Through brief but expressive posts, Twitter affords numerous transformative effects for the political and social realm of our lives. Compared to other social networking sites (SNS) like Instagram and Facebook, Twitter’s defining feature is the 280-character limit for posts that while constrain a user to short and brief posts, they can still be hugely expressive (Twitter Developer, 2020).
Primarily, the platform has had major transformative effects in the political world. In particular, these effects are a result of how Twitter has facilitated communication between the everyday internet user, field experts, businesses, politicians and celebrities. The effects of Twitter on digital society are a result of its dependent relationships on third party stakeholders including competitors, partners, licenses and regulators. Moreover, it’s situation in the sharing economy consists of communicative sharing as a participatory media source, in comparison to entities like Uber and Airbnb which are classified as distribute sharing platforms (John, 2016). Ultimately, Twitter has created a community that promotes free speech through short posts, tapping into the innate human need to belong, be heard and feel connected onboard a platform that facilitates communication globally.
History of Twitter
Twitter was originally founded under the name ‘Twtter’ by employees of a podcasting service called Odeo by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Evan Williams and Biz Stone in 2006 (Jenkins, 2014). The SNS was launched with the purpose of providing a platform where users could freely communicate with friends and family via the prompt “What are you doing?” on the mobile phone (Burgess & Baym, 2020). Specifically, in the United States, pricing models for mobile phone carriers where high in comparison to Twitter (Burgess & Baym, 2020) who offered low entry costs for any user who in turn also reap the benefits of being part of a community (Couldry, 2015). Twitter has now advanced further than a basic status update messaging platform into one of the western world’s most significant news sharing platform (Bruns, 2018 as cited in Martin, 2019).
The three affordances of Twitter that have contributed to its transformative impact and differentiated it from the nature of other SNS include the use of the “@”, the hashtag “#” and the retweet function (Burgess & Baym, 2020). Initially, the use of the “@” button was used for purely locative means but has transitioned into a common language across multiple platforms that indicate a direction of a message to a particular person (Burgess & Baym, 2020). The original function of the ‘retweet’ acted like a formal academic citation that identified the involvement of someone else’s intellectual labour but has now progressed to a post that shows the whole original tweet and avatar to preserve the integrity and attribute other’s words (Burgess & Baym, 2020).
The Business Model
The CEO of Twitter today is Jack Dorsey, one of the four co-founders of the platform. Since its launch in 2006, it has transitioned from a simple “status update service to a citizen journalism, promotional and business network that counts communications professionals among its core users” (Martin, 2019, p. 103). Fundamentally, Twitter’s business model relies on the participation of users in order to extract value through their data and profits by bringing together online communities of audiences, sellers, buyers and producers (Gillespie, 2018). The business model of Twitter involves a range of deliverable products and services including Periscope, Promoted Tweets, Promoted Accounts and Promoted Trends (Investopedia , 2020). In the third quarter (Q3) of 2020, Twitter experienced a growth of 29% in Monetizable Daily Active Users (mDAU) with a total year’s revenue of $939 million as seen in the infographic below (Twitter Investor Relations , 2020).
More specifically, Twitter makes money in two key areas, that being advertising and data licencing. In 2020, advertising earned Twitter a total of $808.4 million (Twitter, 2020). Additionally, their advertising strategies are improved by partnerships with other tech giants like search engine Google where a Twitter feed is displayed in the search results guiding users to the platform (Twitter, 2015). On the other hand, Data licencing contributed to $127.8 million in revenue (Twitter, 2020).
Situating Twitter in the Digital Economy
As a global SNS, Twitter competes with other technology giants including Facebook, Google, Instagram and Snapchat. As a popular site for sharing mundane personal information to breaking news, Twitter competes heavily with these business as they fight for similar users such as the everyday user, politicians, businesses and celebrities. As their business model relies heavily on advertising and data licencing, Twitter partners with third-party companies that help users and businesses get more out of the products and services offered by Twitter.
Some of their advertising partners include (Twitter Partners, 2020):
Partners that are relevant to Twitter Data include (Twitter Partners, 2020):
- Sprout Social
How Twitter has changed the political landscape
Twitter can be perceived, as Turow (2017) refers to, as a ‘centrality of corporate power’ whereby this concept relates to the fact that users are heavily dependent on private corporate companies to host their everyday interactions (as cited in Couldry, 2015, p.619). By acknowledging that “politics is fundamentally a form of collective action” (Couldry, 2015, p. 617), this highlights the role that Twitter plays in providing a quality of collaboration that affords immediacy and access to the global. Twitter’s potential to strengthen democratic processes by hosting dialogues between politicians and citizens can be attributed to the 280-character limit and its ‘callout’ or dialogic nature that ultimately encourages reciprocity and engagement (Tromble, 2018). While it is not common on Twitter for conversational threads to become extensively long and philosophical, it is a key tool to connecting the mundane everyday user to someone of a higher power and facilities a conversation that has the potential to be reciprocal; key to mobilisation and something that would be difficult to action offline (Tromble, 2018).
