What does this “thing” we call Twitter do?

One of the big challenges we are presented with in the twenty-first century is to consider the role materials have in the way we make decisions. It’s no longer just about the words we use and the way we interact with each other but also the objects that are a part of the decision making. A really simple example of what I am talking about is the role cars, recycling bins, coal and such have in climate change. Also a part of that challenge are the materials that allow us to communicate, share and collaborate.

I’m a social media researcher: I have analysed the ways university students experience their first year of university as broadcast on Facebook; I have run an academic blogging project; and I am currently analysing comments connected to an article I wrote for The Conversation. In this research I have emphasised the SOCIAL part of social media. Now, with this challenge to think as much about the materials as the humans, I want to switch the emphasis to the MEDIA part of social media and think about the “thing” we call Twitter.

To start investigating I have turned to Marshall McLuhan who is best known for his phrase, “The medium is the message”. McLuhan suggested that if you can work out the intent of the medium, the message broadcast on it takes on a new meaning. For example, McLuhan said that a photocopier is a rudimentary printing press and every time we copy something we are re-publishing it. Copyright laws begin to become clearer when photocopying is seen through this lens.

Social MEDIA is not as straight forward as a photocopier or even a television (the technology which prompted McLuhan’s theorising). It is used in different ways by different people. As a wise friend told me recently, it is impossible to pin down what this “thing” called Twitter actually is simply  based on what is tweeted. Its meaning comes through the individual experiences with the medium.

tetradWhile this is true, according to McLuhan, there are Four Effects which are common to every piece of technology that has advanced human civilisation from the letters in the alphabet to the most advanced piece of inter-stellar equipment in the human tool bag. These effects would not be intended to simply define Twitter, rather to also work out what it does: how Twitter performs, is agential, is a cyborgic extension of our selves.

McLuhan was one of the original pervasive users of a type of technology he was suspicious of. Just because he thought about TV and was on it a lot, didn’t mean he supported it. In fact he was deeply skeptical. I feel the same about Twitter and all social media. It’s a mistrustful love.

McLuhan’s theories are intended to help us become aware of things which are pervasive. To notice what they are doing. Freeing us to resist if we choose or plunge in headlong. McLuhans’s questions also remind us of our responsibility for making those choices. I might shape my Twitter profile but it in turn it shapes me. Am I happy with this perpetual loop?

As each Twitter experience is tailored to the user, in this blog I intend to think about the Four Effects in relation to my personal Twitter use. There is no intended hierarchy in these Effects. They each function simultaneously and are intertwined.

How does Twitter ENHANCE, intensify, accelerate make possible? Every tool extends our senses, body and mind. The things I make on Twitter, mimic me. I am responsible for them.

Twitter has ENHANCED my perception of my audience. Before Twitter all my thinking was done alone and the first feedback I had on an idea was in a draft assignment (if I was lucky) or the grade. Twitter has allowed me to enhance my academic practices. I utilise the presence of an audience to try out new ideas. There is a certain adrenaline rush associated with knowing that my ideas are on display to be disagreed with, extrapolated further, retweeted and liked. It’s feedback before I submit an idea for professional review.

Twitter has also enhanced my writing skills. Some may suggest that 140 characters is not enough to convey a thought, but damn I try hard. In that trying, I am honing my communication skills. It’s like a puzzle. How can I fit this idea into one tweet?

I remember asking one of my lecturers about a decade ago whether he wrote his thesis on a typewriter or computer. He said he did a bit of both but and we had a conversation about whether the expectations of assignments have risen since the invention of the computer. I wonder if expectations will change again with the collaborative, open potential of the Internet. Will all assignments eventually need casual, social media peer review before submission? What would that look like?

What has been pushed aside or OBSOLESCED by my use of Twitter? Just as cars and buses have reduced the use of my legs, have I lost skills or senses because I use Twitter?

I find I am more interested in the conversations had on Twitter than those available with my family and friends. My Twitter usage has given me an outlet to express my thinking and have conversations with people that “get” me or are willing to at least try. I think trying to explain research in a casual, face-to-face family and friend context is something that many academics struggle with. I remember listening to a colleague talk about how he would talk about his research whether his partner liked it or not. Apparently, his partner thinks Foucault is a guy at work. My colleague demanded that his face-to-face world work hard to understand him.

Twitter gives me an easy and therefore addictive road to not having to embark on that hard work of relationship building with family and friends.


Image by The Oatmeal

Will this eventually mean I become even more alone in my head? Is being aware of this part of Twitter a cue to being more aware of my usage?

What ancient pastime or nostalgic practice has been REVIVED because of Twitter?

Did you ever stay up until all hours with your friends drinking cask wine, smoking, eating junk food and trying to solve all the world’s problems? I did. It’s one of those lost experiences of young adulthood that got pushed aside when I had to be responsible and bring in a pay check during business hours.


I began to use Twitter extensively when I was on maternity leave with my second daughter. I was up at weird, nighttime hours  feeding, changing and settling. The other side of the world was up and chatting. I became good friends with women from all over the world experiencing PhDs and parenting. We talked at all hours about all things. That feeling I had as a young woman got revived on Twitter.

That feeling and experience hasn’t gone away over the years on Twitter, but the people and the topics have changed as life inevitably moves on.

Aren’t things supposed to stay in the past? I’m not supposed to be raving about Twitter here, rather making transparent its agency in my life. It’s DOING something. It’s not a passive tool.

When pushed to its limits, everything eventually turns on itself. Industrialisation was supposed to make people happier but instead it’s destroying the planet and creating hopelessness and despair. What will be the REVERSAL when Twitter reaches its limit?

Twitter for me has been about being social and connecting with people that are of like mind. I spend a lot of my bodily life around people who are not of like mind, hence, I revel in the echo-chamber of Twitter.


Image by Christophe Vorlet

I feel we are already seeing the effects of the social media echo chamber in society. Facebook algorithms apparently hide alternative points of view from us (we need to remember that we are complicit in the functioning of that algorithm by not engaging with alternative ideas).

The troll culture on Twitter makes it very scary to engage in useful debate so many things that I want to address go through to the keeper and I unfollow the person who made the statement.

Twitter dehumanises our politicians. They become two-dimensional caricatures designed by the spin doctors who create them and the trolls who berate them. I remember a friend of mine was shocked when Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister because all she knew were people talking about how idiotic he was.

While we can’t predict the future, I think the ability to try is an important part of feeling safe. The Twitter echo chamber is making it more and more difficult to make a reasonable prediction.

The world is feeling more and more unsafe. How on earth are we to break free of the maelstrom our ingenuity has created?

McLuhan’s Four Effects present a possible solution. Free yourself by questioning everything. Consider tools as extensions of yourself. Become aware of what is happening through the “things” you use. Understand the responsibility you have when making the decision to use those tools.

What would your responses be to McLuhan’s questions?





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