Why The Twitter Backlash Proves Its Influence

The backlash to Twitter was inevitable.  As recent attacks on the social network/microblog have made clear people depend on Twitter to communicate, although users of this site continue to be stigmatized. In the same week the AP published its new restrictive guidelines for online media, another AP story employed such recycled clichés as “tweeting about lunch plans, the weather or the fact that Twitter is down.”

Full disclosure: I’ve been addicted to Twitter since I started using it in September of 2007. Since then I have witnessed its explosive growth as a daily user of this social network, growing from thousands of daily users to millions now.  These attacks are evidence of Twitter’s importance, and like Facebook before it this social network is grown large enough to be experiencing a backlash.

Unlike many social networks before it, Twitter has become an agenda-setting media.  This might seem obvious because broadcast and print newsmedia about Twitter have been nonstop, frequently breaking news stories or framing an issue through its social media context. As a social network (although many of its users of Twitter do not think of it as such) Twitter facilitates interpersonal communication in which opinion leaders, or at least some with a large number of followers, introduce new ideas to their network which help set the public’s agenda.

Because Twitter serves an audience that is constantly engaged in the discussion of new ideas, frequently accompanied by hyperlinks, Twitter has succeeded at become agenda setting media like none before it.  To be sure Facebook, itself a much larger social network, only recently overtook email as the primary means for most individuals share news stories and links to websites.  But rarely have these social media, including social bookmarking websites like Digg and Delicious, taken part in constructing the news agenda with the wider public much less offline as Twitter does.

The explosive growth of Twitter is not necessarily because of any special function the site offers (there have been other microblogs before) but because of it’s core of users, who themselves have set the tone of what Twitter should be used for.  This isn’t to say there is a right way or wrong way to use media, just that some practices seem to work better. The critical difference in using a social medium comes from those who are using it; in this case the core users who serve as a social model are opinion leaders in diverse subjects such as communications, celebrities, and politics.  And it’s easy to see the appeal; opinion leaders are provided a platform to introduce ideas about culture (and even about themselves), while the accessibility of the platform allows individuals to interact within their network of connections which make even celebrities (who continue to lead the way onto Twitter) seem approachable by any fan.

Perhaps this model of influence offers a clue to one recent trend on Twitter, in which power-users remove all of the users they follow in order to reconstruct a list which better reflects a tightly-knit social network.  While some organizations scramble to create a list of followers on Twitter which seems to be the largest, these users illustrate the power of influence over a small agenda-setting audience they want to stay tuned into.  Because in social media influence is not measured as the number of followers who might read the monolougue you’re broadcasting to them, but by the relationship between individuals which is built through a dialog.

Never before has there been such a media tool to listen to the audience’s ideas, and to engage them in conversations about them.  The backlash may have been inevitable, but it has almost always come from those unwilling to participate in a dialog; it would seem from what I’m hearing that Twitter is here to stay.

  • NKeim

    I really like how you portray Twitter as an agenda setting media. Especially in times of media censorship in countries like Iran or China, Twitter has become a crucial communication channel on a grassroots level. Information that could not get through via “old media” still has chances of being put on the agenda.

    I recently wrote a research report on how social media can be used to organize, publicize and implement citizen reporting projects. Here is a link to “Public Media 2.0 Field Report: Building Social Media Infrastructure to Engage Publics”

    http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/resources/p

  • http://matthewhurst.com MattHurst

    Thank you. It has been especially interesting seeing the uses of Twitter as a public media, the effects it is having around the world for political communication.

  • http://matthewhurst.com MattHurst

    Thank you. It has been especially interesting seeing the uses of Twitter as a public media, the effects it is having around the world for political communication.