Aside from hosting dialogues between politicians and citizens, the use of hashtags on Twitter has had immense effects reshaping the protest landscape. Historically, protests were slow to produce change, difficult to coordinate and lacked planning and action (LeFebvre & Armstrong, 2018). Today, Twitter’s prolific use of the hashtag feature, has become a common language across multiple SNS and can truly incite political engagement and cannot just be thought of as what Burgess and Baym describe as ‘Slacktivism’ (2020, p. 68). Additionally, the ever-updating nature of the feed and hashtags that group together publics into easily searchable entities makes it amenable to the live-tweeting of political events such as protests or elections (Burgess & Baym, 2020). Moreover, this ties into digital activism and offline political mobilisation as seem within successful hashtag moveemtns including #blacklivesmatter, #metoo and #ferguson.
As expressed in the Tweet below, in October 2019, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter would no longer advertise politically for a number of reasons as expressed in the thread.
We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons…🧵
— jack (@jack) October 30, 2019
However, the platform is still indirectly involved in the mobilisation of political action and conversation as seen within the recent 2020 US Presidential Election. Twitter enabled a ‘labelling’ function for posts about the election that were put in place to warn users of potential false and misleading content where they flagged 300 000 posts, a total of 0.2% of election related material (Conger, 2020).
Additionally, a recent feature update slowed down a user’s ability to retweet, encouraging users to read the content they are disseminating. This is not to say that their strategics were a perfect solution and have been criticised by experts for lacking efficacy.
Reading an article before Retweeting it? That’s growth.
Before you Retweet an article, we’ll remind you to read it first. pic.twitter.com/oVyTmSCc7O
— Twitter (@Twitter) October 21, 2020
Triggering regulatory processes
As a platform that is growing in popularity while facilitating communication on a global scale in the sharing economy, Twitter has come under pressure to be more transparent and responsible for the material that is hosts. While regulation is still a growing a field and is yet to be applied globally, leading economies such as Europe and the United States have concurrent effects on social media globally considering the internetworked society we live in. Major regulatory actions include the European General Data Protection Regime, Section 230 in the United States and the eSafety Commission in Australia. Further, regulatory process have put pressure Twitter and threatened their business model and profitability which has encouraged them to take part in self-governance.
Europe’s General Data Protection Regime (GDPR)
As already identified, Twitter can exploit the everyday interactions of individuals and monetize their participation through consumer data (Couldry, 2015). The GDPR was put into effect in 2018, and while originating from the European Union (EU), it “imposes obligations onto organizations anywhere, so long as they target or collect data related to people in the EU”(GDPR.EU, 2020, para 2), thus having a global impact on data privacy in the internetworked society. For example, in January 2019, Twitter failed to report a data breach within 72 hours, resulting in the a fine of 2% of business revenue which is yet to be formalised (Loten, 2020).
From the United States, Section 230 comes from the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. It states that: ‘no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,’ (Goldman, 2020) essentially providing Twitter with immunity. As a platform that boasts free speech and community, lawmakers are considering removing or stripping back the protections provided by Section 230 after accusations of biased censorship and a lack of responsibility associated with being a powerful platform for information dissemination and communication, especially in the wake of the 2020 US Presidential Election. Watch the video below of Jack Dorsey and others testimony in which Dorsey states that “Section 230 is the most important law protecting internet speech, and removing Section 230 will remove speech from the internet” (McCabe, 2020, para 1).
In an attempt to be more publicly transparent and reflect their self-governance, Twitter launched the Twitter Transparency Centre. As a response to the changing media landscape and ongoing concerns of digital transparency, privacy and data usage, this initiative provides interactive insights on sectors from removal requests, email security, platform manipulation, and state-backed information (Twitter Transparency , 2020).
However, as Harvey (2018) identifies, Twitter rules are continually evolving making it difficult to continuously address and react to emerging trends and online behaviours as they happen (as cited in Flew, Martin & Suzor, 2019). Thus, while self-governance and transparency with users is important, there will still always be a struggle in balancing user trust against Twitter’s business model goals.
Towards hearing all voices
Twitter has provided digital users with a platform that facilitates discussion of day-to-day movements, the sharing of news, and a connection to individuals across many areas of the world. It has changed the way that users can share other’s information, with the re-tweet feature, simultaneously encouraging an environment of sharing, co-production and participation. However, thinking of Twitter as a platform hosting expression for all, can be a simplistic perspective as not all voices are heard or visible. This notion of an inclusive public sphere is not an accurate imaginary and it is vital to recognise while analysing Twitter that privileged identities often dominant and saturate, such as those of upper class, educated and male ( Dyer & Hakkola, 2020).
In saying that, there is much potential in Twitter, as seen in the transformations it has already brought to society on a community level but also the regulatory and political levels, that it can evolve and grow to become an inclusive platform that hears everyone amongst the tweets.
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