In a previous post, I talked about what kinds of messages one should and should not communicate using Twitter given how the technology works. In this post, I want to focus on the uses of Twitter, a system of communication in which users create 140-character messages that are released into the “twittersphere” like a dove into the sky.
A recent survey of tweets that has gotten some attention lately concluded that 40.55% of all tweets are “pointless babble.” One social media researcher, @zephoria, has taken exception to this characterization of Twitter. Are so many tweets pointless, and who should decide? Perhaps obviously, only you can answer that for yourself.
On the surface, Twitter users can “tweet” a message about what they are doing or thinking from a handheld device such as a cell phone, or a computer, and can follow what others are doing and thinking. This is the core of the Twitter experience. Generally, the key to successfully using Twitter, I think, is to tweet whatever you find interesting, not what you think others want to hear. If it interests you, it will probably interest someone else. Conversely, follow whomever you want. Don’t be shy, and never be afraid to unfollow someone, nor be hurt if someone unfollows you.
On a deeper level, Twitter’s most interesting feature may be that it offers you the potential for a very broad audience for your communication messages. I will use the term “imagined audience” to describe this potential. It refers to the audience a producer of a communication message imagines exists for that message. It is one way scholars think about traditional mass media such as radio, television and film, and new media such as YouTube.com. Twitter does not send your tweet to specific individuals like e-mail or SMS; they are “broadcast” to the world, and you can never know for sure who the audience is—who is listening—at any given moment. (There is an imagined audience for this blog post.) The audience can be your RL (real life) friends, but it just as easily can be faceless strangers from across the globe who simply are interested in what you have to say. Now individual media users and consumers can have their own personal imagined audiences. For some Twitter users, this difference significantly changes the intention and content of the messages, as compared to other communication media. Many tweets may appear pointless, but they aren’t necessarily babble.
People use Twitter in a variety of ways. Here are some of the dimensions, or patterns, that seem to define Twitter users. Most of these activities are not neccesarily unique to Twitter; people use blogs, facebook, etc. for much the same purposes, but there are some differences. It is the last one where I focus on those who appear most interested in creating and maintaining their own personal imagined audience.
Friends and Family
One common use is to keep in touch with friends and family (37.55% of tweets according to the survey). This is, I suspect, mostly carry-over from previously learned communication methods: e-mail, SMS, Facebook, etc. Twitter can certainly be used for this purpose, but I find these people are seemingly unaware of the differences that are fundamental to Twitter (see previous post).
Media has always been the key ingredient in celebrity culture, and Twitter now part of that history. Many celebrities—movie stars, athletes, etc.—have taken to tweeting, mostly self-promotion (survey says 5.85% of tweets), but some seem genuinely interested in providing their fans with an intimate look into their everyday lives, as well as actually talking to fans. I follow Shaquille O’Neill (@ THE_REAL_SHAQ), Jane Fonda (@Janefonda), Rob Corddry (@robcorddry), Ben Stiller (@RedHourBen), and others. Some celebs actually reply to tweets sent to them, others don’t. Twitter is somewhat unique in celebrity culture for two reasons, I think: it offers an opportunity for celebs to communicate with fans more directly, to a level that hasn’t really existed before, and fans have a heightened sense of intimacy with their favorite celebrities—fans feel like the celebs are talking directly to them.
Grassroots News and Information
Communication media have long brought “breaking news” to the mass audience. The ability of television to offer live up-to-the-minute coverage of an event is one of its most enduring characteristics. Twitter shares this ability, but we don’t have to sit in front of the TV or computer any more. Some Twitter users offer political updates, breaking news, Amber alerts, calls for social causes, and anything else they think interesting, important, or useful (apparently only 3.6% of tweets BTW). @Alonis, who has over 5000 followers (of which I am one), is a good example of a “grassroots” user in this category. She speaks to the “twitterverse” on almost any subject she thinks is interesting, but also on events in her own life. She listens and responds to her followers as well. Hers is really a conversation with the world through Twitter. Some examples:
“Santa Cruz mass murderer kills self in prison” http://hub.tm/?PZwBo -@sfchron_alert (LOVELY arrest picture! lol) [Tue 18 Aug 19:45]
“Last Vibe rolls out of NUMMI — Japanese report says Toyota will close #NUMMI in March” http://hub.tm/?UZzLF [Tues 18 Aug 13:48]
Wonderful points, @AlohaArleen! Thank you for trying to enlighten the Twitter community! How about #AMB (Arleen’s Micro Blog)? Kinda boring? [Tues 18 Aug 13:14]
When the Brita water filter commercial is on and I am listening but not watching, it sounds like someone peeing. #JustSayin [Tues 18 Aug 02:09]
Politicians are taking to Twitter in droves, as with any medium of communication, from President Obama (@ObamaNews) down to your local councilman or school board member. Their motives and methods appear to be much like those of celebrities. Every aspect of political thought and opinion is represented: from liberal to conservative, and so on.
