Archive

Research

After 11 years of 140-character tweets, Twitter decided to double this to 280 characters from November 2017.

Before rolling the change out to the general public, Twitter began trialing this “feature” with a select group of users (Watson 2017), though initial testing suggested that only 5 per cent of the group opted to use over 140 characters in their tweets (Newton 2017). And critics (e.g., Silver 2017) argue that this will drown out Twitter timelines, compromising the platform’s uniquely succinct form of social communication.

Our contemporary use of Twitter – in part a social, political, and economic information network – has evolved over more than a decade. So it may be some years before the impact of the 280-character expansion can be evaluated. Given that our behaviors on all social media platforms are interlinked, it may be that Twitter is answering a call for individuals to express themselves more fully, though in the context of these platforms more broadly, 280 characters is still relatively terse.

Ultimately, if Twitter continues to be viewed as a platform for bursts of communication rather than in-depth, fully formed dialogue, it is likely that the increased character count will not have a substantive change to the platform. Only time will tell if the increased character count impacts significantly on people’s use of Twitter.

At cafes, bus stops, and other public places, I hear people lament about what they think is a rude behavior and that there are no manners in an age of social media. Etiquette has been enormously important to societies historically and not always for the right reasons (like marginalizing individuals or groups of people – especially ethnic and racial minorities). The sociologist Norbert Elias spent much of his book The civilizing process investigating etiquette and argued that the development of etiquette is part of a historical ‘process’. Using the ‘right’ fork was not a random thing. So too are practices of etiquette on social media.

 

Etiquette is a reflection of social norms, class, and other demographic factors. As such, it can divide people or create hierarchies. Some social processes were more elite in the past (like diary writing or eating in a restaurant). As social activities become more democratic, practices of etiquette can do so as well. Think of it this way: if someone drops food on the floor during a meal at home and then picks it up and eats it, only those there know about it; but if such behaviors are in tweets, Instagram photos, etc., the action has a much wider audience. For some, the five-second rule applies and for others, such behavior is repugnant. Again, these responses have a lot to do with our social, cultural, and economic background.

 

Thinking about etiquette can be relevant to understandings of social media production and consumption. Ultimately, etiquette is socially constructed and what is considered normal and acceptable varies based on a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors. And these normative constructions can shape social media habits – from deciding whether using social media apps during a date is acceptable to what types of positive and negative things we say about friends, family, and colleagues. Even whether we post a video of our kid comically falling down can partly be influenced by questions of etiquette. In addition, the acceptability of creeping or fake ‘catfish’ Facebook profiles also partly depends on social media etiquette. Certain perceived notions of what one is ‘expected’ to do in a situation or what is civilized – the latter drawing from eating etiquette for example – are important to reflect on. Though, like in history, etiquette is a contested space and has politics of inclusion and exclusion.

 

Ultimately, social media has made social interactions more public – what has traditionally been private has become increasingly public. In addition, social media lets us interact with much larger audiences. Neither is inherently good or bad, but a part of changes in social communication. I also do not think we have become less polite. Rather, the venom and vitriol we have always had throughout time and is very much one part of human nature now has a very public audience that we did not have before. Or, in other words, social media is not making us into this or that; we were already there…

The question of whether social media are addictive is becoming asked more and more. These discourses are generally framed by observations that people seem to ‘always’ be on social media. The addiction card is particularly used in reference to young people. Though the negotiation by young people of social and mobile media spaces presents many challenges, addiction to social media is like most addictions an exception rather than a rule. On the one hand, there are parents who worry and want to exert more control or protection of their kids’ use of mediated communication. However, paternalism and protectionism pose real negative effects for teens as these behaviors can inhibit their engagement with the world (boyd, 2014) − not only with co-located peers, but people, groups and ideas near or far to them. That being said, coming of age in a world of smartphones and social media does present many challenges.

We need to be careful with employing the language of addiction. Specifically, has the person built up ‘tolerance’ to social media wherein they require increasing exposure to it and have social media become the most important aspects of a person’s life (what psychologists call salience’) (Griffiths, 2000)? Are their physical ’withdrawal’ symptoms? Clearly, very few young people fall into social media addiction and I find that invocations of addiction often obscure the social media debate.

