Twitter has expanded the boundaries of participation in public-facing discourse, and in doing so, has provided a platform for a range of counter-hegemonic discourses: consumers can easily give feedback to businesses (Colliander et al.,2015; Curran, 2011); marginalised communities can counter journalistic misrepresentations of themselves (Freelon et al., 2018; Thompson, 2020); citizens can record and disseminate evidence of police brutality (Mislan & Dash-Gerbino, 2018). Although many have cited these examples as evidence of Twitter’s ‘democratising influence’ (Effing et al., 2011; Blair, 2013), these new two-way discourses remain vulnerable to inequalities that persist beyond Twitter. I argue that, if anything, Twitter has only compounded these inequalities.
“With Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define”
What is Twitter?
Twitter began as a simple idea: “I want to have a dispatch service that connects us on our phones using text”. Those are the words of Jack Dorsey, spoken in a February 2006 brainstorming session at his then-workplace Odeo, a fledgling podcasting platform. The project soon attracted the interests of his co-workers – most centrally, co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone – and one month later, the first tweet was sent:
just setting up my twttr
— jack (@jack) March 21, 2006
Once signed up, users could ‘tweet’ whatever they wished within the 140-character limit (upped to 280 in 2017), and follow whoever they wanted. Twitter’s asymmetric structure – i.e. you can follow someone without them following you back – meant that networking on Twitter depended less on mutual ‘in-person contact’, thereby distinguishing it from other social networking sites like Facebook which largely served as online forms of pre-existing offline networks (Gruzd et al.,2011). From its beginning, Twitter had a confused identity, as described by Evan Williams: “With Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define.” A 2014 study of Twitter’s network structure confirmed this identity crisis, finding that Twitter was “both an information network and a social network” (Myers et al., p. 493). This hybrid identity has important ramifications for Twitter’s business model.
Can You Monetise an Information Network?
The introduction of native advertising in 2010 with the ‘Promoted Tweet’ – an advertisement formatted as a tweet, meaning it wouldn’t interrupt the user experience (Curran, 2011) – was Twitter’s first source of revenue (it was kept afloat for the first four years – and beyond – by venture capital).
Unlike its social networking competitors (eg. Facebook) however, Twitter’s introduction of advertising has struggled to take off, only turning a relatively minor profit for the first time in 2018. This is partly because a site like Facebook – whose structure is inherently social, even as news media is layered on top (Myers et al., 2014) – is “able to gather more data about its users because they are more engaged with other users…[making] it easier to target ads”. Whilst advertising makes up the bulk of Twitter’s revenue (86% of it as of Q3 2020), Twitter also makes money by selling metadata they gather from users. Twitter’s relationship with the big data industry has been fractious however, especially after their 2014 purchase of the data reseller ‘Gnip’, and their subsequent restriction on third-party access to the ‘Firehose’ (the highest volume stream of data that Twitter provides), thereby establishing “a virtual monopoly for Twitter” (Bruns, 2020, p. 75). This was roundly criticised as an “evil move” against the data analytics companies that had grown to depend on Twitter.
‘Competition’ through Consolidation in Twitter’s Ecosystem
This strategy of monopolisation also characterises Twitter’s social media ecosystem. Due to its hybrid identity, Twitter’s competitors include social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram & Snapchat, as well as with information networks, such as Reddit. Although Twitter only has one-eighth of Facebook’s userbase, these two sites have historically been rivals. Indeed, former Facebook employees reported that the company’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram was because they felt “threatened” by Twitter. A few months later, Twitter responded by purchasing the short video platform Vine, although it lost its competitive edge when Instagram introduced videos to their platform. Curiously, this practice of competition through consolidation has gone mostly unpunished. This “lax anti-trust enforcement” is not unique to big tech, but rather is inherent to the political context of neoliberalism, which has allowed these platforms to grow without limit (Glick, 2019, p. 328). Recently however, the spread of political misinformation on Twitter and other platforms has brought the issue of tech monopolies into the public eye. Just last week, Jack Dorsey was summoned to testify on these issues for the US Senate Judiciary Committee. This federal intervention signals that the “potential threat to democracy” these platforms now pose demands meaningful public oversight (Allcott et al., 2019, p. 6).
