We’ve all heard stories about how helpful and at times, epic, the roles of social media have been in crisis situations, both natural and manmade. See, for instance, yesterday's New York Times piece on Ushahidi  and Anne Arnold’s previous post on the role of new ICTs and social media in disaster response and development. But I’m of two minds regarding one particular social media application. Twitter  allows its users to send out a “tweet” of up to 140 characters, and to keep one’s followers up to date on just about anything under the sun. So I signed up last week to see what’s it’s like to have my very own Twitter account.
I certainly value the enabling environment social media provide to the exercise of voice, especially in places where freedom of expression is suppressed. And heartwarming stories abound of people finding each other through social media. A decade ago, my family was all atwitter when my cousin sheepishly confessed that he met his special someone in a chat room. Today, I’ve heard people tell similar stories with nothing but aplomb. Obviously, there are intrinsic and instrumental values to having multiple routes of self expression. Especially in bad places where speech is silenced through intimidation and brutality.
But there is a difference between tweeting things like “Men in uniform shooting at us -- please help” and “Just went to the bathroom – need to go again”.
Surely, we all care deeply about the first type. The second… well… Allow me to state, for the record, that I am aware my attitude is judgmental, which has bothered me for some time now. I’ve collected a huge pile of newspaper and magazine articles on social media hoping that some insight will help illuminate the source of my discomfort.
Something helpful came to me this morning during my commute to work. I remembered what Kathleen Hall Jamieson , University of Pennsylvania professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center , says about the emergence of every new dominant medium and its impact on political communication. She argues that the content of an old medium struggles to adapt to the technological and aesthetic features of a new medium (conversely, new media absorb the content of older media), until new norms emerge and take hold. For example, have you ever come across old recordings of political speeches on TV and radio when broadcasting was at its infancy? Try to search for some on YouTube and you’ll find heads of state shouting into microphones and projecting themselves as if they were actors in a stage play. Before the broad diffusion and deep penetration of broadcasting and electronic media, these people had to project to audiences in large halls and open spaces. There was no such thing as a close up. But if politicians and candidates did that on TV today, their behavior would seem very strange, indeed.
Over time, television transformed the norms of political communication. According to Jamieson, politicians are expected to communicate in an intimate and “self-disclosive” manner. That’s partly because the camera has the technological capacity to pick up nuances in facial expressions (especially in high definition!) and microphones have their way of making whispers audible halfway around the world.
So how does this apply to Twitter-like social media? Well, I think various types of communicative content are struggling to adapt to new digital technologies. As these are yet early times, norms are still emerging. On one hand, there’s this 911 emergency service/samizdat-type journalism that’s squeezing itself into in real-time, 140 character spaces, for all who might care enough to read and respond. On the other hand, there are also the conversational disclosures, as if they were responses to the question “What’s up?” or “What’s happening?” As many of us do through text messages or short phone conversations, people communicate a range of things, from the inane to the life-changing, for all who might care enough to read and respond. And there are other types, for sure, for all who might care enough to read and respond.
The point is this: norms will continue to shift around a bit (or a lot) but will eventually take hold. The same medium or application is likely to be used differently by different people in different contexts – and rules of engagement will emerge for these various uses. Until things settle down, however, some of us are bound to remain a little conflicted and uncomfortable. And through this transition period, by using what we like and rejecting what we don’t, we become direct participants in the norm-setting process.
Will now go ahead and tweet this post . It’ll be my first. Let’s see if my 3 followers care enough to find their way here.
Photo credit: Flickr user jmilles