For most young people, social media provide new ways of information seeking, new forms of sociability and generally augment their social lives (DeAndrea, Ellison, LaRose, Steinfield, & Fiore, 2012). There are specific ‘uses and gratifications’ (Rubin, 2002) that social media afford well and moral panics around social media addiction reduce the complexity of social media use to statistics of smartphone ownership or hours of screen time. Remember, young people have often been early adopters or ‘obsessive’ about technology − from the advent of the telephone to the Walkman. That hardly makes them addicted. It just makes them young people who are drawn to technologies they perceive as cool. And parents then complained about overuse of these technologies and some previously Walkman-toting parents may not have fallen far from the tree.

Indeed, they may be walking down the street listening to music and emailing colleagues at work. But, that’s just extreme productivity, right? Young people seem to be painted with a different brush in moral panic portraits. And these artists might want to be more reflexive when it comes to their own technology use.

 

References:

boyd, Danah. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens: Yale University Press.

DeAndrea, David C, Ellison, Nicole B, LaRose, Robert, Steinfield, Charles, & Fiore, Andrew. (2012). Serious social media: On the use of social media for improving students’ adjustment to college. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 15-23.

Griffiths, Mark. (2000). Does Internet and computer” addiction” exist? Some case study evidence. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3(2), 211-218.

Rubin, Alan M. (2002). The uses-and-gratifications perspective of media effects.

 

A version of this post has been published with The Huffington Post

A brief review of:  Hampton, K.N., Rainie, L., Lu, W., Shin, I., & Purcell, K. (2014). “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” Pew Research Center, Washington, DC.

Hampton et al.’s (2014) Pew-sponsored survey explores the question of social media and stress levels and concludes that users of social media may experience elevated levels of stress as they become more aware of the stresses in other people’s lives – what they term ‘the cost of caring’. Their findings are consistent with academic social media literature. In my book, for example, I argue that social media, for some, functions as a social awareness system. We are kept aware of everything from the banal to the profound in terms of people we are close with as well as distant relations. There is reciprocity in this too as we share and update others of our life’s happenings. This awareness and sharing can have positive impacts on our psychosocial lives. Specifically, if we – in our very busy and increasingly individualized lives – become more social via social media, this could reduce our stress levels as sharing and more communal behaviors have historically been tied to better mental health. Moreover, social media may make some feel more connected (which has been found particularly true in rural settings for example). The sociologist Emile Durkheim found loneliness and social isolation to be major contributors to suicide rates. If social media is found by users to help their sociability, this could have real benefits to their social lives. However, if social media makes people feel more isolated or affects their self confidence, this could have negative effects. But, we have to remember there were similar debates with the telephone for example.

 

I agree with Hampton et al. that there is a common perception that social media users are gadget addicted stressed out people. There are of course individuals in this camp but they generally represent the exception rather than the rule. Rather, many laugh as they see pictures of new babies in the family on social media. Others share about what they are eating or what movie they just watched. Again, rather than stress inducing these forms of social communication can be stress reducing for some.

 

The cost of caring argument is interesting and it is understandable that as people become aware of, for example, deaths of more distant school friends that they would not have known about without social media, they may experience additional stress due to social media use.  My work on cancer patients for example has found that social media use can be very positive in connecting cancer patients. Increased social awareness can of course be double edged too.

After the horrific attacks on Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed, many have turned to social media to express their feelings, show solidarity with the attack’s victims, or to produce/consume information regarding the attack. The emergence of #JeSuisCharlie on social media and the chanting of it at rallies around the world indicates how central social media has been as a public outlet during this crisis. Indeed, #JeSuisCharlie speaks to the larger point that crisis hashtags are built around a notion of ‘event society’ where social media activity can become part of a public sphere that rallies around events such as crises. However, though we consume and produce social media content in times of crisis, we often do not step back to reflect on our motivations for doing so nor do we question whether social media spaces bring us together or polarize us.