Twitter Ecosystem. Image: Created by Tom Gojak.
Business Transformation – New Tech, Same Inequities
The effects of Twitter’s monopolisation within its own ecosystem cannot be extricated from the markets they sell their data to. Much has been said about the ‘revolution’ of market research that Twitter has brought about, liberalising access to data on products and audiences, and theoretically facilitating greater competition (Patino et. al, 2012; Fernandez & Guerrero, 2018; Ming & Yazdanifard, 2014). Twitter has branded itself as a liberating agent in this field, as its official blog proclaims that “We are democratising data analysis at Twitter”. However, close inspection reveals that inequalities not only persist, but are compounded by Twitter’s business model. Twitter presently offers three tiers of access to its data: a push-based (automatic) ‘Streaming application programming interface’ (API), a pull-based (on-demand) ‘Search API’, and the Firehose, which is owned and operated by Gnip. The Streaming and Search API are both free and publicly accessible, but limited in a number of ways. As an analytics tool, the Firehose is in a class of its own – more powerful, deep and far-reaching – but Twitter’s monopoly through Gnip lets them set prices as high as they’d like, which has made it “prohibitively expensive for individual researchers” and small businesses to access (Kim et al., 2020, p. 3). The Search and Streaming API are useful in their own right, but their transformative impact on small businesses is ultimately eclipsed by the far greater benefits that the Firehose provides to those who can pay – i.e. pre-established corporations. The premium on access to the Firehose privileges businesses that are already wealthy, whilst leaving small businesses and the like behind. Contrary to their claims of ‘democratisation’ then, Twitter’s data-licensing monopoly has only exacerbated the inequities of any market that takes advantage of its most powerful analytics tool (Bruns, 2020).
Social Transformation – Soapbox for the Silenced, or Hotbed for Harassment?
Since its inception, the internet has been hailed as the next “evolution of the public sphere” (Abbate, 2017, p. 13). This expectation has also coloured perceptions of Twitter, with many proclaiming its role as a unique platform for marginalised voices (Bedeley et al., 2019). Black Americans have described finding a source of “comfort and collegiality” amongst their peers on Twitter (Clark, 2020, p. 269); Indigenous Australians have transcended geographical dislocation to build “networks of trust, help and care” (Carlson & Frazer, 2020, p. 3); and women have congregated around hashtags to offer each other personal support (Hosterman et al., 2018. p. 86). Twitter has cultivated this image of itself – with ads framing the diversity of their users as a selling point, and executives proclaiming Twitter as “the place where inclusion lives”. However, this self-interested branding of ‘diversity’ and ‘progressiveness’ obscures the more hateful elements of Twitter’s platform (Vis et al., 2020). As much as Twitter has been a platform for marginalised identities, it has also been an unprecedented vector for hate speech: Black Americans, Indigenous Australians and women (amongst other marginalised groups) all receive disproportionate rates of abuse on Twitter (Clark, 2020; Carlson & Fraser., 2020; Bartlett et al., 2014).
Hate speech is a problem for all social media platforms, but Twitter’s design makes it uniquely vulnerable: Firstly, the ability to be anonymous means that users are free to propagate hate speech without fear of repercussion; and secondly, Twitter’s asymmetric structure means that targets for harassment can be easily reached and subject to a massive ‘pile-on’ from strangers beyond their usual network of followers (Brown, 2017). Whilst Twitter has made efforts to crackdown on hate speech, its continued presence on the platform evinces the relative “ungovernability of digital hate culture” (Ghanesh, 2018, p. 30). Whilst we can’t evaluate whether the benefits reaped by marginalised communities on Twitter outweighs the platform’s negative impacts, it is clear that Twitter has not brought about the long-prophesied evolution of the public sphere (Abbate, 2017).
