It’s created overnight stars. It’s helped guide revolutions. This month, as Twitter turns five, what can’t be denied is the social network’s power.
When Twitter celebrated an anniversary on March 15, it boasted more than 200 million registered users and an average of 140 million tweets sent per day.
The medium has had some fine moments, like uniting protesters in the Egyptian revolution or letting Japanese earthquake victims reach out to loved ones. It’s also had some not-so-fine moments, like giving a larger-than-ever voice to embattled actor Charlie Sheen.
But what’s certain is that Twitter is changing the way we think, speak and relate to each other, said Scott Henderson, associate professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film.
With Twitter, he said, the medium gets as much attention as the message it delivers.
“With the Charlie Sheen thing, for example, the fact that he got a million followers in 24 hours was more newsworthy than anything he happened to tweet,” Henderson said. “On Twitter, there’s more focus on the medium than anything that’s ever said on it.”
Henderson shared some of his thoughts about the medium with The Brock News.
What impact has Twitter had on our culture?
I think it’s taken off a lot more just in the last little while. We see it in things like what went on in Egypt. The revolution was tied very much with social networking and the ability it gave people to network with each other. It really gave us a sense of what Twitter can do. It’s interesting to watch any newscast now when a major event is going on. It used to be that crews would be out in the streets doing interviews. Now they pick up tweets to find out what’s going on.
With the Japanese earthquake and tsunami as well, we saw the power in the ability to get immediate, largely unmediated information from multiple users in multiple locations. When Twitter started, there was a lot of joking about people using it to say what they had for breakfast or that kind of mundane, day-to-day information. But they changed the question (that users answer when tweeting) from “what are you doing” to “what’s going on?” That slight variation changed people’s perceptions of what Twitter means and what it can do.
What have been some of Twitter’s finest moments?
What went on in Egypt is probably one of the most notable in terms of the positive action Twitter can create. Some of its other notable moments have often been less fine in a sense, like Charlie Sheen getting a million followers right after he signed up. I don’t think that’s a crowning achievement from a pop culture perspective, but it’s a notable moment.
Another recent Twitter event involved a social media company hired by Chrysler. One of its workers swore about Detroit traffic and complained about Detroit drivers, and accidentally, he says, posted it to the Chrysler site instead of his personal site. His company lost the contract as a result. I don’t think these are shining moments, but they’re very telling in terms of the kind of power Twitter has.
Has the Charlie Sheen phenomenon on Twitter changed the game at all from a pop culture perspective?
Twitter has given us the ability to get little tweets and little bits of information as it happens. When someone like Sheen comes along and his little outbursts that can be so quickly repeated and don’t need a great deal of explanation, it becomes fascinating for people. What is he going to say next? Presumably that’s why a million people instantly signed up. It’s not because they thought they were going to learn more about Charlie Sheen’s life or get great information from him. It’s because they wanted to be there the moment some other ridiculous phrase was uttered. It was about being there in the moment.
Where do you see the future of it going?
I don’t know. It seems to be moving across devices right now. I’m surprised by the longevity. In this era, five years is longevity. Twitter and Facebook have been game changers more than anything that came before them. They’ve found the right formula.
Twitter isn’t going away because it’s finding ways to adapt. The more mobile we’re becoming, the more useful that 140-character limit has been. Whether it has a long-term impact on language is one of the more interesting aspects. I get essays and emails that have Twitter-esque and MSN short forms in them. That’s how the English language has always changed – that social kind of usage.