Why tweet? – by “Yael Z”

Celebrity Tweeting: Twitter’s Beginnings

“It’s like Facebook status updates…and that’s it…” This is the way that my friends described Twitter to me when I was a senior in high school and Twitter was just coming out. Appealing, no? We didn’t get it. We thought Twitter would be another fleeting Internet trend. After all, why use Twitter when it does just a fraction of what Facebook does?  Our hypothesis was quickly disproven. It became clear that Twitter was on the Internet to stay. It started with celebrity tweeting. Tweeting became a way for celebrities to interact with their fans as actual human beings. Fans could receive information about celebrities’ day-to-day lives from the celebrity him/herself, rather than from the tabloids. For example, followers of Demi Moore found out on July 14th, 2010.

On October 8th, Seacrest fans found out:

It’s a completely guilt-free stalking tool! Fans hear about celebrity actions instantly and directly from the source. Celebrities are the new Facebook friend, the new cyber buddy. Twitter created a connection between fan and celebrity the way no social networking tool had done in the past.

Thus, the rise of Twitter began. Twitter quickly gained user after user. At first, just to follow their celebrity crushes, but soon to use it themselves. The following chart shows the growth rate of Twitter posts between April and May 2007, just a small sample of the exponential growth of Twitter posters.

(Java et al.)

The Mass Appeal of Twitter: Why?

My question is…why? I understood the celebrity appeal of Twitter (perhaps because of my personal guilty-pleasure love of celebrity gossip), but what is that makes people not only want to tweet their every movement, their every thought, but want to read other people’s movements and thoughts. As my grandmother would say, (and this must be read in a Minnesotan accent)  “it’s just plain creepy the way you kids stalk each other on the Interweb.” She has a point.  Why are we entertained by the location of a peripheral friend, the musings of a second or third cousin?

As it turns out, I’m not the first person to ask this question. Many anthropologists and technology researchers have found Twitter an interesting phenomenon and have conducted empirical studies to try and figure out just what it is that makes Twitter an engaging platform for social interaction. I’ve compiled this information and the following is a list of what I found to be the top 5 reasons people use Twitter:

1. COMMUNITY

The number one reason that people use Twitter is to find communities based on personal interests. Twitter’s innovative hash tag (#) system allows people to tweet about certain topics and other people interested in those topics to easily find those tweets and often retweet or comment on them. Thus, Twitter communities are born. The following graphic shows one section of one particular Twitter community, the gaming community.

 (Java et al)

A community such as this one not only shares their feelings on gaming and recent developments within the gaming world, but they also share with each other personal feelings and experiences of their everyday lives. Thus, Twitter extends beyond the boundaries of something like a gaming blog. Users find each other because of a shared love of gaming, but eventually begin to share other news and personal feelings and experiences with each other, creating a virtual community.

Studies also found that within these communities natural leaders emerge as the most reliable and most up-to-date communicants. For example, Scobleizer, a tech geek blogger who tweets about the latest technology news has gathered many followers within the technology Twitter communities. Because he has so many followers, he also connects many different sub-communities within the larger technology Twittersphere and then Twitter users from similar communities can find one another because of a shared Twitter leader. The following chart illustrates the connections that Scobleizer makes between Twitter technology communities.

 (Java et al.)

Twitter communities work like communities in real life – a connection through one person opens up a whole new world of people, ideas, and entertainment.

2. NEWS

This topic is a slightly controversial as people have been wary of calling Twitter a news source. However, a recent study showed that over 81% of all tweets refer to some current event. This doesn’t mean that people necessarily get their news from Twitter, but rather that it is a great place to discuss current events with others. The most common retweets (tweeting someone else’s tweet on one’s own Twitter page) are all news sources. The following chart shows the most common topics on Twitter in 2009, based on the amount that they were retweeted:

(Zhao et al.)

All but two of these topics are offline news. This statistic shouldn’t be surprising. The obvious reason for the prevalence of news topics on Twitter is that these topics are universal. Americans can follow Iranians’ thoughts on the Iranian election. Fans of Kanye West can gather by the millions to talk about his latest scandal.

