Posts Tagged ‘Twitter’

As we can read in countless news articles, books and how-to stories on websites such as Mashable.com, Twitter seems to be indispensable for today’s journalists. Indeed it can be a useful tool to manage a journalist’s online identity and self-representation.  As Turkle (1995) put it in his introduction to Life on screen: identity in the age of the Internet, ‘in the real-time communities of cyberspace, we are dwellers on the threshold between the real and the virtual, unsure of footing, inventing ourselves as we go.’ Journalists on Twitter are inventing themselves tweet by tweet, blurring the boundaries between the real, such as an article written and published on a news website and often also in the print edition, and the virtual, the discussion evolving on Twitter between followers that are sharing and responding to the original tweet.

But in today’s media culture, where are the boundaries of self-representation for journalists on Twitter? A growing number of contemporary case studies shows that journalistic self-representation ends where the personal opinion starts. In May 2010, Australian comedian Catherine Deveny has been fired as a columnist for The Age after she sent controversial tweets. Although she defended them as ‘satire’, she had been dropped because  ‘the views she has expressed recently on Twitter are not in keeping with the standards […] at The Age,’ as the Editor-In-Chief explained.

Also CNN’s senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs, Octavia Nasr, has been fired from her job in July this year, after tweeting: ‘Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.’ According to CNN, this politically (un)sensitive message  was an ‘error of judgment’ on her part and that the message did not meet CNN’s editorial standards.

To prevent further damage to their reputation, several newspaper such as the Washington Post and news organizations such as Reuters have released guidelines for the use of social media in journalism that heavily limit the personal use of these tools for journalists and consequently limit their online identities to professional identities .

Advertisements
Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970s

Image via Wikipedia

As I am currently preparing my presentation on Marshall McLuhan‘s influential 1967 book The Medium is the Massage, I am astonished to find that many of his statements and analyses can be applied to today’s digital media landscape. One of the current tools where I see the greatest analogy to his arguments is the use of Twitter to communicate and share news.

McLuhan’s central message, that societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which they communicate than by the content of the communication can be applied to Twitter in several ways. First of all, Twitter as a tool is shaping the character and the content of the message by limiting it to 140 characters. The messages are short and compact, revealing for example just the headline of a news story. The limit on characters has also changed the way links are generally shared since URLs can be quite extensive. The use of URL shortening services such as bit.ly has thus increased heavily. Moreover, other media such as photographs can only be attached through an external service provider such as Twitpic. Following people’s ideas and sharing them has always been part of personal communication but is a form of communication now excelled by Twitter through retweeting. Sharing and forwarding what someone else is saying can happen instantly, internationally and without even personally knowing the person tweeting.

Twitter search fro #iranelection

Another one of McLuhan’s arguments can be identified looking at certain mass phenomena on Twitter. According to McLuhan,’electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement.’ The use of the hashtag, words or phrases prefixed with a #, lets Twitter users group posts together by topic, unifying millions of users around the globe. Although the hashtag is used by many users for fads, it is very valuable in grouping news about certain events and makes it easier to find people that have relevant information and follow them. This phenomenon could be observed when the presidential elections in Iran took place in 2009 and Western media was increasingly banned from reporting. The use of the hashtag #iranelection got people involved in the debate and offered an easy way for journalists to find news sources. During the protests following the elections, another phenomenon could be studied on Twitter describing McLuhan’s theory of electric technology fostering and encouraging unification and involvement: people all over the world started to green their avatars in solidarity and unity with the protesters in Iran.

The urge to show this unification and involvement can be related to McLuhan’s idea of the ‘global village’, a simultaneous happening where ‘time has ceased, space has vanished.’ Twitter, with its global and instant reach, allows for close proximity of people across any distance. Watching a news report about the protests in Iran leaves a distance between the protesters and the audience, the audience is rendered passive. Following a person in Iran on Twitter however, the news reaches you instantly and unfiltered. Additionally if offers the potential of a dialogue through direct replies or private messages. To say it in McLuhan’s words: ‘[…] instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experiences coexist in a state of active interplay’. The state of active interplay demands an active media participant and not just a passive media audience. And this in turn is shaping society from one where media consumption and production were strictly separated to a society consisting of what Bruns (2008) calls ‘produsers’.

Further Readings:

McLuhan, M & Fiore, Q 1967, The medium is the massage, Bantam, New York.