The last two decades have seen an explosion in the diversity of internet platforms arising to shape and alter the digital landscape – most notably social media and online networking platforms. Twitter is among the largest of these platforms and has an interesting and complementary relationship to its fellow first-tier social networking sites. Twitter, like its peers including Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, is used for a huge amount of mundane social networking, but it is also a direct influence in the worlds of academia, journalism, and politics. Twitter has altered the media landscape most significantly in politics, the economy, and the cultural/social realms, becoming a significant host for national and international societal and governance dialogues. Fuchs (2015) argues that to understand social media one needs to understand the relationship between culture and the economy, which must include the political sphere. Twitter has become a powerful agent of change with complex relationships to governance, regulatory bodies, popular opinion-making, other platforms and most members of our society.
Founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Noah Glass, and Biz Stone, Twitter has grown into one of the largest social networking sites in the world with roots in many non-English speaking countries such as Indonesia, Japan and Brazil, despite its US base (Burgess & Baym, 2020). Designed for minor life updates within small personal networks, Twitter initially dictated (then) SMS-style blocks of plain-text ‘tweets’ on a single public timeline (Burgess & Baym, 2020). It became popular with the public with live-streamed Tweets featured at the South by Southwest conference and music festival in 2007 (Burgess & Baym, 2020).
Twitter’s purpose is frequently debated, with commentators using terms like “microblogging” and “social network” to characterise Twitter as a new form of digital media (Burgess & Baym, 2020). As blogs and open article publishing developed, Twitter’s use was predominantly steered by ‘tech’ users, commonly first-world white males with backgrounds and expertise in technology, software development, journalism, and later politics. In 2009, their tagline changed from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” to re-position as a news-oriented information network rather than being oriented towards social friendships (see Figure 1). Twitter is now frequently described as a “central nervous system of the world” or a “global newsroom” as is dominated by high profile celebrities, journalists, academics and politicians broadcasting ideas intended for wide public consumption (Burgess & Baym, 2020). The Twitter of today has a very interesting position as a network for social listening, that goes much further than their beginnings as a small social networking site.
In its rise to popularity, Twitter gained an influential role in politics. While originally dominated by users active in politics and journalism, its relationship to politics was strengthened by its use in the 2008 US election (Parmelee & Bichard, 2016). Former President Barack Obama helped shape Twitter by using it as a tool for public interaction rather than information dissemination (Parmelee & Bichard, 2016). Since this initial cross-over between politics and digital media tools, Twitter has become an essential platform for political rhetoric. While other platforms tend to model a privacy-based style, Twitter opens up discourse more publicly. According to Miller (2009), this makes Twitter comparatively more adult in its interface and therein lies its importance as a political tool.
While Twitter has allowed for the growth of more open global politics, it also presents drawbacks in the transition to a digital model. Political leaders, particularly US President Donald Trump, exemplify the transition of politics from a traditional offline model of communication with the public through the filters of professional media, to direct, unfiltered online communication – for better and for worse (see Figure 2) (Parmelee and Bichard 2016).
Widespread adoption of Twitter profiles for businesses has grown the Twitter ecosystem and created a black market for sale and purchase of fake profiles, followers and engagements (Neagle, 2012). Predictable symptoms of a growing and largely unregulated online economy, these purchases create significant economic value but bring the obvious and significant non-economic cost in moral and ethical concerns. From a business perspective, it’s easy to understand why one would engage in the selling and purchasing of Twitter followers; it generates profit and is cheap and easy. However, users with a fake or purchased following also achieve significant power and influence on the platform (Neagle, 2012). Within the ‘Twittersphere,’ legitimacy is becoming more and more of a concern, both for users and platform owners as Twitter’s global economic impact goes beyond the scope of advertising and marketing to third-party businesses that arise as a result of Twitter’s growth (Neagle, 2012).
As global politics and economics have been altered by Twitter’s growing impact, so too have broader social and cultural landscapes shifted. Arguably, social and cultural changes have had the largest influence on community behaviour. By their very nature, social networking platforms drive constant connection; simply having a Twitter account instantly makes anyone a part of a large on-going global conversation (Ince et al. 2017). Historically, one might have sent a letter to another individual and waited days for a response, made a person-to-person call, or listened to a broadcast from a single source, but Twitter’s communication allows for immediate “live updates” to many people, from many people, combining millions of user’s stream-of-consciousness style posting and updates (Ince et al. 2017). This furthers the constant connection of the 21st century, with tools such as “explore” pages and trending tweets necessary to allow users to manage myriad connections with what’s happening around the world at all times, whether connected or following the relevant users or not (Burgess & Baym, 2020). As a result of Twitter’s layout, platform model and many-to-many communication flow, it has significantly altered the global connectivity of the world and the fundamental culture of communication.