While some government officials see Twitter as a means of reaching out to people, others see it as a threat. The Iranian government’s attempts to shut down Twitter during the recent elections in Iran became a very high profile international controversy, with the US government intervening. The web site “ReTweet Revolution” tracked Twitter use during the Iranian Elections of June 2009 (if you have trouble viewing it, be patient. Sometimes users overwhelm the site). This site provides some interesting insight into how some are using Twitter to circumvent official channels of communication.
Constructing an Imagined Audience
Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk), the actor, is the first twitterer I heard about who publicly embraced this idea with Twitter (although there were probably many before him). He famously challenged Oprah to see who could reach 1 million followers first. According to wefollow.com, he is #1 with over 3,239,000 followers as of this writing. Oprah (@Oprah) is #5 at just over 2 million. Shaq is #10 (oops, just moved up to #8).
There are many non-celebrity Twitter users in this category. I find this dimension most interesting since the phenomenon seems to be fairly unique to Twitter. These are users who make messages that do not appear to be directed at anyone in particular. Their messages seem to be specifically constructed for an “imagined audience.” The content is usually some combination of oddball information people want/need, humor, sexual innuendo, irreverent thoughts, and various non sequiturs. I can only guess at the percentage, but I suspect it is a large part of the 40.55% of what some consider pointless babble.
It is hard to know exactly why these people tweet, but I suspect their primary goal may be simply to attract followers, thereby building their own imagined audience. Perhaps they hope to become a “celebrity” in the “twitterverse,” much like YouTube which has spawned its share of celebrities. Perhaps they just enjoy the performance aspect of having an audience, or equate quantity of followers with popularly and success.
Personally, I enjoy following people in this category. One example is @Cranappleberry. She says she is 22 and her primary goal is to be adorable. I came across her because Rob Corddry (comedian and actor) tweeted her name for #FollowFriday, an informal weekly event on Twitter where people tweet lists of favorite follows for others to try. She begged him to list her, and he did. This suggests that one of her primary goals is to gain followers. Her posts are usually along these lines:
I’m looking for a man with Brad Pitts eyes, OJs family values and Jesus’ abs. [Tues 04 Aug 14:19]
You spend one night in a womens prison and all of a sudden people want to label you. [Mon 17 Aug 14:57]
If I can get one more tear tattoo under my eye I win a free snow cone! [Wed 05 Aug 19:48]
These tweets resemble the comedic on-liners of old (Take my wife, PLEASE!) more than anything else. You may find these a waste of your time and you wouldn’t follow this person very long. Or you may find it an amusing break in your day and continue to follow this person. No harm done either way. Another example is someone apparently known to @Cranappleberry. @sammin21 makes similar types of tweets:
No roommates for two weeks! The fort from the kitchen to the basement is almost complete. Now I just need the hose to fill up the moat. [Tues 18 Aug 10:51]
Ever since I had sex with that tree, I feel like everythings changed between us. [Sun 09 Aug 19:58]
These two Twitterers allude to being boyfriend and girlfriend. Some of their posts support that idea, while others suggest otherwise (talk about one night stands, etc.) They are typical of users in the category, but I suspect these tweeters are not who they say they are for various reasons. But does that matter? Is that critical to my following them? However, the topic of “imagined identities” is the subject of a future blog. Anyone remember lonelygirl15 on youtube?
Which category do you fall into? If you haven’t already, try Twitter and experiment. Heck, it free. What do you have to lose?