Individuals use social media in times of crisis for several reasons. In my work on Twitter use during Hurricane Sandy, I found that some users turn to social media as a form of ‘self therapy’, an outlet to communicate their anxieties or stresses during a crisis and to receive direct or indirect support. Individuals also turn to social media to produce and consume memes and other humorous content; this can also be a form of self therapy. Though one would not expect humor to be present in #JeSuisCharlie, it is. In homage to the cartoonists who were killed in the attack, some of the images within the hashtag use humor to both cope as well as attack the motives and means of the terrorists. For example, there are numerous cartoons that have been retweeted, which show masked terrorists being attacked by showers of pencils and pens or a gunman shooting a fountain pen and ink spilling out. Some of the most retweeted images include a pencil shoved into a machine gun and a pencil being attacked and then attacking a gunman after being sharpened.

B6xLF6WCAAAsYxf

 

B63Vq1sCIAEFra1

Social media – especially Twitter – is used by many as source of information. Important news stories are retweeted and friends and followers engage in social bookmarking or other means to suggest important sources of information. Social media is well known for being timely in terms of information dissemination during crises. This has also been the case with Charlie Hebdo. Citizen journalists use social media to report on what is happening on the ground. Often citizen journalists can be closer to the epicenter of a crisis. For example, eyewitness accounts outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices were being tweeted as the events unfolded and the opinions of Parisians were being retweeted right away. Though, like in any crisis, because much of this information is produced by non-professional journalists, social media has and continues to be plagued by issues of information integrity. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, factually inaccurate accounts in terms of the number of dead or number of gunmen were widely circulating on social media.

Social media is also used to check how friends and family are faring during the crises and many platforms including Facebook and Twitter afford us the ability to keep tabs on large circles of friends, family members, and colleagues during crises. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, social media was being used to both collectively express solidarity as well as for Parisians to talk to each other as small and large groups about what happened and how they were feeling.

In following #JeSuisCharlie, it remains clear that we have to remember that trending topics by definition trend because they are popular. As such, they are also attractive targets for anyone who wants a soapbox. Because of the usually open nature of social media, hijacking is possible (whether through bots or masses of supporters). Companies have also tried to sell products via popular hashtags during times of crises – usually in poor taste. Extremists have also had success in inserting themselves into trending topics. Pro-ISIS supporters, for example, have made social media a central aspect of their recruitment and propaganda machine. In the case of #JeSuisCharlie, supporters of the gunmen also emerged. In my book, I argue that the openness of social media makes it able to be used by any side (including extremists, spammers and trolls). In this sense social media like all communication media is value neutral. This can have real consequences on civil society as people increasingly turn to social media as a community space to interact publicly.

This can lead to a certain divisiveness on social media. What often happens in social media and more broadly online are processes of polarization that can often privilege certain positions. Additionally, certain individuals and groups have more social media savvy/knowledge and are able to better leverage the platforms to get their points across. This can result in floods of retweets or mentions where polarized sides and up preaching to the choir and not talking to each other. This is not exclusive to crisis communication, but is a broader trend on Twitter and other social media. Sadly, this polarization does not advance collective dialogues during times of crisis.

Ultimately, we may be tempted to view #JeSuisCharlie as a peripheral part of the Charlie Hebdo crisis. However, social media plays an important role in shaping public perceptions of crises. This is particularly true when celebrities, politicians, and social media ‘influencers’ direct or spark conversations, chatter, or the circulation of information. Often just a handful of tweets are what are most read and responded to during crises. For example in the recent shooting at Florida State University in the US, a tweet about a shooting victim whose life was saved by a bullet hitting a stack of library books in his backpack generated the most discussion on Twitter and was highly influential in shaping social media discussions. In the case of Charle Hebdo, the same is true with next week’s cover of the New Yorker the most retweeted and commented on image and tweets by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Stephen Fry the most retweeted and commented on. Even though social media contains a deluge of content during crises, certain themes can and do shape public opinion during crises.

