It took Leo Tolstoy nearly 1,500 pages to produce his Napoleonic war epic War and Peace. Ayn Rand’s philosophical opus Atlas Shrugged ran over 1,100. When it comes to writing, conventional logic suggests that it takes words– a lot of them– to catalyze a cultural transformation.
The late, great David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest— whose page count broke the millennium mark itself– predicted many things about a then-future America: TV on-demand, video chats, even celebrity presidential candidates. But there was one thing Wallace couldn’t foresee: the rise of Twitter.
But can you blame him? When Twitter was first conceived, its concept was radical, and in many ways it still is. No lengthy discourse. No instant messaging. Just quick, catchy messages and hashtags. However, a closer study of Twitter’s characteristics help us to understand tweets and how they determine pop culture’s newest crazes.
Tweets, the content produced on Twitter, are limited to 140 characters. Other media can be added and similar tweets can be connected through hashtags. Tweets are appropriate at any time, the feed refreshes at a moment’s notice, and the audience is gigantic, as evidenced by the graphic below:
With these characteristics in mind, Twitter’s content makes sense. Captivating, concise messages are used to capture attention, hashtags are used to join a conversation, and links to longer pieces often accompany tweets. Twitter’s huge user base and the opportunity to “go viral” explains tweets’ memetic nature.
In his The Medium Is the Message, Marshall McLuhan wrote that the change of scale, pace, or pattern it introduces to society is a medium’s “message.” By introducing a real-time, quickly-read platform to practically everybody, Twitter changed all three, so resulting cultural changes are no surprise. Bloggerati, Twitterati— a book by Mary Cross about pop culture in the digital era– details some of these effects. For example, Twitter’s global audience and centralized psyche encourage a mob mentality or conformance to the norm. The concept of an ever-present “panel of judges” studying and analyzing their updates scares some from sharing their true ideas, which, as we learned in class, can carry over into real life. My experiences with Twitter mirror this. In theory, Twitter is supposed to offer a diverse array of voices, but I find that the nature of the majority of tweets seems to be the same. It’s not all bad, though. These very same characteristics allow for rapid and widespread social movements. On her blog, PhD and media researcher Bonnie Stewart identifies Twitter as a still-powerful and visible voice, offering its role in mobilizing the #Ferguson movement as evidence. Twitter’s hashtag feature allows for the consolidation of such a voice, and its sheer volume of users ensures that that voice will be heard.
Another byproduct of Twitter, for better or worse, is its shaping of popular opinion. I mentioned earlier that Twitter encourages conformance, but how? Why? Chinese researchers conducted a study to find out how Twitter can shape public opinion, and had some interesting findings. When an issue first comes about, opinions vary– expected behavior due to the diversity of voices. Over time, however, opinions regress to a mean that’s very difficult to change. Once the opinion is set, it’s seen as the norm, encouraging groupthink. Evidence: run a Twitter search for Nickelback. Everybody seems to dislike them, but does anybody know why? It seems as though Twitter is capable of determining a culture’s views, as if that culture’s individuals aren’t capable of doing it themselves.
- McLuhan, M. (1964). The medium is the message. Understanding media (pp. 23-35). Retrieved from https://ay15.moodle.umn.edu/pluginfile.php/1249054/mod_resource/content/1/medium-is-message-mcluhan%282%29.pdf
- Cross, M. (2011). Bloggerati, twitterati: How blogs and twitter are transforming popular culture. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=gw_Nz5RpzVkC&pg=PA62&lpg=PA62&dq=twitter+medium+is+the+message&source=bl&ots=FYdzIld7qi&sig=dl4gG1Zu2aifJ4gzwVC5JGlR3w4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjG7J2bjuzKAhVKuYMKHQn9AXM4ChDoAQgiMAE#v=onepage&q=twitter%20medium%20is%20the%20message&f=false
- Stewart, B. (2012, September 2). Something is rotten in the state of…twitter [weblog]. Retrieved from http://theory.cribchronicles.com/2014/09/02/something-is-rotten-in-the-state-of-twitter/
- Xiong, F., & Liu, Y. (2014). Opinion formation on social media: an empirical approach. Chaos, 24, 013130. Retrieved from http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/journal/chaos/24/1/10.1063/1.4866011?TRACKPRESS=BARDI