Digital Media and Society

Nancy Baym: Personal Connections in the Digital Age

Jean Burgess and Joshua Green: YouTube 2nd edition

Mark Deuze: Media Work

Charles Ess: Digital Media Ethics

Alexander Halavais: Search Engine Society

Martin Hand: Ubiquitous Photography

Robert Hassan: The Information Society

Tim Jordan: Hacking

Leah Lievrouw: Alternative and Activist New Media

Rich Ling and Jonathan Donner: Mobile Communication

Donald Matheson and Stuart Allan: Digital War Reporting

Dhiraj Murthy: Twitter

Zizi Papacharissi: A Private Sphere

Jill Walker Rettberg: Blogging

Patrik Wikström: The Music Industry


Social Communication in the Twitter Age



Copyright © Dhiraj Murthy 2013

The right of Dhiraj Murthy to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2013 by Polity Press

Polity Press
65 Bridge Street
Cambridge CB2 IUR, UK

Polity Press
350 Main Street
Maiden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN: 978-0-7456-6510-8

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website:

For Kalpana, Deya Anjali, and Akash

Dedicated in loving memory of Nagavenamma and Venkatachala Shetty

You’re not reducing face-to-face time . . . You don’t choose to stay in and do Twitter. It’s like those spare moments on the Web when I’m doing another task I switch over to Twitter for literally 15 seconds. There is no fewer face-to-face, no fewer phone calls, there’s more awareness of other people in my life and maybe that even leads to further conversation with some people.

Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter
(cited in Niedzviecki 2009:132)


Figures and Tables
Preface and Acknowledgments
1 What is Twitter?
2 Contextualizing Twitter
3 Theorizing Twitter
4 Twitter and Journalism
5 Twitter and Disasters
6 Twitter and Activism
7 Twitter and Health
8 Conclusion


Figures and Tables


1.1    Runner’s Strip
2.1    The Notificator
3.1    Twitter attribution
4.1    Miracle on the Hudson
5.1    Top 100 domain categories which #Pakistan tweets linked to
5.2    Frequency of tweets per user with Pakistan trending topic tag
5.3    Frequency of at-mentions per user with Pakistan trending topic hashtag
6.1    Internet, Facebook, and Twitter users in Egypt
6.2    Egyptian population using Twitter (January and March 2011)
6.3    Use of communication media during the 25 January Revolution no
7.1    @ALS Untangled Twitter Stream (usernames redacted)
7.2    Frequency of tweets by cancer-related keywords
7.3    Frequency of tweets across all cancer-related keywords
8.1    Interactions of themes discussed in this book


5.1    Top 15 retweets with identifiable users

Preface and Acknowledgments

“What Hath God Wrought” – Samuel Morse’s first message, on May 24, 1844, on the newly completed telegraph wire linking Baltimore and Washington – was a mere 21 characters long. Alexander Graham Bell’s first message on the telephone to his lab assistant on March 10, 1876, “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you,” was more liberal: 42 characters long. And 95 years later, Ray Tomlinson sent the first email, with the message “QWERTYUIOP,” from one computer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to another computer sitting beside it. Tomlinson’s message: a spartan 10 characters.

In the past, technology determined the length and duration of the message. In the Internet age of today, our ability to communicate is seemingly limitless. But the computer has ushered in a new era of brevity. Twitter is a digital throwback to the analog succinctness of telegrams. Yet what is the significance of this electronically diminished turn to terseness? Does it signal the dumbing down of society, the victory of short attention spans, or the rise of new virtual “me” cultures? Are we saying more with less, or just saying less? Or perhaps we are saying more about less. This position is well illustrated by “status updates,” short one- or two-line messages on the popular social networking website Facebook. Though these short messages are often trivially banal (e.g., “mustard dripping out of my bagel sandwich”), they are elevated to “news,” which Facebook automatically distributes to your group of “friends,” selected individuals who have access to your Facebook “profile,” that is, your personalized web page on the site. Once the update percolates to your friends, they have the opportunity to comment on your update, generating a rash of discussion about dripping mustard, and so on.