The study of social media has great promise, but we always need to understand its limitations. This sounds rather basic, but it is often not reflexively thought about. Though social media is not as shiny as it was several years ago, the zeitgeist still persists and it often clouds our ability to frame what it is exactly that we are doing with all the social data we have access to.[1] Specifically, if we use Twitter data, it is not enough to just leave research at the level of frequency counts (top hashtags, top retweets, most engaged with comments, etc.). David De Roure [2] warns that this type analysis of social media misses the social aspects of web technologies. Ultimately, social media spaces are sociotechnical systems and the social that is (re)produced – like face-to-face communication – is highly nuanced. I think that it is fundamentally important for researchers of social media data across the disciplines to think critically beyond the literal results of brute force machine learning. Rather, this is an opportunity for us to ask large and important social questions. My point is epistemological in that I think it is important for our results to contribute to our understanding of these social questions. This is not to say that quantitative methods such as natural language processing, n-grams (and other co-occurrence methods), and various descriptive statistics are not important to the study of social media. But, rather, they are often the starting or mid point of a research project. In my work, Big Data analytical models provide a great way to get a birds-eye view of social media data. However, they cannot answer social questions as such. However, these methods are valuable to, for example, grounded theory approaches, which can help produce valuable research questions or social insights. Additionally, the mixing of methods this encourages is exciting as it provides opportunities for us to innovate new research methods rather than trying to fit traditional research methods (though doing this is valuable of course too).

[1] Ramesh Jain in his talk at the NUS Web Science & Big Data Analytics workshop puts this as data being everywhere and that we have access to billions of data streams.

[2] In his talk at the NUS Web Science & Big Data Analytics workshop (December 8th, 2014)

Though we increasingly understand what happens online is not any less ‘real’ than what happens offline, it can be easy for some to perceive that they are talking to a computer when they post on social media, rather than publishing within a space of public social communication. For example, there have been many cases on Twitter and Facebook where disgruntled employees post inappropriate messages about their bosses, which they would not have uttered offline. The logic here is that the act of typing on a keyboard can sometimes lead to a perception that what you type is somehow less ‘real’ or perhaps kind of trivial.

 

But, of course, it is no less real or trivial. Social media sites such as Twitter have been host to racialized talk about immigration or can respond to events in racialized ways (for example Charlene White’s refusal to wear a poppy). In terms of anti-racism, Twitter users often police the medium for ‘casual’ forms of racism. It is the latter that I have taken a particular interest in within my research of social media and Twitter specifically. So when Madonna used the N-word on January 17, 2014 via Instagram, my casual racist sensor went off. For those not familiar with this incident, Madonna Instagrammed a picture of her son Rocco Ritchie while boxing, adding the caption: “No one messes with Dirty Soap! Mama said knock you out! #disni**a”. Madonna’s million plus Instagram followers received the image, which nearly instantaneously circulated to Twitter and  its diverse audiences. Not only is the use of the N-word clearly inappropriate, but embedding it within a racial hashtag contributes to larger hashtag-based casual racist discourses on Twitter and other social media. Madonna’s Instagram photo caption reveals that she sees a certain normalcy of the N-word. More dangerously, her worldwide celebrity status, legitimizes racial hashtags through her casual use of the N-word on Instagram.

 

Though it is important to make larger arguments about how the Madonna incident is a case of casual racism which has major implications, I think it is also important to understand the micro-level interactions on social media which Madonna prompted. To do this, I first collected all tweets with the #disni**a hashtag and then did the same for all tweets containing ‘Madonna’. The latter had very little to add in terms of data that was not already encompassed by the former. As #disni**a was a more inclusive search term, I created a graph of this network.

#disni__a network graph

[squares represent users with more than 1,000 followers and the size of the user icons is scaled by the number of RTs or @mentions].

 

The noticeable black square (between the blue and purple squares) represents Madonna (rather than her tweeting out, people are tweeting at her). The blue square represents an East Asian-American actor/comedian on MTV (@Traphik ; 420,000 followers) who tweeted “Lol Madonna hashtagged a pic with #disnigga!? Do u kids see what uve done! It’s like grandpa saying “yo homie G” cuz it’s all he hears!”. The purple square represents a black female blogger (@luvvie) with over 27,000 followers who had two tweets heavily retweeted, “Madonna talmbout she called her son #DisNigga as term of endearment. I wanna lock her in a stadium of seats so she can pick plenty to have” and “If Madonna is calling her white son #DisNigga, what is she calling her little Malawian son? I’m unable to deal.” It is interesting that the two centers of the tweet network for #disni**a are not white and both use humor to interrogate Madonna’s Instagram incident. From a social graph perspective, they steered the conversation on Twitter.