This significant shift from traditional communication has also altered the way we view ourselves and our own opinions. Lasch (1979) argued that social media and the digital age have furthered the overvaluation of personal opinion. The Twitter layout exemplifies this, with the prompt “What’s happening?”, and previously “What are you doing?” (Burgess & Baym, 2020). Not only do we almost require social media in today’s societies but crave it and its ability to make users feel special and valued in their opinions, views and thoughts. The cultural change this implies derives in part from digital ubiquity, in that, when we are all connected to everyone, there will always be someone else out there that cares what you have to say and/or agrees with you – the key building blocks for constructing your own ‘echo chamber.’
Twitter has also driven significant social change through the ‘hashtag’ (#) features. Twitter hashtags have become popular in mobilising both social and cultural change. Ince, Rojan & Davis (2017) observe that social movements exist to construct meaning within the movement for audiences to follow and understand in a specific way. According to them, social media allows a greater understanding and scope for interaction with social movements, in particular, the hashtag in the Black Lives Matter movement (Ince et al, 2017). With Twitter used as an “arena” of user-generated content, this allows greater and easier user interaction with big ideas as well as a decentralized method for information dissemination. Hashtags online are ubiquitous and are often made to unite a community, to create easily searchable topics, or to associate ideas with others (Ince et al, 2017). Ince et al (2017) argue that hashtags for social movements are sociologically important as they represent a collective attempt for discussion without the need for a specific leader. Case studies in Egypt, Moldova and Iran showcase the way in which hashtags mobilise, inform and promote citizens to activism (Parmelee & Bichard, 2011). The hashtag #pman was used in Moldova to encourage 10,000 activists to protest suspected voter fraud, for example.
While Twitter and hashtags are public and open, their potential for positive change can be limited by these affordances that also promote positive social change. Critics and detractors can use these same hashtags to interrupt important discourse or to dispute rhetoric (Ince et al, 2017). This was seen during the #blm movement in 2020, with many counter activists using the hashtag to disrupt the movement. Although Twitter has the potential for promoting social movements on a global scale, it should only be seen as a platform for discourse, as opposed to a cause. Considering its open and public nature, linking Twitter to the root of a social movement would devalue opposing ideas or public discourse.
Within the dynamic digital landscape, Twitter along with other social networking platforms has faced ongoing discussions of enhanced regulation and governance. With government ‘safe harbour’ schemes in place, online platforms are not legally required to conform their content to regulatory standards as publishers (Flew, Martin, and Suzor, 2019). But by nature, the government and media sources are in fundamental conflict, whether that media be modern social platforms or traditional print media (McChesney & Schiller, 2003). Social media has generally aligned philosophically with the Americanised conventional view that media should be free of limitations and independent of censorship (McChesney & Schiller, 2003). This extends to Twitter and previous debates regarding ownership of user-generated content.
On a global scale, it’s difficult for networking platforms like Twitter to stick to a specific governance policy given the wide variation in worldwide regulation regimes. What may adhere to laws in one region, may not in another. A model of communications closely aligned to the US-style is being exported across the globe as policy debates tend to be similar worldwide (McChesney & Schiller, 2003). Generally speaking, tighter regulations for Twitter and associated platforms would promote a more structured model for others to follow, however, this presents significant limitations when addressing the need for global regulation as well as the fast-paced.
In analysing the regulatory practices surrounding Twitter, it’s important to consider the influence of competing platforms. Since Twitter’s inception in 2006, it grew with many other platforms such as Facebook and Tumblr, who all incorporated the practices of participatory culture and user-generated content into their interfaces (Burgess & Baym, 2020). Because of this growth, alongside the evolution of modern societies, Twitter has maintained is status within its own niche yet still forming a part of the larger landscape. Yglesias (2020) states that while Twitter and Facebook used to operate on similar chronological algorithms, they have now shifted to represent two fundamentally different platforms. In comparison to other more popular social networking platforms, Twitter maintains its point of difference by being more politically and academically inclined as a thought sharing platform, as differentiated from Instagram’s reliance on images and Facebook’s social-climbing approach (Burgess & Baym, 2020). While Tumblr may be considered a direct competitor for Twitter, the user bases differ radically. While Twitter is maintained largely by academics, Tumblr leans more towards creatives. Overall, while Twitter has competitors in the digital landscape, they maintain their competitive advantage through their interface and users.
As seen in Figure 3, Twitter’s impacts and effects on society come together to present a holistic picture of where it stands in the digital landscape. Analysing the platform’s competitors, features, effects, regulators, users and uses, one can understand Twitter’s influence as a promoter of technological change and the shift in traditional social models across a range of social sectors.
Because of its major influences on society, Twitter can be seen as an agent of internetworked change. Alongside similar platforms within the digital landscape, Twitter features its own unique user base responsible for its influence on the political, economic and cultural sectors. Overall, Twitter developed with the world to alter the way we view communications and connections. As part of digital discourse, it’s important to analyse the correlative effects of Twitter and the digital landscape on social elements and vice versa, with many of these not mutually exclusive. Looking closely at the features of Twitter’s interface, it’s global impact, and the large-scale participation and exploitation of social movements, Twitter can be attributed with responsibility for large-scale change.