This form of curt social exchange has become the norm with messages on Twitter, the popular social media website where individuals respond to the question “What’s happening?” with a maximum of 140 characters. These messages, known as “tweets,” can be sent through the Internet, mobile devices such as Internet-enabled phones and iPads, and text messages. But, unlike status updates, their strict limit of 140 characters produces at best eloquently terse responses and at worst heavily truncated speech. Tweets such as “gonna see flm tonite!” or “jimmy wil be fired 18r 2day” are reflective of the latter. The first tweet on the site, “just setting up my twttr” (24 characters), by Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter, on March 21, 2006, perhaps led by example. This book emphasizes that Dorsey’s message, like that of Morse, was brief and, like that of Bell, was unremarkable – setting up one’s Twitter and asking the recipient to return.

By drawing this line between the telegraph and telephone to Twitter, this book makes its central argument – that the rise of these messages does not signal the death of meaningful communication. Rather, Twitter has the potential to increase our awareness of others and to augment our spheres of knowledge, tapping us into a global network of individuals who are passionately giving us instant updates on topics and areas in which they are knowledgeable or participating in real-time. In doing so, however, the depth of our engagements with this global network of people and ideas can also, sometimes, become more superficial. Many of us would be worried if Twitter replaced “traditional” media or the longer-length media of blogs, message boards, and email lists. The likelihood of this is, of course, minimal and this book concludes with the suggestion that there is something profoundly remarkable in us being able to follow minute-by-minute commentary in the aftermath of an earthquake, or even the break-up of a celebrity couple. This book is distinctive in not only having Twitter as its main subject, but also its approach of theorizing the site as a collection of communities of knowledge, ad hoc groups where individual voices are aggregated into flows of dialog and information (whether it be Michael Jackson’s death or the release of the Lockerbie bomber). Ultimately, Twitter affords a unique opportunity to re-evaluate how communication and culture can be individualistic and communal simultaneously.

I also describe how these changes in communication are not restricted exclusively to the West, as any mobile phone, even the most basic model, is compatible with Twitter. Tweets can be quickly and easily sent, a fact that has led to the exponential growth of its base to over 140 million users worldwide (Wasserman 2012). This has been useful in communicating information about disasters (e.g., the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan) and social movements (e.g., the 2011 “Arab Spring” movements). At an individual level, tweets have reported everything from someone’s cancer diagnosis to unlawful arrests. For example, in April 2008, James Karl Buck, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, was arrested photographing an anti-government labor protest in Mahalla, Egypt. He quickly sent a one-word tweet from his phone, “arrested,” which caught the attention of Buck’s Twitter “followers,” those who subscribe to his tweets. His one-word tweet led to Berkeley hiring a lawyer and Buck’s eventual release. There are, of course, many distinctions to be made between the tweets sent by Buck, or those sent during the Mumbai bomb blasts, and the more unremarkable, everyday tweets. Contrast the tweet Prasad Naik sent moments after the Mumbai bomb blasts, “Firing happening at the Oberoi hotel where my sister works. Faaak!” with Jack Dorsey’s third tweet, “wishing I had another sammich.” Though an intentionally striking and loaded comparison, it is just this absurdity that happens daily, hourly, and by the minute on Twitter. This combination of banal/profound, combined with the one-to-many – explicitly – public broadcasting of tweets, differentiates Twitter from Facebook and text messages.

Rather than selectively condemning Twitter as dumbed down or, on the other hand, praising its profundity, the book poses important questions to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of this new communications medium. Although I examine the practice of social media through specific Twitter-mediated events, this book’s emphasis is both explanatory and theoretical. Specifically, my prime aim is to better understand the meanings behind Twitter and similar social media through concise yet sophisticated interpretations of theories of media and communication, drawing upon a diverse array of scholars, from Marshall McLuhan to Erving Goffman and Gilles Deleuze to Martin Heidegger. Though this network of thinkers and scholars crosses several disciplines, their work sheds light on a problem of communication faced since the dawn of the modern age: unraveling the connections, to paraphrase McLuhan, between the medium and the message.

