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Tweet and save the world? July 29, 2009

Posted by Farzana Rasool in Uncategorized.
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Twitter will change the world. Twitter will stop global warming. Twitter will better educate children. Twitter will swoop in and stop women from being abused.
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And all this will be done in no more than 140 characters.

Twitter has morphed from being just another social networking tool. It is now used as a news tool by media houses, a campaign tool by politicians and more recently a mobilising tool by online activists.

There was quite a political buzz around the micro-blog platform during the US election campaign in 2008 and following the disputed Iranian elections this year. This lead to the social network being used more creatively to try and mobilise people behind certain causes.

UNICEF’s Eminent Advocate for Children, Queen Rania of Jordan, is someone who believes in twitteras an activism tool. She says in an interview,queen-rania2 “I’ve seen Twitter evolve into a dynamic and diverse medium for action as well as communication. Whether it’s raising money for malaria nets or promoting your company brand, Twitter answers much more than just “what are you doing?” It’s expanded to “what is the world doing, and what can the world do?”

I find it quite difficult to imagine how questions like these can sufficiently be answered in just 140 characters at a time.

Twitter does have its advantages for activists. They can personally share their views and opinions with followers and can give their ideas as well. Even if people don’t engage with activist tweets they are atleast made more aware if they read posts about certain causes. Also, perhaps the answer is not meant to be found in single 140 character tweets but in the ‘crowd’, the sourcing of ideas, connections, material and even money using Twitter.

Queen Rania says Twitter is “about using social media for social change: creating a community of advocates who can use their voices on behalf of the voiceless, or leverage their talents, skills, knowledge, and resources to put more children into classrooms, or pressure their elected representatives to get global education top of the agenda.”

The question still is, how much of this they can do in just 140 characters?

Managing director of World Wide Worx, analyst Steven Ambrose points out that Twitter allows for no context and that is a problem. Due to this lack of context there will be misunderstandings and missed messages. 140 characters that are missed can be crucial.

Some see Twitter as the platform for the advocating of human rights since it is a space that reminds everyone that we are all equal. But do people really see it this way? It doesn’t seem so since they are still fascinated by the fact that they can now speak to Ashton Kutcher and John McCain.

As mentioned earlier, Twitter no doubt has its advantages for the Barrack Obamas and the Queen Ranias of the world, but for how long will the everyday person stay attentive before they move on to the next new social networking tool? How long before they tire of the spam as businesses and bloggers also push their own agendas?

Other than just the spam, people will find Twitter just too much. Eventually it will be more annoying than anything to keep up with so many people. Follow more than just a handful of people and you are bound to begin to detest the clutter.
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There are 3rd party applications that can help, but not every user will be able to download the software.

The medium is the message

There is the idea that Twitter is about the triumph of humanity and not technology. It’s seen as something that people use to become smarter and to make the world a better place, but this could just refer to social networking tools in general. Any space where people are allowed to exchange ideas and opinions can be described as such.

The lengthy commentary after the interview with Queen Rania is evidence of thoughts and ideas being shared and negotiated. The difference with twitter and the main difference for me is that they would have had to say all of that in 140 characters. How rich could the conversation have been if it had to be restricted to that?

140 characters make it too short for context and this is bound to cause misunderstandings and frustrations and people won t want to use it for anything more than fun. People may continue to use it to follow their specific group of friends and favourite celebrities but will shy away from serious issues because the platform isn’t practical for such discussions.

Another thing to think about is whether the importance of serious issues become diminished when they are placed on Twitter. Does the medium become the message, meaning that they are seen more light-heartedly because they are now associated with social networking and following celebrities? It’s kind of like a honk your horn for cancer day, it becomes a game and the message is missed.

One solution is that Twitter can be used to provide links to full articles and lengthier discussions around certain causes but how many people will click on links? And for those that do, how many links can they possibly follow? Digital activism does have a small place on Twitter but it is too restricted to give Twitter the chance to stop starvation or put every child in a classroom.

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