What the Heck is Twitter, Part Two!

If you missed it, here’s a link to my last post about using Twitter as a news source.

My last venture into Twitter left me feeling a little bit dissatisfied. I really thought that I would delve in and immediately come out as a modern and enlightened citizen of the online world. Instead, I just felt dumb and even more out of the loop. I’m pretty sure that my dad is better at using Twitter than I am.

So, I resorted to the thing that I am good at: academia. I like to learn new things, and I like to research and read about topics I don’t understand. Studying Twitter from an objective, outsider viewpoint seemed exactly my cup of tea. As an aspiring activist myself, I researched what really interested me about Twitter, which is its recent involvement in social change.

My first exposure to Twitter as a facilitator for real conversation was a talk on campus about the Charlie Hebdo attacks this year. Almost half of the discussion was based around the hashtag #jesuischarlie: it’s different meanings, implications, and effects. It’s message of solidarity was so widespread that #jesuischarlie became one of the most popular hashtags of all time. The graphic below shows (in vibrant color!) the spread of its use.




Is it all just talk though? Meaningless words strung together on a screen to be scrolled past? One of my favorite comments called it “slacktivism” – people sitting behind their fancy computer screens, tapping away, feeling special about “doing something.”

However, as much as I like the term and the concept, “slacktivism” is not always the norm. Take the example of the 2011 protests in Egypt. To begin with, Egyptian citizens saw the Tunisian revolt going on through their TV and computer screens, a spark that cannot be ignored. When the Egyptian protests themselves happened, Twitter, along with Facebook, was used to organize and draw attention to the revolutionaries there. Twitter was blocked in Egypt during that time, but an outside program called Speak2Tweet enabled citizens to bring attention to what was going on, either through links to videos like the one below, or through the hashtag #Jan25 (referring to the date of the first large protest). Anyone in the world seeing that hashtag could connect to the action that was happening that day, in real time. (https://www.american.edu/soc/communication/upload/Caroline-Sheedy.pdf).

There are countless more examples of Twitter’s importance in social movements, but let’s bring it local. There’s no revolution going on in The United States, is there? That depends on who you ask. The Internet in general, and Twitter specifically, are bringing issues of police brutality and racial tension straight to millions of Americans. One only has to look up the hashtags #Ferguson, #MichaelBrown, or #BlackLivesMatter, or #ICantBreath. The list goes on.

The usage of Twitter is even more impressive when put into perspective. Today in class, my professor was talking about the technology in 2001: When the 9/11 attacks happened, people held up missing posters for their loved ones. So much has changed since then. Think about what the Twitter response would have been like if it had existed in that time.

So, I’ve really learned more than I thought I would. Mostly, I’ve discovered how important it is that everyone be connected. More than ever, people with access to the Internet and with the know-how to use it, are the ones with more individual power. It can seem silly when that voice is used to share a tweet about what so-and-so had for lunch, but a simple act is still a demonstration of that force for change.

Going back to “slacktivism” – maybe it’s a lot easier to sit behind a computer screen and type out some words while sipping from your re-useable Starbucks coffee mug than to actually attend a protest, but without Twitter, what would those people be doing? Twitter can also be used to raise money, like for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Even if donations are insincere, they’re still donations, right?

Twitter is a lot more exciting than I thought it was. Although it’s not a perfect system, the hope for me is that normal, everyday people, who normally would just go about their business, are motivated to do more research or get involved with an issue after they see an inspiring hashtag or tweet. It makes me want to bust out some revolutionary hashtags and start a movement myself! Granted, there’s no dramatic push for change occurring at Saint Joe’s, and even if there were, my following on Twitter couldn’t exactly be defined as influential…maybe it would help if I actually started tweeting. (That’s a hint, guys – look out for another installment coming up!)


Posted in: Intellectual Curiosities, Student Life