Social Media: A Useful Tool or Just Wishful Thinking?

by syaffolee

Earlier today, I attended a seminar on campus by Mark Trahant on “Twitter & Democracy”.  It wasn’t until I sat down and started tweeting that I realized that it wasn’t a powerpoint presentation up at the front of the room but a tweet wall–a projection of a real time tweet stream about the Borah Symposium.  It was somewhat unnerving to see my own inane tweets posted up for several hundred other people to see.  So frankly, I stopped tweeting for the duration of the seminar.  It’s one thing to post things to the internet aether when no one else is paying any attention.  It’s quite another when everyone else quite literally sees you posting as if they are reading over your shoulder. (This is why I highly dislike working at the computer without a literal wall at my back.)  The following includes my notes and recollections of the lecture.  Any mistakes are my own and if anyone has addenda and corrections, please let me know.

Trahant mostly spoke about Twitter and other social media as a vehicle for democracy.  He pointed out that traditional media can shut out voices they don’t like.  And that protests aren’t such a great strategy when it comes to democracy because “ideas can be hidden behind police lines” – especially when there are outbreaks of violence.  Twitter and other social media has the advantage because it gives everyone a voice.  One merely has to pick out a topic via hashtag and join the discourse.

One example given on how Twitter was used to voice opinion was on the recent health care debate.  However, one concern was the quality of discourse.  Currently, Twitter has been used as an organizational tool or a forum to vent outrage, mostly in the form of ranting.  This sort of thing isn’t useful if you’re trying to wield social media as a means to effect change.  In order to do so, Trahant suggested that usage of Twitter and the like should be data driven rather than story driven.  The story approach has its roots back to old school media where journalists were more concerned about telling a compelling story rather than just laying out the facts.  This is not going to work if anyone’s going to use Twitter for change.  Instead, social media should be used as a vehicle to improve transmission of data, particularly aggregate data.  So, for example, people venting random anger at the health care debate that is rhetorical rather than factual, people could use Twitter to examine the actual numbers involved.

A brief summary of the Q & A session:

Q: In a previous panel discussion, it was brought up that there currently is not enough collective data to make the analysis that social media has a positive impact.  What’s your overview of the positives and negatives?
A: We should recognize that the technology is here and out of the bag.  Should we have it shape us or should we shape it?  We should shape it for the betterment of society.

Q: Traditional media usually takes the approach to social media as “Let’s look at our Twitter posts!”  Should traditional media use it in that way and if so, is it effective?
A: There are generally three different narratives that could be used for Twitter: 1) Getting people excited to use Twitter; 2) Report on individual tweets (which is what the traditional media does and is not effective); and 3) Pull back and get aggregate data to help confirm a larger picture.

Q: What’s an example of Twitter used for positive change?
A: – it’s used as an educational tool and as a forum for thoughtful discourse with the government.

Q: How is Twitter going to be effective since studies show that it is the slowest growing of all the social media?
A: Yes, growth on Twitter is slowing down, but it is still growing.  However, you also have to think about the power of networks and how Twitter is being transmitted.  What’s important is who you’re going to reach in the hub.  Maybe Twitter is the flavor of the month, but social media itself is here to stay.

Q: Viral movements can snowball into something beyond anyone’s control very quickly. How can organizers effectively guide them?
A: The organizers will have to keep an eye out for them when they start.

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Just as there are many different people in the world, there are different reasons for joining Twitter.  Not everyone who joins Twitter has democracy on the top of their mind.  In fact, I’d argue that the opposite is true.  Although Trahant gives out the statistics that point out news as the dominating subject on Twitter rather than entertainment (whereas on Facebook, the reverse is true), one only has to read the list of trending topics to see that it’s really teenyboppers, sports, and memes which are the Twitter equivalent of the Friday Five that are the order of the day.

I signed up on Twitter because I viewed it as something that was similar to a blog, but in terms of communication more succinct and more immediate.  Primarily it was been used to express my observations about life in general rather than actual discourse about Important Stuff.  I do think that using Twitter as a way to facilitate democratic discussion a valid reason as any–and I suppose if the need arose, I would use it myself for that very reason–but at the moment, I think most people think of it as nothing more than an amusing toy.

As I departed the seminar room, I overheard some undergrads express their skepticism about Twitter as they primarily use Facebook.  Which wasn’t surprising, really.  Everyone on this campus seems obsessed with that form of social media.  It’s what’s in for college kiddies–although I’d have to say that most of them seem more concerned about learning the minutia of their friends’ lives rather than talking about societal problems.  The only other grad student I know who uses Twitter seems to read it mainly for funny anecdotes–which really doesn’t bode well for Twitter’s effectiveness on this particular demographic, does it?