January 13, 2012 3 Comments
Social Media & Informal Networks
Last year, I carried out research into Twitter for my dissertation. It was based on the question, “How do people use Twitter to get news?” I’ve been a heavy user of Twitter since around November 2010, when I started tweeting about student protests and found that actually, people wanted to listen and engage on those topics – and this inspired the dissertation. I remember looking down a list of new followers and retweets, thinking “How did this happen? I don’t understand. What did I do?!” When the answer is: I was me.
The beauty of Twitter is that it’s the epitome of the ‘new-age’ way of interacting with people and a new way of looking at how society works. No longer are we restricted to geographical communities; no longer are we restricted to the people that we see everyday. We can see the thoughts of, and speak to, thousands of people across the world – people from all walks of life. It is the best example of personalised networking that I’ve come across. We form loose groups and associations – where we see our friends talking to our other friends from a different group – but primarily its function in terms of socialisation is geared towards one-on-one interaction and growth of informal relationships based upon those. Interestingly, too – and crucially – Twitter functions as both a broadcasting tool, and an easy way of interacting with individuals/small groups away from everybody else. This is something I note that Facebook never quite managed to do in such an efficient way, and goes some way to explaining why its popularity has grown among journalists and news gatherers.
My research, incidentally, found that people were attracted to/likely to interact with people who felt the same as them to some degree (hence the creation of associated network bubbles), and they formed implicit ‘trusted’ networks when it came to clicking links and looking at news stories. Commercial or media accounts on Twitter were not of interest to most people – but individual journalists were. They could relate to individual journalists, as opposed to one entire media organisation – this should come as little surprise to anyone, but even when it comes to news, the context in which that news is found is almost entirely social.
In the year and a bit I’ve used it a lot, I have been using it in the following ways:
- Crowd-sourcing information/straw polling views.
- Sharing links and news.
- Broadcasting opinions.
- Publicising things I agree with or am involved with. I publicise this blog on Twitter, for example.
- Thinking out loud: I think through experiences and processes in a public way – I get feedback where I find that I am generally not alone in having experienced whatever it is, and it makes me feel better. It’s quite a cathartic process.
- Asserting myself: Discussing things online tends to make me bolder in my approach to that issue. I argue/disagree with people on Twitter, which is a relatively safe space for me – and this arms me to deal with situations better in the future.
- Of course, I also use it in other trivial and less meaningful ways, too.
The Fifth Estate?
What is interesting is how the perception to Twitter has been changing. There was not a lot of academic research or indeed media coverage of Twitter, or the goings-on of Twitter, such a short time ago. Academic research found prior to my dissertation (2010-early 2011) mainly focused on how journalists used Twitter to disseminate news and reach new audiences. My dissertation focused on the consumer’s unique news experience, and how Twitter enabled this. And now we are seeing that Twitter has infiltrated the news itself – The Sun recently splashed on a story straight from Twitter, where Ed Miliband mistakenly typed “Blackbusters” instead of “Blockbusters”. It is no longer dismissed as something that irrelevant, voiceless people do: MPs use it to engage with ‘ordinary people’ on everyday topics. Its perceived importance is gaining traction.
This means we, the users of Twitter, are in a great position whereby we seem to have some – albeit very small – influence over: a) the news agenda; b) the political class; c) political discourse. Possibly.
From my point of view, I have always been fairly open and talkative on issues, but now I feel it is more important than ever to keep being vocal on those things which are pressing to you. Although what trends on Twitter is not always going to create front-page news, or make the television news channels, it is being observed by those that work in the media. They can see what sort of issues are being talked about, and the more we talk about it – the more that they feel people are concerned about, for example, the welfare reform bill – the more difficult it will become to ignore. Twitter trends take thousands of people to work. Perhaps I am being far more optimistic than I should be, but I think there’s hope yet. I think there is some serious potential to change the frame of debate through the medium of Twitter. Together, thousands – if not millions – of people put pressure on advertisers in the NotW, which resulted in the paper closing down. There is power in the hands of the people, if only we can articulate ourselves well enough.
Changing frames of discourse…? Well, we can try!
This blog post was borne out of a realisation that I do sometimes (often!) repeat myself when I talk about certain issues. I often state them in different ways so that they are easier (I hope) to understand. I have come under criticism for this from some people in the past – I am far too open, and I am far too willing to explain things to people. I see my openness/lack of privacy or squeamishness about describing events in my own life as a useful tool when it comes to getting people to talk about things that I think should be talked about more. Yes, it’s awful to read things so private. Yes, sometimes I push at the boundaries – but I sacrifice my privacy and my life (in that sense) in the hope that: a) someone reads, goes “Wow, I never thought of it that way! She’s right!” and changes their life, attitude or behaviour in some way; or b) it creates a debate that several people can participate in, pass on to their followers, and we can all contribute to an online discussion. A discussion which I feel is necessary to have out in the open, and something about which we absolutely should not be squeamish or embarrassed. I hope, too, that it in some way contributes to a wider debate in the real world.
For my part, I’m going to keep discussing and tweeting about issues I think are important, and I think you should too.