Ten theses on Twitter
[UPDATE: We are now in the middle of the biggest #ukelection "tw-event" so far. #gillianduffy]
[Preamble: I've been spending a lot of time watching the UK election's impact on Twitter. I'm also using it, under editorial guidelines, for my work. I also use it - in a self-censored manner dictated by my professional use of it - as a social networking tool. As a platform it's in its infancy and its utility is being defined with each iteration: Obama, Iranian uprising, UK general election. Following last night's piece on the role of social media in the UK election there's been some debate (on Twitter) about it, with some saying it's all rubbish, others disparaging my piece on an "old git gets wit' da youth" basis. Bearing in mind that a part of Newsnight's audience wishes the whole social media thing would go away, I offer the following totally subjective set of observations. Discuss]
1. Twitter gives potentially perfect realtime feedback to any political event (through realtime searching). The quality of the feedback rises in proportion to the quantity of mentions of the event. Thus, the bigger the event the better our knowledge of its impact.
2. Twitter has the power to amplify the impact of any political event. Because users create their own social network, by choosing who to follow, Twitter has the potential also to distort the impact of any political event, reinforcing existing political opinions and prejudices. Twitter and 24-hour rolling TV news tend to feed off each other during breakthrough-level mass events, to an extent that has not been properly understood.
3. Twitter has more power than any existing web-based network to spread suppressed information, heterodox responses and humorous rejections of the official line. It amplifies the impact of crowding in a more efficient way than blogging (through trackbacks, links, Technorati mentions etc) and Facebook (where group-formation can lead to duplication, and needs users to be more proactive).
4. Though providing a large, viral platform for political propagandists, propaganda on Twitter tends to provoke a cloud of critical, cynical and humorous demolition jobs, lessening its impact and in some cases producing total rejection and even permanent pariah status for the propagandist.
5. The 140 character rule tends to amplify the "false ring" that all propagandist prose contains, thus immediately "branding" spin-attempts as false and quickly branding persistent spinners as untrustworthy. A similar outcome awaits the more genuine, fired-up, activist shouter who quickly loses followers who do not agree with them and thus drops out of the conversation.
6. Twitter, especially when used to auto-update Facebook status, is an effective DIY news publication tool, but relies on the trustworthiness and identity of the writer. It is also becoming an ad-hoc collaboration tool between journalists. e.g. by tweeting, as opposed to texting each other, journalists have been co-ordinating and informing each other's questions at political press conferences, formalising the "collaborative competition" principle of lobby-type journalism.
7. For these reasons, Twitter is, at present a) a tool for realtime qualitative research; b) a reliable, but still legally constrained, tool to evade censorship; c) a sporadically effective means for the mass of people to force behaviour changes in the corporately-owned media; d) a highly-inefficient and ultimately self-defeating vehicle for propaganda; e) an effective transmitter of news; f) a collaborative tool for professional journalists.
8. Since Twitter does not release usage stats, and users' own stats are limited to knowing who follows and retweets their content, the owners have a monopoly of the information that would validate or disprove the above. Twitter would become a more perfect information tool for political discourse if the usage data were to be made completely transparent. In addition it is impossible to interrogate Twitter's history effectively, even with the public data. We would wish to know: a) what are the drivers of critical mass in hashtag trending? b) how quickly propagandists lose followers/ truth-tellers and reliable witnesses gain followers; c) the average size and demographic mix of a user's "followers" and "followed" list; d) the demographic makeup of Twitter users; e) qualitative research with newspaper editors, politicians, dictators, journalists and spin-doctors would identify the role of Twitter in the "we're becoming a laughing stock, let's stop this now"-type decision points.
9. Twitter does not create new trends, ideas or news but amplifies the speed of their adoption, refines their accuracy through collective criticism, reduces the ability of mainstream media and censorship to suppress them and mis-represent them. More users + bigger numbers of followers = more rapid amplification of trends.
10. Thus Twitter (building on blogs and Facebook) is the latest stage in a media revolution which is a) analogous to the arrival of uncensored, cheap newspapers representing heterodox views (cf L'Echo De La Fabrique, the first worker-produced newspaper in Lyon in 1831which led to unexpected political events); b) has the potential to partially or completely neutralise the ability of the corporate media to transmit the dominant ideology. This has implications for the practice of professional journalism, which will need further research.