Reflections on my Dissertation Part 3 – What Do We Know We Know About Twitter?

As a long-time Twitter user, discussing what Twitter does or does not mean to public policy in Canada was surprisingly the hardest thing to do. The main challenge is that there is plenty about what we think we know about Twitter, but really very little we can say we know for sure. Here are some things we do know for sure.

“Ordinary” People Create News on Twitter

Content creation has long been a privilege of a certain class. This class was not always politically powerful. For instance, ee cummings was a very successful poet, but had very little influence in an institutional sense. However, they did have a sense of the institutions that matter most to political life. For instance, Joseph Howe had to be keenly aware of the rules of engagement when he criticised the politicians of his day. He also needed some serious political resources to avoid being sent to prison when he eventually overstepped.

The Joseph Howes of our day are much less attuned to the institutions that potentially affect them. First of all, the critic and the criticized may be many miles away and live under different rules, although I eventually show that with some exceptions, we can expect a Twitter policy conversation about Canada to be primarily by Canadians, and particular Canadians in regions that are most affected by the policy. International actors tend to engage in parallel conversation about Canadian policy instead.

Twitter is a “Thin” Engagement Tool

In social network theory, there is a distinction between “strong” and “weak” ties.  Strong ties are those that are long lasting and we measure them by something called “triad closure” which basically means that the friends of your friends are also your friends. “Weak” ties are more fleeting but they are important for the spreading of information (or conversely, contagious diseases) across long distances. If you have been following this series, you may notice the connection to Harold Innis.

For Twitter there is a bit of a difference, however.  I think the main difference is that in an online social network, there is always an “invisible friend” that confounds our traditional understanding of “weak” and “strong.” That invisible friend is Twitter itself.  This would include the Twitter interface, algorithms for recommending followers, “trending topics” and any other feature of the site that would connect one user to another. I call this “thin” engagement, using the language of some theorists.

While we need more research on this idea, I suggest that the “thin” elements of Twitter include a tendency to react to our experience of receiving information more than the development of a relationship. The best example I can offer of this is what happens when a celebrity’s name appears in Twitter’s trending topics. A common reaction (especially after 2016) is to fear that the celebrity has passed away, shaping what might be a response that may in turn result in a discussion. Others have argued that a tool like Twitter permits a sense of parrhesia — the ability to speak frankly about topics — so to emit a truth that otherwise could not be done in person. I argue that this parrhesia perspective is not parrhesia about society, but parrhesia about the information we experience while on these tools. For this reason, it’s not particularly helpful a source for establishing priorities for policy.

Twitter is Parasocial

Twitter may offer a thin engagement experience, but that does not mean it is not influenced by power structures. One element of its power is its parasociality. Parasociality refers to the way people experience an interaction as being reciprocal (ie. both parties feel the same about a conversation) when in fact it may not be. A non-online example is the experience of being a fan in a stadium watching a football game. When your team gets a touchdown, it feels as if you had a role in making that happen merely by cheering on your team. You get a sense of victory even though you have no business thinking you are in any way like the athletes on the field.

In my view, Twitter has this stadium-like quality that undermines the role that ordinary citizens can play in policy-making. If anything, like a Dennis Rodman, Sean Avery, John MacEnroe, Muhammed Ali or Chael Sonnen the athletes can revel in their negative press gaining notoriety as a heel in the sport, increasing their earning-power. Donald Trump appears to have used a similar approach on Twitter to his benefit as well.

These are some things I feel I have provided some (leading, if not conclusive) evidence for in my dissertation. In the next reflection, I am going to look at what I used as a method and then I will follow with some case studies.

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