What is “Twitter”

This isn’t a joke. Of course, we all know what Twitter is. It’s that smartphone thing, where you say short things, and other people say things, and you read the things that other people say who don’t necessarily read the things you say.

But seriously, what is Twitter? Twitter is an asymmetrical social media site. That means that instead of having “friends” you have followers, and the amount of followers you have is in no way limited by the amount of friends you could conceive of having, or wish to interact with online. Facebook has a natural upper limit of the number of friends a person someone can acquire. I don’t mean the actual limit (some people have hit it – I think it’s a few thousand), but the limit in terms of the content streaming down your wall which you don’t want to deal with. Or the hundreds of people messaging you everyday when they click “message entire list”.

But on twitter, there is no such limit. A million people can follow you. And, you can follow anyone – not just people you know. If you care about what’s happening in some part of the world, you can simply start following people from that area and you start getting your news in real time. Of course, there are many pitfalls if you try to hold this up against journalistic media – you get only personal biases. But personal biases are real, and usually not specific to only one individual. And you can confirm this empirically because when you follow enough people from a region, you start noticing trends, similarities between them – there is something general about what gets said, it isn’t just random and subjective.

So, what is “Twitter”? Twitter is where you can hear about a bombing from five different people you don’t know, who probably don’t know each other, virtually in real time. And, thanks to tinyurl, people can tweet their blog posts describing their experiences, or their interpretations of current events as they happen.

But, what is that? On one leve, it’s simply the conveyance of information. If we thought that we would start thinking about reliability – how likely is it that such a report is true? How is that effected by the number of reports, and what other things those tweeters say? But of course this is entirely not everything that is going on – what is happening is a new tool is engendering an emotional proximity to events which is no longer mediated through the frame of official journalism. That frame was good for ensuring reliability, but it was also good at effacing the emotional connection. Events are never very “real” when they come through the news wire because they aren’t happening to people; they are subjects of reports.

The whole thing reminds me of grade 8 back at Earl Marriott Secondary when a girl was hit by a car and killed. The event resonated through the school with an emotional shockwave I had never experienced before. I was upset, even though I didn’t know her. People I knew knew her, it was a profound situation. Then I heard about it on the radio on the way home, and it was completely flattened. The emotional content of the experience didn’t resonate at all through the radio announcers voice, it was just one more in a long list of tragedies.

There is something about reading events through twitter that has more in common with the real thing than the journalistic frame. This isn’t altogether surprising – twitter is just the immediate utterances of affected individuals, not mediated through a complex narrative structure. Twitter tweets right at you, stares you down. Little spikes, arrows, like miniature emotional darts. Cries for help. Cries to be recognized.



  1. It is also a chaotic mass of unverified information, mixed with undercover public relations work. Companies and governments are devoting considerable effort to manipulating social media concersations. The tactic works partly because people expect statements there to be more genuine than those in the mainstream media.


  2. My gut feeling is that it should be relatively easy to tell those who are “undercover”, since the view/values of the tweeter come through with every tweet anyway. There is no way to “hide” your agenda or view on twitter; all that comes through is the view.


  3. The less you need to say, the easier it is to hide your motives. Why are we suspicious of short financial reports, and comforted to some extent by long ones?

    Also, even honest Twitter users may speak without context, with missing information, and with errors copied from elsewhere.


  4. A tweet means, roughly, in my opinion, “I think this way/care this way about X and I think/care that you think think or care this way about X too!”

    I think this is true even for tweets which are “statements of fact”, such as “I just heard a loud explosion”.


  5. A tweet means, roughly, in my opinion, “I think this way/care this way about X and I think/care that you think or care this way about X too!”

    I think this is true even for tweets which are “statements of fact”, such as “I just heard a loud explosion”.


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