May 20, 2011

Twitter? I hardly knew her

Though labeled as superficial social media, Twitter has both comic and serious uses in the global community.

Like many people, I was initially skeptical of Twitter’s potential. In general, I’m usually on the rearguard of new technology. It took me a long time for me to switch over fully to cell phones and text messages from regular landlines. I am constantly cynical about the worth of new social services, and I hate that we now seriously talk about Googling and Tweeting each other. But applying the same quasi-Luddite approach to Twitter and to many of the other new platforms of Web 2.0 is a mistake that ignores much of the value that can be found and created on Twitter.

Twitter is, like many other things on the Internet, a new social medium. Like many media, its possibilities and unique capabilities arise from its particular quirks. The most defining feature of Twitter is its 140-character limit, which forces concise, quick-read commentary. But the true genius of Twitter’s appeal, as well as its potential for a wide variety of uses, is rooted in two other overlooked features, hashtags and @mentions. The @mentions feature allows users to tweet directly at other people, instigating a direct and public dialogue. On Twitter, they can be used to communicate with the largest companies and the closest friends.

Hashtags, on the other hand, work much like topic tags on the rest of the web, allowing similar tweets to be grouped together and seen as interconnected and universal commentary on a specific subject. Of course, hashtags have undergone a sort of revolution that allows them to be used ironically and in casual conversation, #ifyouknowwhatImean.

Hashtags are the ideal example of Twitter’s immense and unique ability to cater to multiple consumer purposes. For example, comedians are a group that has particularly flowered on the Twitter platform, using hashtag trends to create witty and precise one-liners. One example of this is the trending hashtag of #fatindiebands (best hits: Crystal White Castles, Almond Joy Division, Cinnabon Iver, Tacobelle and Sebastian). Hashtags help Twitter capitalize on its identity as a social, crowd-sourcing medium, instead of just being another soapbox for already famous comedians.

And yet, while helping these creative individuals, it also compels some of the world’s largest corporations to enter its online domain. In fact, large companies were among the earliest adopters of Twitter, using it as way to communicate with their large consumer bases. This is one instance, among many, in which the 140-character “limitation” of Twitter is in fact an asset: For both consumers and companies, the shorter format is preferential to comparatively lengthy phone calls and e-mails. Additionally, the public nature of these tweets and of Twitter enables companies and other consumers to see how widespread and pressing certain issues are. If numerous consumers are tweeting about a problem, both the company and the consumers know about it, creating a transparency that also gives companies an incentive to act faster to solve problems.

But its benefits don’t stop at consumer satisfaction. Like Facebook and other social media of the web, Twitter has already begun to be used in larger social movements. The half-open, conversational aspect of Twitter has been exploited in the so-called “Twitter Revolutions” in the Middle East in the past year. In Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, Twitter has been used both to publicize conflict and organize protests, helping to expose issues that would normally be suppressed by more restricted media outlets. In the US, the power of these “Twitter Revolutions” is underestimated, because Americans already have a number of avenues for free speech. But in countries where free speech is more difficult to protect, the anonymous and concise natures of tweets provide a safer and faster way to display dissent and disseminate information.

At its heart, Twitter is a medium that capitalizes on the mass nature of the web. It takes the web’s inherent expanse and scope and harnesses the power of the masses by limiting their output. Although sites like Blogger and WordPress allow anyone with Internet access a soapbox from which to spout their ideas at infinite length, the bite-size proportions of Twitter communication allow for the possibility of actually reaching out to large numbers of people who will actually read and absorb your information.

Even in this early stage, Twitter has proven that it is appropriate for a variety of uses, some trivial and some revolutionary. Twitter is a medium, and like any other, it should not be criticized for some of its more popular uses and users. Much like Facebook, the many uses of Twitter are what give it its power: through its diverse functionality and universal accessibility, it has established itself as part of the everyday life of a large number of users.

Instead of decrying the vulgarity of new media and the superficial uses to which it can sometimes be put, we should attempt to explore the beneficial possibilities of new platforms instead of pigeonholing them according to their more popular and stereotypical uses.

Ivy Perez is a fourth-year in the College majoring in History and English.