Words change meaning all the time. Take, for example, awful. Today, it means something terrible, but it used to mean filled with awe (aweful). In this case, a different spelling has led to a different interpretation. Yet sometimes, the same word may mean the same exact thing, only in a completely different context. This refers to the example of Twitter. Traditionally, "twitter" as a verb meant "to utter a succession of small, tremulous sounds, as a bird" or "to talk lightly and rapidly, especially of trivial matters." In this day and age, however, a mention of "twitter" will conjure up images of the phenomenon that the technological age has brought about. Yes, twitter can still mean trivial talk, even in this technological context, but most likely, it will refer to the "information network" that connects friends to coworkers and even celebrities in a matter of seconds. This paper will thus discuss the benefits and dangers of the so-called "twitterverse" and the "twitter" phenomenon in general, and will focus to these aspects especially when compared to traditional news publications and traditional media outlets. [1: No Author. "Definition of Twitter." Dictionary.com. 2011. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/twitter ]
According to the website itself, "Twitter is a real-time information network that connects [the user] to the latest information about what [he or she] find[s] interesting." A follower would have to simply follow those channels or people that he or she finds interesting, and he or she would have all sorts of information in real time. The website "about" section also offers information on how the process works:
"At the heart of Twitter are small bursts of information called Tweets. Each Tweet is 140 characters in length, but don't let the small size fool you -- you can share a lot with a little space. Connected to each Tweet is a rich details pane that provides additional information, deeper context and embedded media. You can tell your story within your Tweet, or you can think of a Tweet as the headline, and use the details pane to tell the rest with photos, videos and other media content […]" [2: http://twitter.com/about ]
Indeed, Twitter is a marvel not only for trivial pursuits such as those mentioned above. It has, in fact, been proven to be a useful and necessary outlet and tool in many instances, one of which will be discussed below.
The 2009 Elections and the Importance of Twitter
The instance to which I am referring above has to do with the relatively recent events in Iran concerning the 2009 elections in this country. According to the BBC, in short, the voters in this country went to the polls in an overwhelming numbers (especially youths), on June 12th of 2009 to choose a new president. The "battle" had been "billed as a battle between the ruling conservative or "principle-ist" president and more moderate candidates." Just as in past elections, the incumbent, in this case Ahmadinejad, won a second term. What was different about this elections, however, was that the official result that had placed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as winning "with a large majority" was quickly challenged not only by opposing candidates, but also by the population, according to the news site. [3: No Author. "Q&A: Iran's presidential election." BBC News. 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8081440.stm ]
It would be ignorant and a disservice to the technology savvy Iranians to neglect the use of the internet in the aftermath of these elections, and especially important to point out is the use of Twitter to counteract the traditional, government controlled media. The use of Twitter, in this case, was to promote protests and post the terror happening in real time in Iran and express it through the world through pictures (Twitter) or video (Youtube). This was perhaps the first and the most widely known instance where anyone could have a voice in this rigid country. According to CBS News, "as Iran's government crack[ed] down on traditional media after the country's disputed presidential election, tech-savvy Iranians […] turned to the microblogging site Twitter," the use of which was, again, utilized to "organize and send pictures and messages to the outside world - in real time as events unfolded," which was a "powerful example of how such tools can overcome government attempts at censorship." [4: Associated Press. "Twitter Tells Tale of Iran Election." CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/06/15/tech/main5090788.shtml ]
This CBS article is vital to understand just how much such sites as Twitter matter to the non-U.S. world, and especially to those oppressed. According to an Iranian interviewee,
"When I'm not connected to Twitter it means that I'm disconnected from the world because the state TV doesn't report many things!" [5: Associated Press. "Twitter Tells Tale of Iran Election." CBS News. 2009. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/06/15/tech/main5090788.shtml]
This fact is understandable because Iran, just like many developing countries, either prohibits use of the internet or limits it to those more affluent. However, the youth factor has changed this dramatically. This means that Twitter and other networks are used "mostly by the young and liberal," according to CBS, "and may overemphasize their numbers while ignoring more-conservative political sentiments among the non-connected." Perhaps one of the other important facts to notice from this particular instance is not only Twitter's impact on Iranian society, but also its impact on people all over the world. According to a co-founder, "we noticed people creating accounts during the riots presumably because they heard Twitter was the most efficient way to discover and share what was happening in the moment." The fact that people thus chose Twitter over traditional media to find unbiased, clear, up-to-the-minute information cements the site not only as reliable but also as widely utilized. [6: Associated Press. "Twitter Tells Tale of Iran Election." CBS News. 2009. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/06/15/tech/main5090788.shtml]
To further add to the legitimacy of the site, when Twitter planned to go down for 90 minutes for maintenance during the protests, the State Department actually asked the site to reschedule due to the fact that Twitter's role as a communication tool in Iran was too great to ignore. Eventually, the Iranian government caught on, so to speak, and blocked not only Twitter, but other social media sites that were utilized to spread information instead of the utilization of the traditional media, according to CBS news. To illustrate with an example before moving on to the dangers of the "twitterverse," one Twittee identified as "alirezasha" stated, according to CBS that during that day "4pm a CALM protest with Karoubi and Mousavi/confirmed by Karoubi's campaign manager and VP." This is the clearest example of the way that Twitter has changed the media landscape.
The Dangers of the Twitterverse
One must also note that there are dangers that come with Twitter. While in Iran, Twitter was a vital part of the awakening of a new generation and its finding of a voice, in other countries, especially in the Western World, Twitter and social media in general can and does take the place of traditional media. This happens because Twitter is faster in posting messages and thereby relating information, but this also undermines the quality found in news that belongs to the traditional media. Furthermore, according to some studies, Twitter can also numb our sense of suffering. CNN states, "Rapid-fire TV news bulletins or getting updates via social-networking tools such as Twitter could numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering." Such statements are supported by various scientific research such as, [7: "Scientists warn of Twitter dangers." CNN News. 2009. http://articles.cnn.com/2009-04-14/tech/twitter.study_1_moral-compass-brain-and-creativity-institute-social-networking-sites?_s=PM:TECH]
"New findings show that the streams of information provided by social networking sites are too fast for the brain's "moral compass" to process and could harm young people's emotional development," or "Before the brain can fully digest the anguish and suffering of a story, it is being bombarded by the next news bulletin or the latest Twitter update, according to a University of Southern California study." [8: " Scientists warn of Twitter dangers." CNN News. 2009. http://articles.cnn.com/2009-04-14/tech/twitter.study_1_moral-compass-brain-and-creativity-institute-social-networking-sites?_s=PM:TECH ]
To further expand on this idea, according to scientists, brain scans showed that humans can process signs of physical pain in others quickly, but took longer to show more positive traits, such as admiration of compassion. In order for the latter, one needs time and reflection, which is exactly what the "twitterverse" does not offer. By utilizing these up to the minute, daily messages, which function much like instant messaging on cell phones, people will begin to lack an understanding of basic social interactions and deregulate their moral compass. Most scientists in this case do not agree that 140 characters can allow true expression of one's feeling.
Despite the dangers of Twitter, it is a mechanism which has shaped and will continue to shape our society. Though we must heed the advice and continue normal social interactions, the engine has clearly proven its advantages, which can be quite great. According to a New York Times article,