The chapters present analyses of the shifts in which we communicate by exploring the role of Twitter in discourses of new media forms, communication, social formations, and digitally mediated communities. Early chapters introduce Twitter, historically contextualize it, and present theoretical frames to analyze the medium. Comparisons between historical media forms are made to highlight the fact that new media forms are not all that “new” in many of the ways in which they organize our social lives. For example, when the telephone began to get a critical mass in U.S. households, there were similar feelings of anxiety that the “public” would erode the “private,” as anyone could call your house as you were having an intimate family dinner or in deep conversation with a visiting friend. The middle chapters include specific discussions of Twitter and its relationship to journalism, disasters, social activism, and health. The book then brings together theory and practice to make conclusions on the medium itself and its role in social communication within an “update culture,” a culture in which society has placed importance on updating friends, family, peers, colleagues, and the general public. The question of whether this pattern signifies “me-centric” rather than “society-centric” cultures is explored in the conclusion. Between chapters, I single out an individual tweet to frame the forthcoming chapter.

My work on this book has been shaped by generous input and encouragement from family, friends, colleagues, and scholars. I am very grateful for their involvement in the development of this book. Students in my “In the Facebook Age” and “Critical Theory and New Media” classes have been taught material from early versions of chapters, and offered engaging and highly useful feedback. I am also indebted to my students for providing me with a treasure trove of examples of interesting Twitter users and tweets. Thank you to my undergraduate research fellow, Macgill Eldredge, who imported the data sources in chapter 7 into a standardized format and produced the spike data histogram. The reference librarians at the British Library patiently helped me navigate archives regarding the telegraph, material which fundamentally shaped the historical context of the book. I have greatly benefited from input from my colleagues at Bowdoin College. I would like to single out Susan Bell, Pamela Ballinger, Craig McEwen, Matthew Klingle, and Wendy Christensen for their input on early versions of chapters. I would also like to thank Andrea Drugan and the rest of the Polity team for their invaluable support in making this project a reality.


Parts of chapter 3 are due to appear in “Towards a sociological understanding of social media: theorizing Twitter,” Sociology (forthcoming, 2012), and parts of chapter 4 have previously appeared in “Twitter: microphone for the masses?,” Media, Culture & Society 33(5) (2011).


What is Twitter?

Facebook is composed of my photos. MySpace is composed of my favorite music. Twitter is composed of everything inside my heart.


The tweet above compares three popular online social spaces. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, the following chapter explores what the medium is, how it is structured, and how people use it. Twitter may not be a reflection of “everything inside [one’s] heart,” but it is seen that way by some. Others see the medium as facilitating support communities and some have used it for speed dating. The following chapter provides a basic introduction to Twitter as a communications medium.

It’s funny because I actually started drinking late in life, at like twenty-two or so. So my parents who live in St. Louis never really knew that I started drinking. I was with Ev and we were drinking whiskey and I decided to Twitter about it. And my mom was like, “I knew you drink cider sometimes, but whiskey?” (Jack Dorsey, talking with Evan Williams, Twitter co-founder, cited in Niedzviecki 2009:130)

Blair (1915) in his popular twentieth-century stage song, “I hear a little Twitter and a Song,” was, of course, referring to birdsong. However, so ubiquitous the website has become, that for most Internet-using adults, to hear a twitter today refers to one of the largest and most popular social media websites.1 Twitter allows users to maintain a public web-based asynchronous “conversation” through the use of 140-character messages (the length of text messages) sent from mobile phones, mobile Internet devices, or through various websites. Twitter’s aim is for users to respond to the question “What’s happening?” in 140 characters or less.2 These messages on Twitter (termed “tweets”) are automatically posted and are publicly accessible on the user’s profile page on the Twitter website. Tweets are a public version of Facebook’s now well-known status update function, but provide public awareness of all users on the medium rather than being restricted to one’s friends. The dialogue between Twitter users occurs through the at-sign (e.g., a user can direct tweets to another user by prefixing a post with an at-sign before the target user’s name). Anyone can post a tweet directed to @BarackObama or @CharlieSheen, and many do. Additionally, anyone can instantly see a tweet and respond to it.3 One does not even need to “know” the other user or have their permission to direct a tweet at them.

