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Definition: Twitter from BUSINESS: The Ultimate Resource

a social networking service and microblogging site which allows users to send and view short text-based messages (“tweets”). These may be viewed online, as text messages, RSS feeds, or via a range of special applications. Twitter is estimated to have over 190 million daily users. Its profile was raised considerably in 2007 and 2008 when it was used during the U.S. presidential campaign.


Summary Article: Twitter from Encyclopedia of Social Networks
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Image from: Part of the appeal of Twitter for both those in... in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media

Twitter is an application that permits users to post 140-character status updates, or “tweets,” to their Twitter profile in answer to the question, “what's happening?” from the Internet, mobile devices, and third-party Web applications. The model of Twitter users “following” other Twitter users defines friendship ties. Potential followers do not have to initiate a connection to a followee, who can sometimes develop quasi-celebrity status due to a large number of followers.

Developed in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams, it rose to prominence in 2007 at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) convention in Austin, when it captured the Best Blog Category. As of December 2009, venture capital support for Twitter has been estimated at over $155 million, and the Pew Internet and American Life Project noted that in 2009, one in every five Internet users use Twitter. The significance of Twitter has also been acknowledged by leading search engines Google and Bing, both of which have entered the real-time search market in 2009 by indexing live tweets from Twitter. There are several social, cultural, and political changes that Twitter has further amplified in relation to the many pre-existing technologies to which it is related.

Interpretative Flexibility

In a global sense, Twitter's relatively fast diffusion rate is partially explained by its usage of earlier technologies that had already gained familiarity with the public. Twitter's status update format was built around the convention of short messaging system (SMS) technology developed in the mid-1980s for Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) phones. Twitter, widely referred to as a microblogging application, is intimately related to blogging through its display of tweets in reverse chronological order and by the fact that today, many bloggers use Twitter as a vehicle for driving traffic to or extending the conversation on their blogs. Parallels exist between Twitter and instant messaging (IM) applications such as Yammer, Aim, and Google Talk; however, unlike other IM applications where correspondence is not public and often one-to-one or within small groups, Twitter assumes that a user's instantaneous status updates are public and many-to-many. Unless users specify that their status updates are private, their updates appear in Twitter's public timeline enabling other Web publics, search engines, and third-party Web applications to harness Twitter data.

Twitter's simplicity as an application is a good example of what Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker term >interpretative flexibility, through allowing users of differential skill to socially shape the technology. From the outset, Twitter presented few forced linguistic rules, resulting in such user-derived conventions as using the @ sign for conversing directly with others, the RT and VIA convention for rebroadcasting other users' updates, and the hashtag sign (#) for organizing tweets along topical lines. Twitter's open architecture, built on a publicly accessible application programming interface (API), has enabled external developers to create third-party applications, programs, and widgets that extend Twitter's functionality beyond the limits of the 140-character update. These third-party applications also interact with Twitter's data, transforming the seeming disorganization of Twitter's status updates into filtered, relevant news streams.

In a social sense, it has been argued that Twitter's noisy informational stream can obfuscate higher-quality news and information, thus increasing environmental distractions and reducing user overall efficiency. Scholars refer to this fragmented form of attention through such related concepts as continuous partial attention (CPA), multitasking, or information overload. Scholars who disagree with applying these theories seek to emphasize that Twitter places primacy on connections and conversation as opposed to a strict measurement of efficiency viewed through the metric of task completion. For example, drawing on a former interdisciplinary theory of ambient awareness, individuals are said to gain a more intimate and hyperconnected sense of those they follow through being privy to their daily minutia.

Flow Theory: Reward and Self-Absorption

Applications like Twitter are often referred to as flow or streaming applications, and scholars have applied flow theory, proposed by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, to describe the type of intrinsic reward and self-absorption that individuals encounter within Twitter. Flow theory suggests a richer level of user engagement and experience than can be captured by the concept of interactivity. An elusive concept, interactivity has been defined over the decades in terms of the technology, the communication context facilitated by the technology, and the perceiver's assessment of the interactivity afforded by both the technology and the context. Applications like Twitter that are deliberately designed to encourage interpretative flexibility emphasize more user-defined forms of interactivity. Although flow theory has been conceptually and operationally defined in different ways, there is common agreement that users experiencing flow are intrinsically satisfied and fully absorbed in a task that is pleasurable, self-motivating, and challenging at the appropriate level for their skill base. In relation to Twitter, flow theory can help explain the importance that users place on forging connections and creating status updates, enjoying activities that cannot be explained by their desire to maximize speed or efficiency in task completion.

Twitter's redefinition of friendship online is based on its capacity to support both strong and weak ties. Unlike social networking applications such as Facebook, which define friendship as strong, bidirectional ties, Twitter defines friendship ties via a follower/followee model. Users can elect to become followees without the potential follower sanctioning the connection. This model can increase the potential for social serendipity through allowing followers to benefit from heterogeneous informational streams of information generated from weakly tied followee connections. Like prior networks on the Web, this model has also resulted in an asymmetric follow pattern, where the disjuncture in the follower/followee ratio has resulted in some users gaining celebrity status through having millions of followers without following a similar amount of people. This power law distribution has characterized other large-scale Web networks like the blogosphere and Wikipedia, suggesting that a small percentage of users are responsible for generating the majority of content in these systems.

Twitter's infrastructure has shown strain over the years, yet it has not hindered its repeated usage as a breaking newswire platform and a political tool. Although the extent of its role remains in dispute, Twitter was involved in facilitating the global dissemination of citizen journalism updates during the 2009 Moldovian and Iranian protests, the 2010 Haitian earthquake crisis, and the 2011 uprisings in several countries in the Middle Eastern region. Regarding the 2009 Iranian protests, http://Twitter.com delayed its scheduled maintenance at the behest of the U.S. government to ensure that the tool remained operational for Iranians to broadcast their protests.

See Also:

Blogs and Networks, Diffusion/Contagion Networks, Facebook, Power Law Networks, Telecommunication Networks, Telephones to Smart Phones, Tie Strength, Two-Step Flow of Communication Theory, Wikipedia.

Further Readings
  • Csíkszentmihályi, M. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 1998.
  • Fox, S., Zickuhr, K., and Smith, A.. “Twitter and Status Updating, Fall 2009.” Pew Internet and American Life Project(October 21, 2009).
  • Pinch, T. J.; Bijker, W. E. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other.” Social Studies of Science, v.14.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. “How Democracy Can Work in the Middle East.”(February 3, 2011). http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2045888,00.html#ixzz1GKCNx4w3 (Accessed February 2011).
  • Meraz, Sharon
    University of Illinois, Chicago University of Illinois, Chicago
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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