How does the technology behind the social-media platform influence the way we communicate?
By Rick Paulas
(Photo: Mike Wilson/Unsplash)
In 1964, scholar Marshall McLuhan wrote the five most important words ever to emerge from the field of media theory: “The medium is the message.”
The main thrust of McLuhan’s idea is that the actual content (i.e. this very story) means far less than the medium through which it’s being delivered (the computer or smartphone on which you’re reading). That is, the technology delivering the message — the printing press, television, radio, the Internet — inherently changes how we communicate, and, in doing that, alters the message, eventweaks the circuits in our brains, and thus transforms society. The message in the bottle means nothing compared to the bottle as message delivery service.
Over the past year, one distinct social medium has become the chosen avenue in which the president of the United States communicates with the public. That, of course, is Twitter.
While there are many essays to be written about the actual contents of Donald Trump’s information and misinformation, it’s also important to dissect the medium of Twitter itself, in terms of how its structure and built-in aesthetic affect the messages contained therein. This is an attempt at that.
140 Characters or Fewer
What makes Twitter so powerful is its short length. This has side effects. It forces a terse tone in messages and eradicates the existence of nuance. This can be lessened through “threaded tweets” or “tweetstorms,” but their effectiveness depends on how the audience receives the message; unless they come to the entire thread after the fact and start at the beginning, they’re reading short messages that may appear laconic and unfriendly. (Adding to this is an inability to use bold, italicized, or underlined text, meaning users stress messages with capitalization or star symbols — like *this* — which encourages more abrasive messaging and further squeezes out the ability for nuance.)
Ability to Self-Publish, and a Chronological Timeline
These may seem like two design elements (self-publishing without editors, a chronological timeline), but they work in sync to allow Twitter to function as a direct tunnel into the user’s mind. (It’s no surprise journalists have taken to Twitter to report on news breaking in the moment.) But the immediacy of the medium allows people to publish through more “stream-of-consciousness” sentiment rather than more considered and honed “official” statements. Yet, contradicting the immediacy of Twitter is the fact that, once posted, messages linger on a person’s page unless the user takes the steps to delete it. This allows for Twitter messages to be interpreted in many different and conflicting ways by audience members. Is that old message still valid? Have they changed their point of view? Is it a joke? Was it factually inaccurate purposefully, or because not enough information was yet known? All these questions are valid for nearly every single post, which leads to the dissonance that can accompany the medium.
Inability to Edit
Twitter is notorious for its inability to edit a message after it is sent (though you can always delete posts). This has had the predictable effect of allowing audience members to more easily forgive typos, or to see the typos as part of the message itself. (See: Weird Twitter.) This, along with the “stream of consciousness” immediacy of posting, may also lead to a forgiveness of more factual errors. On Twitter, truth is more malleable and murky, allowing for further possibility of audience members reading the same message in completely different ways.
Embedding of Photos, Videos, GIFs
The addition of multimedia functionality has allowed for the spread of information without author. While retweeting has always been a feature, when Twitter was solely text-based a user could track the message back to its original author, who would have to stand behind what they had published. Now, photographs, videos, and screenshots can be edited with no attribution, allowing the author of the tweet to distance themselves from the original content, giving them the plausible deniability that they need to know whether or not the message itself has been verified. Trump did this multiple times during his presidential campaign.
Filter-Bubbling Through Following, Block, and Mute Options
Like other social media, users are required to create their own “filter bubble” by choosing users to follow, a honing that’s focused through blocking and muting options. No one, then, is seeing the same broadcast. In a “perfect” system, this creates a feedback loop for the user; they’ll literally only see what they want to see. Enough has been written about the effect that this bubbling has, but another aspect is the proliferation of “sub-tweets,” where users will post purposefully vague messages with the confidence that enough of their followers will be involved in this same “conversation.” That these “sub-tweets” even exist is another indication no one’s experiencing the medium in the same way, hence the continuing dissonance.
Lack of Reciprocity
Since anyone can follow anyone — meaning, anyone can follow no one — there is no reciprocity needed between broadcaster and recipient. A person can watch or “follow” a user’s feed without that user watching or “following” them. This is somewhat unique among other social mediums, where two-way connectivity must occur for communication to occur.
Separation Between Posts and Mentions
This is minor, since posts and responses can be viewed if one knows where to look. But this murky line between public “to my followers” posts and semi-private “one-on-one but still in a public forum” messages has allowed the medium to blur what’s public and what’s private even further. In fact, posting in the midst of a thread with multiple participants (“RIP my mentions”) can be seen as a more forceful action, despite the intention of the user doing so, leading to even more disputed intentions and interpretations of the messages.
Despite the name and heart symbol associated with the action, users do not uniformly use the “like button” in the same way. (Facebook’s “like” is, for multiple reasons, more direct.) One reason for the murkiness is because Twitter has allowed for posts to be organized on the user’s homepage through their “likes.” So, some will simply hit the button to better keep track of something for later viewing, and not because they actually do indeed like something. This, again, adds confusion. Did someone like that because they agree with the message? Or, did they not like it because they don’t care about coming back to it later?