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What's Happening?

The Twittersphere Unmasked

by MONA CHOLLET

Internet use became commonplace at least 15 years ago, but some people still cannot grasp that it is a user-created medium. The web is presented as a convergence of pre-existing means of acquiring information, but French researcher Dominique Cardon objects to that view; he thinks it just applies traditional media models, including editorial control, to the net, and regards the public as passive.

Yet the nature of the internet has become clear, especially with the advent of Web 2.0 and its user-friendly tools. Thanks to blog platforms, users with no programming skills can self publish. The resulting standardisation of websites has disappointed pioneers, since it is a long way from the creative vigour of the early days. The popularity of social networks such as Myspace (popular with musicians), Facebook and Twitter has further extended the number of content producers. The social internet “allows users with less cultural capital to promote themselves in much shorter, lighter and easier ways than by writing a blog”. A month after Google+ was launched this June, it had 25 million subscribers. It took Facebook three months to achieve that number, and Twitter 33 months. After its August capital increase, Twitter was valued at $8bn, leading to warnings about speculative bubbles because of the site’s economic model.

Twitter has pushed the degree of appropriation allowed by the collaborative internet to its limits. It improvises constantly, redefining itself and validating users’ initiatives. When it was first set up in 2006, the question on the homepage was “What are you doing?”. Some users ignored it and devoted their 140-character tweets to producing their own reviews, commenting on current events (sometimes in real time), responding to each other’s comments, announcing gatherings, sharing photos and videos, placing small ads. So in November 2009 the company replaced the question with “What’s happening?” Then, because users had got into the habit of passing on tweets, preceded by “RT” (retweet), Twitter created a retweet button.

Competing functions

It is now a major internet player but difficult to classify. Is it a social network like Facebook, that allows friends to exchange information, or is it more of a news agency? Its founders have never quite been sure. In 2010 chief executive officer and co-founder Evan Williams defined it as an “information network”, but a year later new functions appeared making it easier to “find your friends”.

Twitter’s goal is to fight off competition while fixing the difficulties new users have. Not all its ideas are unanimously approved. “Find your friends on Twitter — no thank you”. Rather than try to re-form circles of close friends and acquaintances on Twitter, users mostly choose to follow those whose content interests them. Even when they know the person, the approach is quite different. All content is public: what you tweet, who you follow and who follows you. Very few users activate the “protect your tweets” function, whereas restricting access is the rule on Facebook. The point of Twitter is to circulate messages as widely as possible. “Trending” informs users at all times which subjects are the most popular worldwide, or by country or even by city. The tool is most useful on a small scale, as people can use it to select accounts to follow, serious or frivolous, of general interest or highly specialised. Companies, associations, militant organisations and media groups can also open Twitter accounts. Some 40% of users don’t publish and 80% of content is produced by just 20% of registered users.

Twitter is not a cold, neutral form of digital teletype. It has created a changed relationship with news, which is disseminated through links. Previously, reaction to current events was limited to the private sphere, immediate circles or (in journalism) to editorials, but has now acquired a different dimension as well as public weight. The Twittosphere churns out a mix of news, gossip and commentary, once distinct activities, which often leads to suspicion and contempt from people unfamiliar with it. Cardon thinks that’s fair enough, since “making subjective statements, being lax about language and humorous with news … and using rumours and provocation are becoming central to people’s relationship with the media. But the demand for truth and information is also on the rise.”

Hoaxes and false rumours are rapidly exposed. Source checking used to be done by journalists alone; now it is the domain of all internet users, out in the open. This August, a few weeks after the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog was revealed to be a hoax, the Twittosphere unmasked another impersonator claiming to be a female Arab.

Reactive and diverse

Twitter owes its popularity to the extreme diversity of its users, and to its strong communitarian codes. Individuals who may be light years away from each other share the same standardised “profiles”, use the same language, and enjoy the same virtual sociability. Early this year the Arab demonstrators, followed in May by the “indignant” Spaniards, reproduced elements of the resulting digital Esperanto in their slogans, using them as identification badges. But users can glimpse the chasm that divides them. In February the pro-democracy supporters in Bahrain, sickened by violent repression, criticised the country’s royals on Twitter. They drew arrogant responses from other users such as: “Go back to what ever ass hole u came from, and let the elite talk amongst each other, with u just envying us.” And “Its not my fault u lived a fuked up life :) no moneya, abuse? Hurts watching ppl like us enjoyin life, huh?”

Twitter is reactive. By beating the press agencies and TV cameras it enhances its reputation. A tweet has the same format as an SMS, and many users connect with their mobile phones. Once launched, an important news item is conveyed at speed. “Nothing on earth goes faster than Twitter,” said a journalist from Le Figaro during the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008.

The collective appropriation of information makes the Twittosphere a forum for debate, which brings out the best as well as the worst in a crowd — taunts, emotional dictatorship and a lack of distance — but also a critical vision and a different analysis from traditional media.

Not only are events followed in real time, they are collectively dissected in real time, with constant adjustments. Some people are concerned by the speed, as well as by Twitter addiction. Never before in history have such demands been made on the capacity for attention, comprehension and emotional involvement. The media logic, which alternates passionate interest in a subject with total indifference, has reached its apogee. The people who, last March, were at each other’s throats about the merits of military intervention in Libya, are not even mentioning the subject a few months later. The phrasing of its recommendations gives pause for thought: “This article is already one day old, but still worth reading.”

Twitter users risk becoming chained to hot news in a timeframe with no depth or density. It is not suited to thematic historical research, and users fear missing something when they log out. “Look at yourselves, look at us hypnotised by the river of words, news, thoughts and emotions that flows across our screens,” said the journalist Jean-Christophe Féraud. The trick is to fill your bucket without drowning We might look back enviously 20 years to the madness of a period in which people felt condemned to “fax or die”.

Mona Chollet is a journalist and member of Le Monde diplomatique’s editorial team.

This article first appeared in the October edition excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique and CounterPunch  features two or three articles from LMD every month.

All rights reserved ©  Le Monde diplomatique.