Cultural Transformation – The Cost of Citizen Journalism
“Old News – canon rebel t2i” by @Doug88888 licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Another way in which Twitter has expanded the public discourse is through its platforming of citizen journalism (Martin, 2019), hence facilitating the spread of such practices (Owen, 2019). The emancipatory potential of this development has been much heralded, especially as it has allowed for marginalised groups to combat misrepresentations of their communities perpetuated by mainstream reportage (Freelon et al., 2018). Although the increasingly participatory ecosystem of news media has been interpreted by some as a “war on journalism”, closer inspection reveals that citizen journalism has actually reinforced the hegemony of established news media (Murthy, 2011), most notably through its damaging impact on local journalism. Whilst the ‘live’ flow of information on Twitter has forced traditional news outlets to restructure in order keep pace (Kumar, 2019) – often through downsizing/redundancies – smaller local outlets simply do not have the financial wherewithal to pursue this course of action (Bowd, 2016). If local news outlets aren’t shut down, they’re usually bought out, facilitating the further consolidation of corporate power, as exemplified by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire within Australia. However, these buyouts don’t necessarily protect these publications. Earlier this year, Murdoch closed down 112 Australian print papers – most of them local/regional publications – further exacerbating the crisis of disappearing local journalism in Australia’s remote communities (O’Shea, 2019). Whilst the ACCC has suggested taxing Google and Facebook to fund local journalism, this proposal fails to address the irreversible effects that Twitter in particular has had on journalism at large, such as its fragmentation of the audience base for news (Hahn et al., 2015). Ultimately, Twitter’s disruption of traditional journalism has not democratised the news, but has only reinforced the hegemony of media empires at the cost of independent local journalism.
Political Transformation – Protest as Brand, Surveillance as Business
“Black Lives Matter” by Victoria Pickering licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Perhaps the most visible societal transformation Twitter has produced has been its role as a platform for protest movements, including the Iranian Revolution (widely dubbed the ‘Twitter Revolution’), Occupy Wall Street (OWS), Black Lives Matter (BLM), and many more (Theocharis et al., 2014). On Twitter, activists can mobilise protesters more rapidly and cheaply than had been previously possible (Heaney, 2020; Del Gandio, 2020). Many have cited these changes as evidence of Twitter’s empowerment of present-day protesters – a characterisation which Twitter has seized on, branding itself as a “platform for a new wave of social and environmental activism” in the hopes of attracting more users seeking participation in such movements (Vis et al., 2020). However, there is reason to be sceptical of Twitter’s benefits to activists. Many have doubted the sustainability of the movements that originate on Twitter, because of the hyper-accelerated pace of the platform (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012; Couldry, 2014). Others have noted that during OWS, only a “small minority of tweets referred to protest organisation”, suggesting most co-ordination took place offline, and that Twitter’s role had been exaggerated by media (Theocharis et al., 2014). Furthermore, activists have come to view Twitter as not only inadequate, but dangerous – most prominently, through its surveillance capacities. In 2011, activists in the Egyptian Revolution printed the warning “DO NOT USE TWITTER OR FACEBOOK” on their protest manual, after realising their government had been tracking them online (Appelbaum et al., 2012). Governments using Twitter for surveillance has been seen in Bahrain (Jones, 2013), Israel (Larson, 2020), Spain (Hermida, 2018), and not to mention, America. Earlier this year, Twitter’s data was purchased by multiple US police departments to track and BLM protestors. Furthermore, Twitter’s commercialisation of its data has revolutionised mass surveillance power by privatising it – no longer exclusive to government, but available to any corporation who’s buying (Appelbaum et al., 2012). That this is allowed to happen is mostly due to the “neoliberal free trade framing of information privacy”, in which the financial value of data is prioritised over its status as a civic right (O’Rourke & Kerr, 2017, p. 33). On the whole then, Twitter has not lived up to its emancipatory proclamations. Whatever use Twitter has provided to activists is wholly overshadowed by its expansion of mass surveillance powers.
In all of these diverse instances, Twitter’s seemingly democratising effect is overshadowed by the hegemonic consolidation that the platform has facilitated. Whether its in the domain of market research, in the public sphere, in the news media, or in the activist world, Twitter has only tilted the scales in favour of the hegemonic powers that be.
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