There are 40 world leaders with verified accounts on Twitter, including Hugo Chávez (The Christian Science Monitor 2011), and it is estimated that more than 200 million tweets are sent every day (Schonfeld 2011). Though it is unclear as to how many of these tweets ever get read, the fact of the matter is that people are sending tweets and consider them to be meaningful. Twitter co-founders, Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams,4 believe that the medium’s appeal is due to “its ease of use, its instant accessibility, [and] its short bursts of seemingly unimportant chatter” (Niedzviecki 2009: 129). As these founders of Twitter highlight, one factor that has facilitated the popularity of the medium is its ease of use. Anyone with a mobile phone (and most people in the world now have one (International Telecommunications Union 2011)) can quickly fire off a text message to Twitter’s mobile phone number. And because sending a text message has become a banal activity in scores of countries around the world (Ewalt 2003), the learning curve for using Twitter is relatively low for individuals familiar with “texting.” As even the most basic mobile phone can be used, the technology is potentially accessible even in impoverished countries. This is an important distinction of the medium to Facebook and other emergent social technologies. One does not need broadband Internet access or, for that matter, a PC to regularly use Twitter (this is not to say that Twitter’s uptake crosses traditional social boundaries and inequalities). Additionally, the time commitment required to post a tweet is minimal in comparison to posting a blog or publishing other material on the Internet. As Twitter creator and co-founder Dorsey (cited in Niedzviecki 2009: 129) puts it, Twitter’s attraction is premised on “connection with very low expectation.” Indeed, the contribution itself can be of “low expectation.”

Though restricted to 140 characters, Twitter has simple yet powerful methods of connecting tweets to larger themes, specific people, and groups. This is a unique aspect of the medium. Specifically, tweets can be categorized by a “hashtag.” Any word(s) preceded by a hash sign “#” are used in Twitter to note a subject, event, or association. Hashtags are an integral part of Twitter’s ability to link the conversations of strangers together. For example, people during the 2010 soccer World Cup tweeted with both the #worldcup hash tag as well as tags to indicate teams (e.g., #eng for England and #ned for the Netherlands). Similarly, tweets pertaining to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement used #occupywallstreet and #ows. By including a hashtag in one’s tweet, it becomes included into a larger “conversation” consisting of all tweets with the hashtag. The structure of communication via hashtags facilitates impromptu interactions of individuals (often strangers) into these conversations. It is for this reason that Twitter has been considered useful in social movements like Occupy Wall Street (see chapter 6 for more detail). Because hashtags represent an aggregation of tagged tweets, conversations are created more organically. Just because people are tweeting under the same hashtag, this does not mean they are conversing with each other in the traditional sense. Rather, the discourse is not structured around directed communication between identified interactants. It is more of a stream, which is composed of a polyphony of voices all chiming in. The technologies that most parallel Twitter in this way are Internet chat rooms and telephone party lines. In the case of the “ows” hashtag, it was a confluence of diverse Occupy Wall Street tweets that contributed to engagement by individuals. Either serendipitously or by reading through scores of tweets appearing second by second, individuals and groups interacted with each other after seeing relevant tweets.

Because tweets can also be directed to specific individual(s), even if she/he is a stranger or a celebrity, Twitter is unique in facilitating interactions across discrete social networks. For example, individuals can and do tweet @KatyPerry, the American pop singer. This form of directed interaction is powerful in that all discourse is public and its audience is not limited to the explicitly specified interactants. Often, individuals tweeting are putting on a show for others to see (see figure 1.1). Or there is no show at all. Rather, the ease of interaction offers a platform to voice a concern. For example, in this tweet, a user wants to convey his political opinions to Barack Obama and tweets: “@BarackObama. I know other countries need help. We have homeless and people in USA that we should help first, don’t you thank [sic.].”

A user’s profile page, known on Twitter as a timeline (see figure 1.1), includes all tweets (whether or not they are directed to another user). This shapes Twitter because anyone can “lurk” (i.e., observe profiles without their target knowing of this lurking). Not only does this encourage the theatrical aspect of profiles, but it also presents a different picture of consumers of a profile. Specifically, it facilitates new forms of consumption of a user’s feed. Because one can see your tweeting history (from music to the fact that one forgot to do the laundry), it not only presents a different view of users, but also allows consumers of a profile to follow “leads” they find to be interesting (e.g., a tweet about a charitable event or a band). On the other hand, this also presents issues of privacy. The barriers between public and private become extremely blurred as one can see very specific conversations between individuals which are many times intended to be private, but are tweeted nonetheless (given the medium’s ability to foster this (see chapter 3)).


