Twitter: An Arising Media Artifact in American Culture
In the course of an average year in viewing mainstream American culture, an innumerable amount of fads come and go, gaining their respective fifteen minutes of fame on the stage that is set by the American media industry. After spending what is often a brief time in the spotlight, these media trends tend to fade out nearly as abruptly as they blossomed. The capacity of a media artifact to truly transform American culture is far less likely than the capacity for that artifact to become a blip on the radar screen.
However, there are a select few instances of media artifacts extending far beyond the generally-allotted fifteen minutes of fame and moving into the realm of game-changing cultural phenomena. Such an instance can be seen in the creation of the social networking site, Twitter, which has quickly become a staple in American society. From politicians to comedians, clergymen to school-teachers, this media application has been significantly embraced and has taken the world -- and particularly the American population -- by storm. Its rooting in the field of communication allows observers to understand the depth of which Twitter has changed American society and culture, and can be understood further in the field of communication through many different theories, including that of symbolic convergence.
Twitter as a Rising Force in American Culture
Twitter is an online social networking and blogging service that enables its users to send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, known to the mainstream public as "tweets." Created in 2006 by software architect, Jack Dorsey, Twitter rapidly gained global popularity, attaining over 200 million users by 2011, generating over 200 million tweets and handling over 1.6 billion search queries per day (Sagolla, 2009, p.1). The basis of the launching of Twitter was simple: allow users a way to represent themselves to the public in a way that is both unlimited and limited at the same time. Unlike other social networking applications such as Facebook, which allow users to include aspects of nearly every facet of their lives into one personalized web-page, Twitter placed a limit on the capacity for its users to share. Rather than including every aspect of their daily routine into their Twitter, users find themselves limited. Say what you will, but think about how you say it. In forming and communicating brief 140-character messages, status updates and thoughts with the world through Twitter, users are forced to edit themselves for content and clarity in order to get right to the point. It is in this manner that topics are quickly generated and tweeted out into the "Twitterverse," allowing the world brief insight into the minds behind the messages.
Twitter got off to a slow start but began to generate significant media attention when politicians and celebrities began praising Twitter as an efficient way to relay information. However, despite this media focus on celebrity use, Twitter was largely marketed to the "every-man" who encompassed the majority of the Twitter population. The tipping point for Twitter into the realm of cultural and communication phenomena is largely cited as the March of 2007 South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. During the event, Twitter usage increased from 20,000 tweets per day to 60,000 tweets per day, all due to marketing strategies set in place within the festival boundaries by Twitter executives (Douglas, 2007, p.1). Newsweek's Steven Levy noted, "The Twitter people cleverly placed two 60-inch plasma screens in the conference hallways of the festival, exclusively streaming Twitter messages," which attracted the attention of nearly every concert-goer (Levy, 2007, p.1). He continued, "Hundreds of concert-goers kept tabs on each other via constant tweets . . . Panelists and performers mentioned the service, and the bloggers in attendance touted it" (Levy, 2007, p.1).
From this point on, media attention and word of mouth continuously added to Twitter's growing user population, allowing the site to achieve the vast amount of users that it has today. In only a few short years, Twitter has evolved from a blossoming media site aimed at providing brief messages to the world into a cultural and communicative phenomena upon which trends, political commentary, media, arts and entertainment, religion, and national and global events are communicated. Twitter has become a facet of American life that cannot be ignored, even by those who have maintained the notion that web-based social media is unnecessary. Nearly every journalistic endeavor that makes the national news is rooted somehow in the world of Twitter. From entertainment to news, Twitter continues to hold its own. In the past year alone, NASA astronaut Mike Massimino made headlines by sending the first tweet from space, the media disaster surrounding Charlie Sheen led him to break into the Guinness Book of World Records for most Twitter followers reached in one week, and tweets up and down the American East Coast traveled faster than the seismic activity created by the movement of a late-August earthquake. Clearly, the presence of Twitter in so many facets of the average American's life is both evident and undeniable.
Basis in Symbolic Convergence Theory
Some researchers within the field of communication have found that Twitter holds a basis in the Symbolic Convergence Theory, which is based on a belief that meanings, emotions, values and the motives for action are found in the realm of people trying to make sense out of a common experience. First proposed by Ernest Bormann in the early 1970s, the theory offers an explanation for the appearance of a group consciousness, consisting of shared emotions, motives and meanings (Bormann, 1996, p. 81). Symbolic Convergence is based on the belief that all people who are working together to reach a common goal almost always exchange fantasies proposed by group members in an effort to create social cohesion within the group. In the context of Twitter, fantasy and social cohesion can be expressed in user's inclusion of stories or jokes that contain or reveal emotion rather than pertaining to what is actually going on within the group at that given time (Griffin, 1997, p. 15).
While some may argue that Twitter does not exist in the basis of fantasy, researchers who accept this belief wholeheartedly disagree. While a select few members of the Twitter community actually tweet relative to the experiences they take part in within certain social contexts within the world, other Twitter members who take part in the "trending" of these topics by commenting on these messages or creating their own messages to put forth into the realm of Twitter are largely only commenting on an idealized notion they have developed within their own minds. Rather than commenting on an aspect of life that they themselves have experienced, Twitter allows individuals to take part in the fantasy of direct-involvement by grouping these like messages into categories that tend to make fact and fantasy hard to discern.
In essence, the ability for Twitter members to communicate amongst one another allows them to both create and maintain their shared identity. This is the exact notion that Bormann created when his theory was founded. Bormann posited that significant symbols are shared by group members and referred to these symbols as fantasies, not as a judgment upon their existence but as a recognition of the power they hold within a group (Rozell, 2009, p.152). The fantasy of the group is not based in reality as the members of the group experience it; instead they share a story that chains outward into the minds of others, allowing more and more people to be drawn into the conversation, and therefore into the group itself (Rozell, 2009, p.153). Such a dynamic is clearly apparent in the realm of Twitter, especially in understanding the chain-reactions of communication that are set off when one individual chooses to bring a new topic into the forefront for distribution and continued communication, allowing Twitter to be viewed not only as a media artifact but as a basis for the continued study of Symbolic Convergence within the communication field.
Twitter as a Media Artifact
In being able to understand Twitter as both a media artifact and as a facet of the Symbolic Convergence Theory, one is better able to assess what exactly the influence Twitter has had on society means. Not only has Twitter affected the American masses in terms of communication and culture, but its ability to infiltrate the minds and homes of these Americans has made Twitter a viable form of marketing and agenda setting for institutions, industries, political factions and the like. The fact exists that Twitter has the ability to change the way people think, but the question remains as to whether our thinking is based on fact or on a facet of the fantasy that is embodied in the realm of Twitter and the messages encompassed within it.
Content delivered via Twitter comes from areas and agencies that one would rarely associate, but all have the capacity to engrain their…