Of course, news junkees could do this before Twitter via blogging, but there is one thing that keeps Twitter apart from these other informal news sources: BREVITY. The 140-character limit keeps up with our quickly diminishing attention span. People don’t need to read an article about Osama’s death when they can find what they need in a quick 15-word statement. In addition, Twitter is updated in real time. People read about the Northeast earthquake this summer before they felt it. The raid on Osama Bin Laden’s bunker was tweeted before the news hit New York Times. Twitter is the perfect way to share news with a generation who can barely sit through Good Morning America.

3. INFORMAL COMMUNICATION

This type of communication is what I’ll call “water cooler conversation.” Beyond finding communities within Twitter to be a part of, people also use Twitter to maintain a constant flow of communication within real life communities.

The best example of this type of community is the office community. As companies become more and more global, employees for those companies become further and further away from people they may be working with. This expansion of the office changes the way that people communicate with their colleagues. 20 years ago office workers gathered around the water cooler to discuss current events, last night’s episode of Miami Vice, likes, dislikes, etc. Today, employees working together on one project may be split by the Atlantic Ocean, rather than by a few cubicles.

This distance creates a problem in the work environment where team members don’t know each other as human beings. As “Donna,” a participant in a recent study on the effects of Twitter in the work place said: ““I think it makes the person more human, than just professional carbon unit.” Many offices have started to use Twitter as a way to remedy that situation. Employees in China may tweet about their favorite foods or sports teams, and a fellow employee in New York City gets to know him/her better. Thus, Twitter becomes a trans-Atlantic water cooler, allowing people from a specific real-life community to come together via the Internet to get to know one another as human beings (as ironic as that may be).

4. KEEPING IN TOUCH

The fourth reason that people use Twitter is to stay in touch with friends and relatives. The (again) brief snippets of other people’s goings on are a very easy way for friends and acquaintances alike to know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Facebook created a online environment in which it is not only okay, but encouraged, to broadcast what you did last night or over the weekend to friends. Twitter took this one step further. Don’t tell them what you did last night, tell them what you’re doing right now. And people do just that. The following chart shows what people tweet about based on the day of the week.

(Java et al.)

Tweets about school decrease significantly from Friday to Saturday, showing that people are very unlikely to tweet about school over the weekend. While this chart doesn’t prove anything, it shows that people are more likely to tweet about what is happening presently in their lives, rather than yesterday or tomorrow. This way, people don’t have to talk every day to find out what’s going on in their friend’s lives presently. Again, another very easy, non-time consuming way to achieve something that would have taken greater investment ten to fifteen years ago.

5. SPREADING INFORMATION

The final reason that people use Twitter is relatively new. Twitter is already a water-cooler, a telephone, and a community center; why not make it a bulletin board as well? Two summers ago, Iranians gathered together to protest the June 12 election, and their voice was heard not via posters or even blogs, but via Twitter. News articles called Twitter “the medium of the moment,” and it makes perfect sense. Twitter is free, fast-spreading, brief, and most of all it was invented to connect people to one another. The charts above depict just how easy it was for tech nerds or gamers to get together, why would it be any different for protestors of the Iranian government? Hashtags and retweets make it so easy for anyone starting a protest movement to rally together.

It should come as no surprise that the most recent mass protest movement, the occupy movement in the United States used Twitter to gather attention and supporters. Anywhere you see comments on the movement (even not on the internet) you will see: “#occupy.” Twitter has become a symbol of the movement itself. My father made the neutral comment, “If I wanted to protest something when I was your age I would have had to go door-to-door, put up fliers on every billboard, phone bank, and that would have been just to gather people in my neighborhood. Now you put a little pound sign next to your cause and millions of people are outside the next day.” Twitter has become the easiest way to quickly and effectively spread information across class, country, and ocean. It is a global billboard urging people to tack up their problems every second of every day.

 

Charts obtained from:

How and Why People Twitter: The Role that Micro-blogging Plays in Informal Communication at Work by Dejin Zhao and Mary Beth Rosson

Why We Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities by Akshay Java, Tim Finin, Xiaodan Song, and Belle Tsang

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