 

Madonna’s racist outburst was clearly racist and was covered in the popular press as such. The ‘thought leaders’ on Twitter around the #disni**a hashtag, however, saw this as an opportunity to both ridicule Madonna (e.g. PTraphik labeling Madonna as an out of touch Grandma), but also reflect on her use of the racial slur. Madonna made clear that she did not intend the comment as ‘a racial slur’ and that she is ‘not a racist’. However, this incident highlights the extreme prevalence of racialized language on social media, when even a self-purported liberal celebrity who pushed gender boundaries in the 80s/90s uses a racialized hashtag. I think this incident makes clear that we should not be lulled into a false sense of security of de-racialized virtual spaces, but that the virtual can also give us glimpses into peoples’ backstage lives, which we would not usually have access to offline. Ultimately, the Material Girl has been shamed on Twitter. It would have been nice to see more of a critical engaged discourse on Twitter about the incident, but that is not how social media usually operates.

A version of this blog has been published by The Runnymede Trust on their Race Card blog.

This week, I have been invited to be a guest on Laurie Taylor’s BBC Radio 4 Program Thinking Allowed to talk about my book, Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age (Polity Press). The BBC has kindly linked to my blog and I thought I would blog some quotes from the book that can both serve as talking points, but also a way in which to stimulate critical discussion of Twitter (via my blog’s comment space at the bottom of the page).  Twitter is at a particularly formative time as the company is gearing up for a initial public offering on the NASDAQ of ~ $20 billion. I look forward to comments as well as tweets directed to @dhirajmurthy.

Selected quotes from Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age (Polity Press):

“…like a radio, a user’s Twitter timeline could be playing in the background and if the user becomes interested in a particular story, Twitter moves from the ambient periphery to the active center”

“The ability to tweet and post YouTube videos of your “disaster experience” has the potential for normally marginalized individuals and groups to update the world about their situation”

“Hashtag categories illustrate the ability of Twitter to be both an individual and communal news space simultaneously”

“Twitter is not displacing traditional media… [and] news organizations have found the medium useful in their coverage of breaking news”

“Phantom’ Twitter accounts…post banal information with a trending hashtag to dilute activist hashtags”

“Twitter and Facebook… lend themselves to being used by authorities to ‘spy’ on activists”

“‘Citizen-journalists,’ non-professional journalists, are taking pictures from their smartphones and embedding them in tweets, and this material has now become part of some journalists’ source mix.”

“much of the talk on Twitter is monological, or just never listened to or responded to”

“it is impossible to monitor the integrity of information on Twitter”

“Twitter’s citizen journalism is not exempt from the hierarchies endemic in traditional media industries. Rather, new forms of elitism are emerging”

“tweets regarding breaking news, disasters, and public health epidemics can be misleading, incorrect, or even fraudulent”

”Tweets are analagous to bees in that they exist both as individuals and as part of a collectively built whole”

“Twitter in some ways has redefined existing cultural practices such as diary keeping, news consumption, and job searching”

“Twitter works…because [you] stop thinking about what you’re revealing and who’s on the other end.”

“Twitter has not determined social sharing across great distances, but has facilitated already emergent shifts in social behaviors.”

“If a tweet is retweeted often enough or by the right person(s), it gathers momentum that can emulate a snowball effect”

“Twitter enables users to wear two hats of producer and consumer.”

“even if the audience is not “obvious or apparent,” that does not translate to an absence of an audience with tweets disappearing into the ether”

instagram your food

I just searched for #food on Instagram and received 27189059 photos back!