Figure 1.1 Runner’s Strip © Cait Chock

The function of following users in some ways mimics a TV guide, where you can see a list of channels with some limited information of what is being broadcast on the channel at that moment. If the channel piques your attention, you can stay tuned in. On Twitter, one can tune into the timelines of particular Twitter users who can be people you are interested in (from A-list celebrities to your neighbor), a professional organization, a magazine/journal, a company, etc. The relationship of following and followed within Twitter shapes the consumption of tweets and user profiles. It has become commonplace to be “friends” with others on various websites. “Friendship” tends to indicate some level of familiarity with that person. However, on Twitter, one does not need to be on a first-name basis or even “know” the user to follow them. This relational structure leads to Twitter users following popular users (often celebrities or news organizations). Recall the television channel analogy; these popular Twitter users are followed because people would like to tune into these channels (regularly or at least once in a while).

This structure of channels and consumers of channels of information draws from notions of broadcasting (Allen 1992). Specifically, Twitter has been designed to facilitate interactive multicasting (i.e., the broadcasting of many to many). Television and radio are both one-to-many models where a station broadcasts to many consumers. Twitter encourages a many-to-many model through both hashtags and retweets. A “retweet” (commonly abbreviated as “RT”) allows people to “forward” tweets to their followers and is a key way in which Twitter attempts to facilitate the (re) distribution of tweets outside of one’s immediate, more “bounded” network to broader, more unknown audiences. It is also one of the central mechanisms by which tweets become noticed by others on Twitter. Specifically, if a tweet is retweeted often enough or by the right person(s), it gathers momentum that can emulate a snowball effect. This is all part of interactive multicasting, wherein many users are vying for the eyes and ears of many users. Again, this is in distinction from the more limited set of broadcasters in traditional broadcast media. Additionally, interactive multicasting blurs the role of consumers on Twitter as these consumers simultaneously become producers when they add a phrase and retweet a news story they find interesting. Even if they do not modify the original tweets, a retweet rebroadcasts the tweets to their many followers – though not production, it is broadcasting. Hashtags themselves are emblematic of interactive multicasting in that many users are broadcasting to many users on the topic. The “interactive” part refers to the multimedia content embedded in tweets (including hyperlinks, photographs, and videos). Recipients do not inherently passively consume these tweets. Rather, they can actively navigate this content or they can cross the blurred boundary and become content producers if they comment on the original content or tweet back to the original tweeting user (i.e., the original broadcaster).

Is Twitter a Public Version of Facebook?

Twitter is often compared to Facebook and sometimes considered as a public version of the popular social networking site. This comparison has some truth to it. Both mediums are social, tend to elicit regular contributions that are not verbose, and are highly interactive. However, the two mediums are unique in many important ways. First, the distinction should be made between “social network” and “social media” technologies. The former, which encompasses Facebook and LinkedIn amongst others, is defined by boyd and Ellison (2008: 211) as providing web services which facilitate users maintaining a “public or semi-public profile within a bounded system” and through which they can “articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection.”

Social media has been broadly defined to refer to “the many relatively inexpensive and widely accessible electronic tools that enable anyone to publish and access information, collaborate on a common effort, or build relationships” (Jue et al. 2010: 4). Some elide social networking and social media together. The two are not mutually exclusive and social networks are important distribution venues for content produced in social media. Though there is overlap, it is more useful to make clear that social media is mainly conceived of as a medium wherein “ordinary” people in ordinary social networks (as opposed to professional journalists) can publish user-generated “news”/“updates” (in a broadly defined sense).5 Additionally, social media’s emphasis is not as “bounded” to communities of friends as social network sites are. Rather, social media is a publishing-oriented medium and the “social” part of social media refers to its distinction from “traditional” media (Murthy 2011b). Though Facebook and other social networking sites do multicast, this is not their emphasis per se. It is to foster friend connections through social sharing that is designed to keep ties between users active and vibrant. Social media’s emphasis is broadcast-based and encourages the accumulation of more and more followers who are aware of a user’s published content (e.g., tweets).

