December 19, 2011

Tweeting and Social Theory

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002Cooking was probably my first hobby. No kiddy dishes for me though; I apprenticed at age eight with “grown-up” dishes like rice and Pork Chow Mein. Decades later, cooking is still one of my favorite ways to spend time. You understand, then, why I love watching cooking shows on TV. I have my preferences going back to one of the originals TV chefs, Julia Child. However, for the past year or so, I have had a new favorite on Food Network. I love several things about this program. The chef is palpably passionate about food and that comes across loud and clear. I don’t remember what dishes he cooked the first time I watched the show, but I detected a Caribbean accent. I saw that the show was filmed in Canada, and since I have a cousin with Caribbean roots who lives in Toronto—well more importantly, she is a veritable “Who’s Who in Toronto” I asked her about the chef. Indeed, she knows him and so we chatted about how much I like his show.

Fast forward several months. A few days ago, I received a forwarded email from the aforementioned cousin—let’s call her Claire—in which she said something like this:

Hi Chef,

I just read your tweet that you’re going to the city where my cousin lives! She really likes you so let me know if you have any book signings or other events that she can attend.


clip_image004To this, the chef replied that I could email him. A few emails later and I got to meet my favorite TV chef. My husband and I visited him at a local restaurant where he was filming a cooking show. We watched some of the filming, and got a chance to chat with the chef. It was great—and was all set into motion by the chef’s tweet about his whereabouts. That, to me, remains the most fascinating aspect of Twitter, the “one too many” forms of communication represented (simplistically) in this diagram:


Why do more than 100 million people want to interact through Twitter? What is the nature of these interactions? Are they meaningful? At 140 characters or less, Tweets have to be short and I have found many to be incredibly pithy. But what else are they? What does this phenomenon tell us about society today?

Surely, one aspect of all this Tweeting is related to the sense of connection that a) we all seek; and b) people receive from “following” and being “followed” on Twitter. If Claire and I follow each other, we could connect with each other several times a day, depending on how much we use Twitter. I might have a good sense of what she’s doing all day and her mood, if she shares this information—as many do on Twitter. I would like these interactions and the physical distance between us, I imagine, would diminish because I would have ambient awareness: the ability to “be there” even when you’re not really there. This concept is similar to the concept of “co-presence” Mizuko Ito has described in regard to the ways we use cell phones to connect with friends and lovers who are physically absent; this must be part of the appeal of Twitter.

What’s even more fascinating to me, however, is that you can follow almost anyone on Twitter or if you’re like me you could lurk and simply read people’s tweets. Claire is the only person whose tweets I have attempted to read and found them blocked because they are protected. According to the website:

Only confirmed followers have access to (Claire’s) Tweets and complete profile. You need to send a request before you can start following this account.

Presumably, protecting your account gives you a chance to verify whether you know the person and want them to be able to see what you have written. I don’t think this prevents other people from retweeting from a protected account, however. (In “lurker” mode, I used to be able to read the Tweets of the people Claire follows and those who follow her, but it looks like that’s no longer possible.)

So I can read Tweets written by anyone, including celebrities. In fact, Twitter gives people a way to “interact” with celebrities in ways we never could; I can find out what my favorite chef had for breakfast—from the chef himself. Further, I could Tweet him—and perhaps get a response. There are even websites of celebrity Tweets, one of which advertises as a “way to stalk celebrities”. (Twitter accounts of celebrities and other public people are now verified so we know that we’re not interacting with an imposter.)

Do people feel more connected with this form of social networking? According to this study, almost 80 percent of Tweets are either “pointless babble” or “conversational” so maybe people are just seeking to increase their levels of connection or social integration as described by Emilė Durkheim. As society becomes more and more impersonal—characterized as Gesellschaft by Ferdinand Tonnies—Twitter may be one way to make it a more intimate or Gemeinschaft community. Why do you Tweet? Using your sociological imagination, why do you think most people Tweet?


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Hi Janis. Very interesting post, I enjoyed it. No doubt a lot of content on Twitter is frivolous. Then again, a lot of conversation in everyday life is frivolous! I find a lot of chatter on Twitter to be vulgar, and many of the trending topics bizarre. Still, I've come to develop an appreciation for Twitter. It's an interesting way to follow some current events -- for example, there's plenty of interesting information with the hashtag #OWS (Occupy Wall Street, of course). And please allow me to plug Norton Sociology's Twitter feed (@WWNsoc) -- I find it to be a valuable source of information in terms of links to sociological blogs and articles. I have used some of the links for teaching ideas. Furthermore, by following @WWNsoc and a few people who follow @WWNsoc, I have formed a virtual connection with other people who love Sociology!

I was not aware of how many people use Twitter in order to communicate. Considering that most people in the country only talk about Facebook. It was also interesting to read about all the different people who are focues with celebrities on Twitter and try to either follow or impersonate them.

Good points, Todd. Maybe it's time for me to go ahead and get a Twitter account. (In doing some research for this essay I found the Norton feed - which produced some very informative pieces.)

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