of the most shining example of Twitter being used to affect social change, the so-called Twitter Revolution in Iran? The mainstream media certainly thought a major role in the happenings in Iran could be ascribed to the microblogging service. Many, if not all news outlets reported on the central role of Twitter in making the (failed) revolution possible without question or scepticism. However looking past the surface paints a different picture altogether.

The few news organization that attempted to do their job instead of singing the praises of Twitter came to wholly different conclusions about the Twitter Revolution. Simply put: there was no such thing. Or to be more exact; the Twitter Revolution took place in the West, not in Iran. Many of the Twitter accounts claiming to be reporting from inside Iran proved to be fake, and were guilty of spreading disinformation and promoting hatred and violence.

This did not prevent commentators and news organizations from singing the praises of Twitter. And when the truth started to arise, only a few followed up on the story (the and while the majority of the mainstream media stuck to the established narrative that without Twitter, there would have not been any protests in Iran. The New York times even managed to skew the story in such a fashion that the lessons learned from the ordeal were not “do proper research” and “don’t confuse new technologies with real, human struggles” but “Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool; use it with caution!” 

This overestimation of Twitter’s role in the events in Iran might seem harmless at face value, but they belie significant consequences. The Western media have successfully managed to distort the discourse on the events in Iran into a narrative about the success of a Western technology. The truly important issues at hand- the state of the Iranian democracy; the treatment of Iranian citizens; the compromise of their freedoms and rights; the role of Iran in the international community and the role that the international community should take in these events- were completely ignored. The effort of the Iranian people in demanding a fair democratic process were denied in favour of a narrative wherein their aspirations were completely informed, inspired and enabled by a Western technology. A strand of Orientalism underlies the entire discourse on the Twitter Revolution.

Why then have mainstream media and traditional news outlets become such vocal proponents of Twitter? Why have they taken up the role of Twitter’s PR department if Twitter truly is a new direction for journalism? A look at Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman might provide some insights. Chomsky and Herman describe different forces working on media outlets and reporters, limiting their freedom in what stories to tell and how to tell them. For instance, limited time and resources put pressure on media outlets and reporters in such a way that showing all sides of a conflict becomes impossible. This leads to reporters relying on a limit pool of expert sources and foregoing investigative research. Also, limited space in way of newspaper inches or limited time on TV demands interviews to be reduced to soundbites. Twitter then becomes the perfect tool for the contemporary journalist: it is no longer necessary to go into the field for interviews as they are delivered to you in your Twitter stream and in the form of soundbites by virtue of Twitter’s 140 character cap. Justifying Twitter as a respectable, reliable and moreover a socially and culturally important tool works only to justify the media’s reliance on the technology.

So beyond the issue of the Twitter Revolution hoax, the celebration of Twitter as a technology for news reporting is a dangerous prospect for the future of news media. It allows for a degeneration of standards and values within news media and opens up new avenues for disinformation, manipulation and propaganda.

One can argue that no technology in and of itself can be good or bad, and that we have to consider its uses to be able to ascribe it any value. This does not take away the dangers of the uncritical discourse on Twitter that is entrenched right now. But to approach the matter from a McLuhanesque point of view, if we take the importance of a new medium to be the way it restructures society around it, then Twitter can certainly be qualified as bad. It diminishes human interaction to disconnected, asynchronous statements that travel one-way. It reduces conversation into 140 character blurbs, disengaging our appreciation for deep, critical thought. It celebrates the mundane and discards the complex.

I do not ascribe to such technological determinism. Twitter, or indeed any other new service, is not going to change our lives. We will get bored eventually and move on to the next new, hip technology. When that time comes though, beware of the apologists making grand claims about how important and world changing the new technology is. More likely than not, those most vocal are the ones who stand to gain by it.

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