This is a research paper I wrote a while back for a linguistic
Anthropology course with the main focus being on twitter, how it works,
and how it’s changed the way we communicate today.
Discourse in Technology
Technology and discourse through social media has changed the way people all over the world communicate today. The technology of communication through texting (Short Message System) and social networking sites such as Twitter has changed discourse by making face to face communication with one another or even talking on the phone almost archaic. People have a tendency to text or even tweet directly at someone they know rather than call and speak to them in person. Twitter has become a means to maintain contact with friends and acquaintances and stay informed with both major and trivial aspects of their daily lives. Several similarities exist between Twitter and texting; these similarities began with the original way in which Twitter was intended to function—through texting. According to Evan Williams, co-creator and former CEO of twitter and podcasting company Odeo, the idea of Twitter came from engineer Jack Dorsey and an SMS project that Odeo was working on (ted.com/talks). Jack Dorsey developed the idea to create an SMS service that allowed a user to send a message to a group of people, and that idea ultimately developed into one of the largest microblogs and most popular means of social discourse today, Twitter (Profilerehab.com). The use of discourse online through social media blogs and texting has created a language specific to online use and is changing the way humans communicate and connect with one another.
The primary use for Twitter started as something very simple; you can say what you’re doing in 140 characters or less and the people who follow you on Twitter will see that update, and if your followers are interested in getting the updates in real time, they can have it sent as a text message to their cell phone. One of the key ideas for the uses of Twitter was to allow people to share moments of their lives, from the most exciting, to the dull or even trivial. These updates or tweets are shared in real time in a matter of seconds for your followers to see. According to Evan Williams, the ability to share moments in real time allows the user to feel more connected and in touch despite distance. This was the primary use of Twitter that was anticipated from the beginning (ted.com/talks). Twitter is ultimately a broadcast system for those who want everyone, or their followers to know what they have to say or what they are doing in real time. Twitter has quickly become a means to share news with the world as well and is currently one of the most resourceful media outlets today. Not only can we get moment to moment updates through Twitter in a matter of seconds, but Twitter is also used for self-promotion, which can be shared with hundreds or even thousands of people, depending of course on the number of followers you have. Since Twitter is based on not only sending messages but also receiving them, you can read tweets from the people you follow, just as they can read your tweets if they follow you. Twitter started as a simple means of sharing moments, however because of its users, it has evolved into something much more.
When you sign up for an account with Twitter you create a username. Users of twitter started using the twitter ‘@’ symbol followed by the username of the person they wanted the tweet to be sent to for example, to speak directly to a person on twitter rather than share updates with everyone; this phenomenon is termed ‘mentioning someone on Twitter.’ This changed Twitter from being a microblog that people read for updates, to direct discourse with one or more persons if you choose, and the only people who see this conversation have to be following both parties that are having the conversation. The ability to now converse with someone through Twitter in real time could be equivalent to using an instant messaging system, except others can see your conversation as it’s happening. When the engineers at Twitter saw that its users were using the microblog to converse with one another they implemented a means to make it easier, since it wasn’t meant to be part of its original use (ted.com/talks). Now you can easily speak to anyone who has a Twitter account publicly or you can send someone a direct message through Twitter, which is private.
The evolution of Twitter has also made way for the creation of applications that allow users to use the social media site from their mobile phones or just about any handheld device that has internet access. Users of Twitter also created the use of hashtags, which is when you tag a keyword relative to your tweet, for example #anthropology. The hashtag can be used to find all tweets regarding that particular event or subject (ted.com/talks). For instance, when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, millions of users relied on Twitter for moment to moment updates on what was happening with the storm so they could keep tabs on what might be happening with their families or what areas lost power or may have been flooded; this was also an important way for those who lost electricity and internet to receive news through their mobile phones in real time. News reporters and bloggers posted instructions on Twitter on how to receive twitter updates through SMS for those who lost power during the storm.