In other words, Twitter is markedly distinct from Facebook’s friend-centered social network model. Twitter, in many ways, shares similarities with blogs, albeit the posts on Twitter are considerably shorter. However, once one’s tweets are aggregated, a new structure emerges. This is not merely a technical consideration, but rather the organization of communication as a series of short communiqués is qualitatively different from examining tweets individually. As a corpus, they begin to resemble a more coherent text. Granted, the corpus is disjointed, but narratives can and do emerge. For this reason, Twitter is best considered as a “microblog,” a “blog” that consists of short messages rather than long ones (Java et al. 2007). It is considered the most popular microblogging service, though others such as friendfeed,6 Jaiku, Tumblr, Plurk, and Squeelr (an anonymous microblogging service) have also experienced exponential growth. Microblogs differ from blogs in terms of the length of posts (a factor which also influences the frequency of posts in the two media). Ebner and Schiefner (2008) usefully compare this relationship between blogs and microblogs to that between email and text messages. In their study of blogs and microblogs, respondents saw the former as a tool for “knowledge saving, coherent statements and discourse,” while the latter was most used for “writing about their thoughts and quick reflections” (Ebner and Schiefner 2008). However, the length of microblog posts should not be viewed as inherently deterministic of their communicative function. A key difference between blogs and microblogs is their social organization. Twitter, for example, implements a complex social structure which tweets support and foster. Tweets as “quick reflections” help keep social networks active on Twitter, whereas blogs are inherently more egocentric in focus.

The ways in which microblogs organize social communication may feel new. However, Twitter uses technology developed from earlier Internet media such as text-based gaming in Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), Instant Messenger (IM), and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC and MUDs were early synchronous precursors to Twitter. A difference between these earlier technologies and Twitter is that the latter is almost always in the public domain, whereas many MUDs and some chat rooms had restricted access.7 This is an important distinction. Twitter has similarities to both blogs and chat rooms,8 but its emphasis on accessible dialogic communication in the public domain is unique.

Understandably, one may find the differences between microblogging, social networks, and social media difficult to discern. Indeed, the boundaries are often blurry. However, it is important to draw some lines between these categories. At the simplest level, social networks are friend-based networks where maintaining and developing friendship ties are critical (Facebook is a prime example of this). Social media are designated as broadcast media, whose intention is to publish content to networks known and unknown to the author (Twitter is the most prominent example of this). There are different types of social media such as image-and-video-oriented social media. Twitter is one example of a microblogging-based social medium. For the sake of clarity, I define microblogging as an Internet-based service in which: (1) users have a public profile where they broadcast short public messages/updates whether they are directed to specific user(s) or not; (2) messages become publicly aggregated together across users; and (3) users can decide whose messages they wish to receive, but not necessarily who can receive their messages; this is in distinction from most social networks where following each other is bidirectional (i.e., mutual). The boundaries of public and private are critical to understanding microblogging as well as its predecessor technologies. Rosenthal (2008: 159) helps make this distinction by observing that “[n]ewsletters by e-mail are still newsletters, but blogs bring personalized and interpersonal communication into the public domain.” Microblogs like Twitter follow a similar logic in that they consist of very short updates that can be read at the individual update level (i.e., at the level of the tweet) or as an aggregation of tweets.

Like blogs, microblog entries can be on anything of interest to the author (from interpreting current events to daily trivialities). Microblogs, as a medium, depend on the regularity of content contribution. Niedzviecki (2009: 130) argues that Twitter “works because of its constancy and consistency, [factors which lead you to . . .] stop thinking about what you’re revealing and who’s on the other end, reading about your mundane life.” Microblog services group lists of users together based on interests, and their microblogs throughout the day are able to sustain discernible conversations. As DeVoe (2009) succinctly argues, “successful microblogging depends on having an audience.” And tweets have an audience – whether followers of the tweet’s author, or strangers. Dorsey (cited in Niedzviecki 2009: 130) believes that Twitter users feel as if they are “writing to a wall” and they feel that “there’s not much of an audience with Twitter.” However, as Niedzviecki (2009: 130–1) highlights, this is purely a perception and, even if the audience is not “obvious or apparent,” that does not translate to an absence of an audience with tweets disappearing into the ether. Rather, like any response-based medium, users would discontinue using the medium if they felt that they were not receiving the level of response they deemed important to them. Additionally, exceptional tweets are regularly highlighted in the media.9

