Debriefing the Twitter Debate

by on Aug.13, 2009, under media

I updated my media page today with a Radio Berkman episode asking whether Twitter is a revolution. The audio comes from a Berktern debate held earlier this summer. I wanted to give some background on the whole affair.

The question at issue was whether or not Twitter is a “revolution in communication.” And, as was to be expected from an Oxfordian debate, the resulting conversation consisted mainly in a shifting of the goalposts, with the sides continually redefining “revolution” to suit their purposes.

My position, as it was then, is still this: not yet.

For the record, the definition of revolution I adopted is the one promulgated by Clay Shirky last year when he said:

…the new things that are happening are breaking parts of society that had actually been incredibly stable over a period of in some cases hundreds of years. And that is really the mark of a revolution. It’s not just that some additional capabilities come into a society. It’s really that the capabilities of the new tool cannot be contained by society’s current institutions.

And, again for the record, I think Clay would disagree with me that Twitter is not a revolution, at least based on his extraordinary TED Talk on the subject. And he may be right. Our debate was held before Iran, and Iran changed a lot about how people thought and talked about Twitter in the popular consciousness.

The reason I thought – and still think – the answer is “not yet” is not because I don’t think Twitter is changing the content of our discourse, or the players, or its effects on society. The difference, I think, is that the emergent architecture of communication – in less airy terms, who talks to whom – aren’t revolutionary structurally.

I admit that Twitter is not my area of expertise, and I’ll happily defer to the experts on the subject. But all the data I’ve seen suggest this: a lot of people tweet a lot, and they are listened to by a lot of people, and there is a lot of parroting (retweeting) of those at the top, but not a lot of lateral discussion. The communicative hierarchies that empower certain individuals (and viewpoints) and disempower others in, say, television are still there in Twitter, it’s just sometimes different people doing the talking. This might mean the content or viewpoint of the discussion changes, but the structural nature of the communication doesn’t.

Maybe I’m setting the ‘revolutionary’ bar too high. But my sense is that Twitter is more of the same in the Internet context. More information cascades, more homophilous groups, more divergent viewpoints, less deliberative discourse. Twitter might be changing the world, but I’m not sure it changes how we communicate – at least, not for the better.

:, , ,
No comments for this entry yet...

Leave a Reply