In my broader work, I have seen tagged instagrams of food people are about to eat at restaurants. The posting of one’s plate became popular on Flickr and Facebook, but has seen a dramatic increase on Instagram. Not only have filters been key to crafting a particular visual aesthetic, but Instagramming bizarre, shocking, and beautifully presented food has become increasingly popular. In my book, I discuss a notion of ‘update cultures’, where we have seen an increasing social trend of updating the world about our lives. This can be seen when people travel and post to Facebook during their trip about their experiences. Additionally, they may be more likely to Instagram their restaurant experiences while traveling.

I have been doing work on instagram use during Superstorm sandy and have found that instagrams of food and pets had a humanizing effect during the disaster.

In the world of restaurants, UrbanSpoon, TripAdvisor, and other sites have been seen as important social media to bringing customers to restaurants. Because Instagram uses hashtags, it is able to leverage patterns of ‘electronic word-of-mouth’ (eWOM) similar to Twitter. Scholarship on social media has shown that eWOM recommendations from one’s social media network carry much more weight than anonymous reviews. This extends to Likes and Check-Ins too. This has been something tested broadly in marketing scholarship under the notion of ‘earned’ rather than ‘bought’ advertising. One tweet or Instagram promoting a particular restaurant has a powerful effect on consumption, which sociologists should pay attention to!

Please cite this as: Murthy, D. (2013), “’Hate-watching’ and Twitter”, iSociology,  http://www.dhirajmurthy.com/hate-watching-and-twitter

In my Twitter research, I have been exploring ‘social television watching’. There are two key points which come to mind regarding how the rise of social media has impacted our approach to television-viewing generally. First, scholarship on television has seen TV viewing as ‘parasocial’, an unbalanced relationship where television viewers feel ‘intimacy at a distance’ with celebrity actors (MR Levy 1979). In other words, TV viewers perceive an intimate relationship, where they have the illusion that they ‘know’ the celebrity on screen; however, the celebrity knows nothing of the television watcher. The promise, or at least perception, of social media such as Twitter is that this parasociality may be broken down or challenged one @-mention at a time by the likes of Ashton Kutcher. So the impact here is a perceived decrease of parasociality (a decrease in the traditional gap between television viewer and celebrity on the screen).

Additionally, social media, by encouraging television audience members to be quite active, tweeting under #thefollowing or #dexter can form engaged public audiences, which include both fans who know each other and fans who do not. This social TV watching is powered by social media use via mobile smartphones and laptops. Interestingly, an argument can be made that this increases our sociability while engaging in an activity which many have viewed as becoming less and less social (in juxtaposition to historical TV watching as a family or other group).

Hate-watching has been a part of television since its inception. It’s not that Twitter and other social media encourage hate watching per se, but that social media make it easier to publicly hate-watch. In other words, shows like Single Ladies or Toddlers & Tiaras would have had hate-watchers with or without social media. It is not only the publicness of hate watching that has changed, but also that it is real time, global, and not limited to one’s living room or to a single telephone call. What social media does is enable a ‘networked public’ (see ‘Networked’ by Barry Wellman) to hate-watch together. Additionally, after Emily Nussbaum’s 2012 New Yorker piece, ‘Hate-Watching “Smash”‘, Twitter has seen many incidents of people tweeting under #hatewatching and similar hash tags shows that are the top of their hate-watch list. Twitter can ultimately egg people on to hate watch (especially during the network broadcast of a show or in the immediate days after the show is aired).

As mentioned above, social media creates new social communities and formations. Often, these are focused around particular events (something I discuss in my book). In the case of television, these events are particular TV shows. Events encourage social responses. My view is that hate-watching is not more popular today per se. Rather, it is the way in which we hate-watch that has changed. Melrose Place in the 90s comes to mind here! Though by no means the same as hate-watching, the best term to describe similar historical processes of this type of television watching is ‘guilty pleasure’. An Associated Press article in 2002 refers to Jerry Springer shows in this vein.

What is different, and why we may perceive hate-watching to be more popular today, is that Twitter makes it very easy to publicly broadcast your hate-watching. Not only that, but the social engagement of rapid @-mentions between hate-watchers leads us to think it is on the rise. Not only is it very public and in your face now, but it is highly networked, real-time, and global.

[This post should be cited when referenced and not reproduced without prior permission]