Twitter has become an important source for spreading and receiving news fast. News sources such as the Los Angeles Times and ABC News have Twitter accounts where they post news daily and sometimes by the minute or even second, which then reaches the thousands or millions of followers that follow the news outlet. Twitter is not only used for saying what’s on your mind but also as an outlet for reporting what’s happening in local communities and around the world. I am an active user of Twitter, however, I will admit that when I first started using the ever-growing microblog I only did so as a means to promote my music and because a lot of my acquaintances used it as well. It took me a while to understand why anyone would want to read mini updates of what others had to say, but as I used Twitter more and learned more about how it worked, I realized what a great tool it was within social discourse. The excerpt below is from a blog site called “Make Use Of,” explaining the rules for social discourse within Twitter and how important the Twitter syntax is when using the site:
“The other day I looked at my Twitter account and I noticed that despite only using Twitter for a short time, I’ve made a surprising number of tweets. Since I started, I’ve learned a lot about the community, how people use it, and the ecosystem of services that rely on Twitter to function.
If you can say it with less letters, do so! There are only 140 characters allowed in a single tweet, so shortening a word or using a bit of slang is completely acceptable. Instead of “are,” say “r.” The same goes for “you” and “u.” Don’t go overboard, though. If you abbreviate everything you write or do it in a way that breaks with your normal tone, you’ll drive people away. Using more than two abbreviations in a single tweet might be something to avoid.
Shorten Your URLs
Another kind of abbreviation you can use is link shortening. Instead of posting an entire link to a blog post (which might exceed the character limit on its own), you can use a URL shortening service. The most popular of these is TinyURL, which simply takes any long link, gives it a unique identifier, and produces a clean little redirect link that you can post anywhere. The service that I prefer is the one offered by Ping.fm. Since I am part of many different microblogging communities I use Ping.fm to keep them all straight. Links entered into the post box are automatically converted into a “ping.fm/unique_identifier” format. This saves time and helps you ensure your links don’t get cut off. Because the system looks for links in an intelligent way, it’s also possible to post a long link in the middle of your tweet and have it shortened without interfering with the rest of the text or your character count.
Remember that Twitter is a social community with a reasonably good system for replies. If you only broadcast the status of your laundry, don’t expect many responses. You have to find a way to engage your followers by not only sharing the story of your life, but also asking their opinion. Questions make great Twitter posts because, subconsciously, the reader has to think about it longer as they formulate a response. Be prepared for all kinds of replies, though. Usually your followers will be polite, but if you ask a controversial question, be prepared for strong viewpoints and possibly hurt feelings. If a debate gets too heated, either stop replying or move the conversation to another medium. In my experience, squashing your well-formulated viewpoint into 140 characters will probably fail to get your point across.
Find Your Voice
While you may have heard this advice in your high school creative writing class, I don’t mean it in quite the same sense. There are a million different things you can tweet about. If you really want to let the world know that you’re “going to do some cool stuff,” then feel free to post it. If you’re using Twitter as a means of plugging your own posts, that’s OK too. The most important thing is consistency. If you typically write very casually about mundane events, don’t be surprised when your followers largely gloss over that crucial tweet describing your political views. The reverse is also true. A Twitter account that’s full of well thought out tweets can be disrupted by a few obscure references to the tedium of your life. Figure out what kind of Twitterer you want to be and stick with it. Your followers will thank you for it.
Timing is Everything
This is the tip that I have the most trouble following myself. When you have a couple big things happen and you sit down at your computer, you may have the compulsion to blurt them all out in 3 or 4 consecutive tweets. While it’s a great way to vent, it concentrates all of your day’s contributions to Twitter in one chronological spot. If some of your followers check their feeds later in the day, they may miss your updates completely. Instead of compacting all your posts, spread them out so each one has an equal chance of being seen by a large number of people. If a follower sees one update in their feed, they may click your profile to check if they’ve missed anything.
