Monday, December 7, 2015

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

Next March will be the tenth anniversary of the launch of Twitter, once derided as a micro-blogging services for the self-obsessed, and now considered such a massively important method of online communication that outages are front page news.  The rise of the Twitterverse seemed to happen so fast.  Initially, the service was greeted with skepticism.  What could you really say in only 140 characters?  Did you really need updates on the everyday course of another person's life?  Who would spend so much time composing and sending tweets?  And who would read them?  It turns out, depending on who was writing, everybody.  Texting exploded in popularity right around when Twitter began.  Within a year or two, everybody who was anybody had a Twitter account.  And maintaining that social media presence could have a noticeable impact on the celebrity and standing of public figures.  Companies and organizations have Twitter accounts.  Heads of state and religious leaders have twitter accounts.

I think when it really struck me that Twitter was becoming a major force was when the cable news programs started mining them for quotes.  Initially I thought this was in poor taste, discussing random netizen's commentary on various events in order to fill time.  However, the curation of tweets quickly became better and more focused.  Tweets started coming from notable figures, and some specific tweets were making headlines themselves.  Then relaying tweets gathered from people in the middle of disasters and crises became commonplace.  And we started seeing fights over Twitter censorship and Twitter blocking in various countries.  People got persecuted and arrested for tweets.  And then, of course, Arab Spring happened.  And before I knew it, following hashtags wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and I was creating my own Twitter account to follow the conversations between various celebrities online, and announce updates to this blog.

I wasn't very good at Twitter though, and after about a year or so of actively trying to participate, I stopped reading my Twitter feeds.  Around the time I went on hiatus, I stopped updating the Miss Media Junkie account for good.  I don't think I ever had more than a dozen subscribers at any point anyway.  What's so attractive about Twitter is the immediacy of it, the way you can be in contact with anybody in the public sphere with a few clicks, and amplify your message with enough retweets or the support of the right people.  However, I found I don't have much important to say, and no real desire to be in the spotlight.  Maybe in different circumstances, Twitter will be more useful for me, but I only managed to experience it as a time waster, and frankly I just ran out of time.

So I've watched the continuing Twitter takeover of the world mostly from the sidelines.  It continually astounds me how creative and versatile the platform can be.  I love the emergence of the fake Twitter accounts, like the glorious @NotTildaSwinton that dispenses absurdist Swintonesque nonsense, and @seinfeldtoday, which comes up with plot summaries of fake "Seinfeld" episodes featuring the daily annoyances of the 2010s.  And you've got @RealTimeWWI tweeting updates form World War I as if it were happening in the present.  And that British guy who tweeted the entire Bible over the course of three years.

And when people talk about social media campaigns, Twitter is the default method of getting the word out, for good or bad.  When people want to make a stand or have their say, they can do it on Twitter without spending a dime.  It's debatable how much of an effect it's having from one moment to the next, but it does have an effect.  And the media and the powers that be have taken notice.  I'm still a little resistant to the notion that measuring the incidence of certain key words or phrases in people's tweets can really tell you anything, but there are all kinds of trackers now, measuring just that for marketers and researchers.

And somehow the discourse hasn't become dumbed down or reductive.  Twitter is just a different way of communicating and getting ideas across.  It turns out that you can say quite a lot in 140 characters at a time, and there are no limits on the number of tweets, the length of Twitter conversations, or the number of people they can be directed to.  Yes, a lot of it is silly chatter, but once in a while, a few little tweets are anything but.

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