On social network sites such as Facebook, users often interact with people they know offline (boyd 2007; Ellison et al. 2007). Users of social media often consume media produced by people they are not acquainted with, but have found of interest. This is especially true of retweets and trending topics on Twitter. This can lead to interactions with strangers and, albeit more rarely, celebrities. In my research on new media and a Muslim youth subculture (Murthy 2010), a respondent of mine recounted how he posted a tweet disparaging Deepak Chopra only to find that Chopra himself responded and invited my respondent to have a meal with him (an offer which was taken up).10 Facebook and other SNS are structured to leverage stronger ties within a more proximal network, rather than maximizing audience reach.

Though instances like this one involving Chopra are the exception rather than the rule, they appear side by side with the hordes of more “normal” tweets. Of course, social network sites can include the banal and profound together (e.g., a Facebook user posts about their breakfast and later announces they are pregnant). However, a key difference here between social media and social network sites is the design of the former to be explicitly public and geared towards interactive multicasting. Combine the two – as Twitter does – and you have real-time public, many-to-many broadcasting to as wide a network as the content is propagated by its users. Though the tweets are aggregated into a microblog stream and constitute a corpus as a whole, they are still individual units. Tweets are analogous to bees in that they exist both as individuals and as part of a collectively built whole (i.e., the hive). And, like bees, a single tweet is a self-functioning unit in and of itself. Indeed, a single tweet can also pack a powerful sting! Ultimately, if an individual tweet is perceived as important to other users, it can travel far and wide, crossing many networks in the process. This is particularly true of tweets in social activism (see chapter 6).


This chapter has introduced what Twitter is and how it functions as a type of social media. A key aspect of this chapter has been to define differences between social network sites such as Facebook and social media such as Twitter. Additionally, Twitter has been explained as a microblogging technology which is specifically designed to broadcast short but regular bursts of content to particularly large audiences well beyond a user’s direct social network. This chapter has highlighted how Twitter is structured to increase awareness of others (whether they are “friends” of yours or not). This awareness has been highlighted by Twitter’s ability to broadcast the experiences of ordinary people during social movements and natural disasters.

Twitter has not just made the headlines through news of activism or disasters. Rather, Twitter often pervades both the professional and personal lives of its users. For example, Twitter speed-dating, when singles go to a bar armed with a mobile phone and send tweets to potential suitors, has gained a following in New York (Snow 2009). And, in Los Angeles, the Kogi Korean BBQ-T0-G0 van, which sells Korean-Mexican fusion tacos, sends tweets to its followers letting them know when and where the van will next be stopping (Oh 2009). Twitter has also become an increasingly popular medium for support networks. For example, Hawn (2009: 364–5) highlights the case of Rachel Baumgartel, a woman with type 2 diabetes who uses Twitter to inform her support network of her diet, exercise regime, and hemoglobin Alc levels. For Baumgartel and many others like her, Twitter functions as a medium for a network to keep someone “in line” on a daily basis in terms of following a treatment regime (see chapter 7 for a fuller discussion).

Additionally, Twitter has, in some ways, redefined existing cultural practices such as diary keeping, news consumption, and job searching, to name a few. Indeed as Clapperton (2009) remarks, it has redefined the way in which consumers complain. As he observes, big companies such as Jaguar trawl social media websites, looking for complaints, and then publicly respond to upset customers, offering help. This chapter has not sought to singularly reduce the diversity or complexities of Twitter, but rather to outline some of its functions and uses for those with little or no background of the medium. The following chapters will build upon the structural and definitional frameworks developed in this chapter. However, before doing so, the next chapter will specifically contextualize Twitter within “modern” forms of communications technology.


Contextualizing Twitter

The first twitter of Spring, How melodious its ring The first twitter of Spring, How melodious its ring, its ring, [. . .]