Know the Syntax
While it may seem obvious, make sure you know how to use the Twitter syntax. Specifically, the “@ reply” and the “hashtag.” These will allow you to change the meaning of your posts in a simple, unified way. ” @ replies” are great for replying directly to any user. Twitter alerts anyone whose username appears in the beginning of a tweet. For instance “@loyaleagle I’m having trouble with that too,” would show up in my replies area, as well as in my general feed (if I already follow that user). The post is clearly a reply to a previous one and people not involved can look at both feeds to understand the conversation. If you use an “@ reply” in the middle of a tweet, it won’t be added to that user’s list of replies, but it is a good way to mention someone’s username, as Twitter will automatically linkify it.” (Rogers, Jimmy).
Another way some people communicate through Twitter and SMS is with the use of emoticons, memes, and abbreviated language such as ‘LOL’ (laugh out loud). Emoticons or ‘Emojis’ are symbols such as a smiley face, a heart, or many other symbols used to express an emotion when communicating through Twitter or texting. Memes and abbreviated words are also another way to communicate and make jokes, be sarcastic, or poke fun at something you may be talking about with someone through a text message or on a social media site.
Many people criticize the use of microblogs such as Twitter for promoting nonsense and possibly “dumbing down” society because they see the use of abbreviated language as sacrificing the proper use of grammar and spelling. Abbreviated language may seem silly or improper, but it is the language of social media sites such as Twitter and many other blogs and will continue to evolve just as technology evolves. Despite the use of shortcuts in language, the social media microblog gives us access to information on just about anything, and we can also connect with people that we may not have had access to before, which includes celebrities. Aside from what may be considered as important current events and news, everyday people and celebrities also use Twitter as a medium for self-promotion or for saying anything they want in response to something that may be happening in their lives or around the world. Musicians, artists, actors, singers, and DJ’s use Twitter as a primary source of self-promotion and to help support friends or colleagues by ‘retweeting’ a post someone has made. The more followers someone has on twitter, the more popular they appear to be and the more people can see and share tweets about music, quotes, or anything they feel may be relative to them or something they are interested in, or think others may be interested in.
Twitter has also become a way of meeting and networking with people that have similar interests such as music or other personal interests. One of the main reasons why Twitter is such a popular social media site is because it easily negotiates and maintains relationships among its users. I have met and become friends with many people through the use of Twitter. Now, meeting people in person through mutual friends happens less frequently. I believe there are a few reasons for this – within the world of Twitter, many people tweet quite a bit about their beliefs, thoughts, opinions, and what they are doing on a daily basis, and those who are interested follow and can even respond to those tweets. People who tweet a lot about themselves give followers the sense that they know them well which makes them more comfortable talking to them on Twitter, even if the follower has never met them before, they feel as if they know them. Twitter gives people a sense of community, even among strangers. Those who follow someone with similar interests may also have mutual friends in the real world, so in a sense Twitter is very much the cyber world version of ‘six degrees of separation’ which is the idea that everyone is about 6 steps away from anyone else in the world by association, someone you know, knows someone, that knows someone, that knows that person, etc.
Twitter, which has become such a vast platform for connecting with people and saying whatever you feel, is creating relationships among strangers who may have mutual friends in common; however the chances are a lot less likely that they would have known they had mutual friends in common or actually met in person if it wasn’t for social media sites such as Twitter. In my experience with Twitter and in my opinion, Twitter has ultimately made six degrees of separation more like four degrees of separation. The world is shrinking, and the internet is causing it to shrink at an even faster pace. According to the article “Degrees of Separation in Social Networks” Twitter has a degree of separation of approximately 3.43, which is rather small considering the degree of separation was six before the existence of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter (Bakhshandeh, et. al). The degree of separation between people is almost half of what it was now that social discourse is primarily online. We now have more access to more people around the world, which has significantly changed social norms.
There are many great things about having access to a social network such as Twitter; however, conversing with total strangers has its downside as well. Users of Twitter who have any type of celebrity status, whether it be within music, pornography, or acting, tend to have a very large number of followers, and with that comes a lot of unwelcome criticisms. As a user of Twitter, if you have a large number of followers and constantly tweet about your daily life, and your opinions about current events or mundane statements about your day, you create a persona of sorts that may not reflect the real you completely, but a mere part of you and your personality. Putting your thoughts and opinions for all to read, including those who may have some fascination or interest in you automatically welcomes your followers to impose their opinions and thoughts on you if they feel the need to do so even if those comments are unfavorable towards you. Many times this can result in negative responses from followers that may not agree with your outlook or opinion on something. Disagreements between a follower and the person they’re following, or someone who happens to make a negative comment about another Twitter user, sometimes results in an argument in the public forum for all to see.
