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What is Twitter?

Studies of social media have tended to focus on individual platforms, which may lead to the impression that each platform is mainly used in one particular way by everybody. This then informs our generalisations about what social media is and its consequences.. This description of a platform as constituted by one mode of usage is often determined by how it was used initially or by the intentions of its creators. But platforms are constantly changing, both in terms of how people use them and in terms of design. For example, Facebook today is very different from the Facebook of 2006.

In this reading we illustrate the problems of associating a platform with one dominant mode of usage, through an examination of Twitter use as we encountered it among residents of The Glades. While we might assume that Twitter is predominantly a tool for spreading information, for example as used by journalists, we found that In fact a facility which is designed to send 140 characters or a link to a website to anyone who chooses to see their posts, can become a tool used for a huge variety of purposes. So, for example, a middle aged women called Trudy has only two uses for Twitter. The first is to try to obtain cleaning and other jobs in her local area through hashtags such as #anythingforwhichyouwillpayme£8anhour. Her second reason for using Twitter is to follow the antics of her ex-husband.

The Many Uses of Twitter

One of the main uses of Twitter we encountered was for joking conversation between school pupils. Many of these pupils aged around 13 or 14 assume this is the only way one could use Twitter. As far as they are concerned Twitter is obviously designed simply to say silly things to each other for the entertainment of peers. They may be quite unaware that adults also use Twitter or that it is possible to use Twitter for entirely different and serious purposes.

Sometimes one can find a single person who has a whole series of different genres of usage for Twitter, simultaneously. While a few people manage this through having separate accounts, for example one to promote themselves in the music business and another to banter with friends, there are those who include many genres within the same account. For example Robin, a school pupil, has eight main genres for his Twitter usage, including following the news, being part of a history class group within his school, being hugely absorbed in following and commenting upon his local football team, trying to show how clever he is by coming up with some entertaining tweets during the course of the day and hoping this will attract many re-tweets or likes.

Why Do We Use a Particular Platform?

This evidence should make us pause before trying to understand the uses of social media through an analysis of the properties of the platforms. We would generally expect that people would choose one platform over another because it was better designed for the purpose they intend. In the literature the potentials of a platform, such as whether it is more private, or better suited to larger groups, or easier to access, are called its `affordances.’ Yet one of the main uses of Twitter by school pupils such as Robin is for banter among peers. You will view an example of this banter which can sometimes escalate to full-blown arguments in a film about Twitter beef film later in this week’s material. This reflects behaviour originally found offline in school playgrounds which seems to have migrated to social media mainly through the development of BBM (a free messaging service between the users of Blackberry phones developed in 2005 and which became one of the models for WhatsApp, a more recent messaging service). We might have thought there were particular properties of BBM that leant itself to that usage, for example, it was heavily encrypted and private. But we found the same behaviour migrated in some of our fieldsites such as Trinidad to Facebook, while in England it migrated to Twitter, which unlike BBM is a highly public platform.

Our Genres of Communication

What seems to remain are the genres of communication such as school banter. If these can be seen to move freely between different platforms with entirely different affordances, then this suggests that we should be cautious in attributing cause to the technology or the particular nature of platforms. In this course we commonly use the platform as the unit of our discussion, since at any given time people associate each platform with particular genres and audiences. But that does not imply an argument for any natural or causative relationship between the infrastructure of that platform and the way a population uses it. Indeed most of this course is concerned with differences in the way the exact same platform is used by different populations which must then be for cultural rather than technical reasons.

So the answer to the question `What is Twitter?’ has to be that it is whatever people decide to use it for.

Which brings us to the obvious question - what do you use Twitter for?

This article is from the free online course:

Why We Post: the Anthropology of Social Media

UCL (University College London)

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