A good example of the darker side of Twitter is when there was a very public argument between comedian Jenny Johnson and signer Chris Brown when Brown made a statement that Johnson saw and retweeted with a negative comment against the singer. The comment made by Johnson led to a back and forth discourse publically between the two parties that was rather uncivil and ended with Chris Brown deleting his twitter account (which he has recently re-established).
This discourse between the two twitter users that didn’t know each other before this exchange is a good example of how uncivil we can be towards each other in an online social media setting. Regardless of how we might feel about someone that is in the public eye, we generally would never approach that person in real life to insult them. Being able to say what you think of someone online is always easier because even though it is confrontational, it isn’t a face to face confrontation. In the article “Is Twitter Making Us Meaner? Uncivil Discourse in the Age of Social Media” uncivil discourse is a growing problem with social media sites such as Twitter. The article uses the online confrontation between Johnson and Brown as just one example of uncivil discourse online. The Twitter quarrel between the two led to Chris Brown fans posting death threats directly against Johnson. The author of the article Christopher Zara states “Welcome to the age of uncivil discourse in social media, or as some people call it, twitter” (ibtimes.com).
Uncivil discourse has always existed, even before the internet. Online blogs just seem to make it more prevalent and public. Social media researcher and psychologist Reynol Junco states that blaming social media for incivility is “absurd”. According to Junco “A lot of this is about perception; people assume that because we couldn’t see all this incivility before Twitter that it wasn’t happening” (ibtimes.com). Case in point, there is always going to be a negative side within discourse in social media just as there is with discourse in the real world, and with that a positive side as well. I also believe that even if you receive unwanted negative feedback from someone, that doesn’t mean you have to engage that person. Social media sites allow you to block unwanted followers for harassment; after all it takes two to tango. If you give in and argue with someone fixed on arguing with you, there is ultimately no winning side.
Social media sites such as Twitter have helped countless people with what some may consider the most unimportant questions such as “where is there a good place to eat in my area” to helping raise thousands of dollars for the victims of hurricane Sandy and being able to reach out to millions of people to do so. Without the ever-growing discourse in social media sites like Twitter I don’t believe that any of it would be possible, at least not at such an expeditious rate. Twitter has also helped create meaningful relationships with people and has become the social norm by today’s standards. People everywhere that have access to the internet and use it on a daily basis are adapting to the technological style of discourse, despite the negative aspects that online discourse may have due to people abusing their access to others via social media sites. I believe the overall connections we achieve through communication with blogs and social media sites have changed discourse by allowing us to communicate in ways we wouldn’t have imagined possible.
Written by: Roxanne Mayoral
Bahkshandeh, Reza, et.al. “Degrees of Separation in Social Networks.” Proceedings, The Fourth International Symposium on Combinatorial Search (SoCS-2011)
“The History of Twitter” Profilerehab.com. Web. 12 Dec. 2012 http://profilerehab.com/twitter-help/history_of_twitter
Rogers, Jimmy. “7 Tips to Improve Your Twitter Tweets.” Make Use Of. 8 Sep. 2008. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/7-tips-to-improve-your-twitter-tweets/
Williams, Evan. “Evan Williams on Listening to Twitter Users.” TED Talks. TED Conferences, LLC. 9 Feb. 2009, Web.12 Dec. http://www.ted.com/talks/evan_williams_on_listening_to_twitter_users.html
Zara, Christopher. “Is Twitter Making Us Meaner? Uncivil Discourse In The Age Of Social Media.” International Business Times. The International Business Times Inc. 1 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. http://www.ibtimes.com/twitter-making-us-meaner-uncivil-discourse-age-social-media-909856