Why I Tweet

Last week I spoke about 300 Seconds at #digitalcswomen, a workshop introducing women from the Senior Civil Service to social media. Organised by Sarah Baskerville – best known as tweeting civil servant Baskers – it opened with an introduction from Emer Coleman on the many benefits social media has bought her in her career. Chief amongst these was the ability to build a network which you can then use to find answers, and to learn from.

Twitter, and social media in general, remarked Emer, exists because of sharing – people sharing their thoughts and ideas, but also sharing their knowledge. Adding contributions to the debate, but more importantly by passing on tidbits they’ve found along the way that may be of value to others.

Later in the event, we broke up into small groups to talk about getting started on social. Someone asked me why I tweet. I replied that it’s because I find the network I have built on Twitter really valuable to me, but the question’s gone round my head all week since. I’ve been on Twitter around six years (under my current persona for five), and have sent over 25,000 tweets in that time. But I’ve never really sat back and reflected on why I’ve done that.

Book cover

Back home, I flicked through my old copy of George Orwell’s essay on his journey to becoming a writer, Why I Write.

Like Orwell, at an early age I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Unlike Orwell, I soon disbursed myself of this notion when I realised I’m not a particularly good writer. (As it happens, I married one and live the life of a journalist vicariously through him instead.)

Orwell listed four great motives for writing – which, to my mind, could equally apply to tweeting. All of us who tweet are motivated by a balance of these four drivers, together with the desire to share that comes with media being social.

Sheer egotism

Orwell argues that a writer writes from a “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.”

Social media has opened up the prospect of being talked about  to anyone. Like most social media users, I am narcissistically self-aware of my online presence, carefully curating my tweets to show my ‘best self’ – me at my most interesting, clever and attractive (and not, as I am as I write this, nursing a mild hangover, still wearing some mis-matched pyjamas at lunchtime).

Aesthetic enthusiasm

“Perception of beauty in the external world,” as Orwell put it, adding that the writer takes pleasure in good prose itself. It’s true that I get a kick out of creating the perfect 140-character bon mot, generating a handful of retweets and emoji-heavy replies. But Twitter enables me to capture and share the ordinary, everyday beauty of the world around me. A rainbow after a storm. The sunset over the Thames on a summer’s evening. Faces in places.

Social media awakens the aesthete in us all, allowing us to capture and share beauty where we see it.

Historial impulse

The “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

This is probably my most regular motive for tweeting. The recording of things as they happen. By sharing them with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

Political purpose

Writers write out of a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”. No book, notes Orwell, is genuinely free from political bias. Every tweet, I’d suggest, is political too. Every comment, every link we share, is a contribution to public discourse – an attempt to bring people round to our way of thinking.

In that respect, no tweet is an island. One tweet won’t change the world, but taken en masse, the volume and sentiment of what’s said and shared on our networks shapes public debate. This can be seen right now with the parallel social media war taking place alongside the conflict in Gaza. Both sides have their official propaganda, but social media allow us to see deeply inside the war zone, and the steady drip-drip of stories and images has led to a notable shift in public opinion. Stories become more real when shared in real-time by people we know and trust.

Israel/Palestine is a topic on which strong opinions are held – for many, views shaped by their own family and friends’ experiences of oppression, racism and diaspora.The writer’s subject matter, noted Orwell “will be determined by the age he lives in, but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape”.

Our tweets are shaped by our pre-existing opinions and beliefs, however much we might believe we are impartial. So, too,  are our networks – we each build filter bubbles around ourselves, which can mean social media reflects our own views back at us rather than opening us up to a wider spectrum of views.

For Orwell, the Spanish Civil War marked a turning point, from which he wrote in support of democratic socialism and against totalitarianism. “The more one is conscious of one’s political bias”, he added, “the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity”.

Tweeting is political with a small p. So it’s important we recognise the limitations of our own bias, and that of our networks, and actively look beyond them so we can see the world as it really is.

Reciprocal generosity

However, when Orwell wrote (and when he wrote Why I Write), writing and journalism were one-way processes, with prose crafted by writers and read by the masses. As a truly networked medium, social creates a fifth significant motivation for writing; the culture of sharing itself. I tweet because I want to share my knowledge, and in turn have others share theirs with me.

Building a network requires us to be generous with our knowledge – sharing our own ideas, but more importantly sharing links to things that we find interesting, in the expectations that others might find them of value too. In doing so, you position yourself as a valuable source of information on the areas you care about (in my case, intranets, digital comms, and the current status of the train service into Waterloo).

Once you’ve built a network of people you trust, you can draw on it. Social media is my go-to for answers on everything from digital best practice to how to upholster a chair.

Knowledge is power, and knowledge is more powerful when shared.

Concluding, Orwell said that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery”. He has a point. I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?

I tweet because I’m a selfish, vain and lazy person who wants to change the world. And so are you.

Some old thinking about new media

What a difference a week makes. Thursday’s televised debates could be said to put paid to suggestions this is  Britain’s first social media election. A whopping 9.4m Britons watched the debate,  demonstrating old media certainly still has its place in our political landscape.

Pundits took just minutes to announce who they believed to be the winners and losers in the debates, and within half an hour the first polls on audience reactions were out (but as my job is politically restricted, I’m not telling you what I think).

It’s estimated 36,483 people were Twittering about the debate as they watched. Now as I’ve blogged about before, Twitter isn’t always a great indicator of sentiment amongst the wider public.

But unlike the BNP/Question Time TV event I blogged about previously, what was interesting this time was how people on my social networks seemed to view the same events in widely varying ways.

In many ways, this reflects a longstanding debate within communication theory on how people are influenced by the media they consume. 

Discussion ahead of the debates focussed on how the leaders’ performance would influence the electorate; in the days since, commentators and pollsters have concluded the debates will have an unprecedented effect on the outcome of the election.  But this is a rather simplistic way of thinking about media influence, assuming that there’s a direct relationship between cause and effect. 

In the real world, we need to remember that people use the media they consume in different ways. We have different reasons for consuming media, and these fundamentally affect our experience of it.

Denis McQuail is one of many communications theorists to take a closer look at TV consumption. He found that in order to understand how media is recieved, you need also to consider why it is consumed in the first place.

With this is mind, he analysed TV viewers’ responses and motivations for viewing.  The result of his study is called the Uses and Gratifications Approach.

McQuail found there were four broad types of ‘media-person interaction’: surveillance (information-gathering), personal identity (resonates with who you are); personal relationships (swotting up on the big TV event in order to talk about it with others); and diversion (entertainment).

Looking at responses to the debate on the #leadersdebate twitter hashtag, it appears can be categorised in a very similar way. This isn’t a statistically sound study, of course. But communications researchers  – like ethnographers and anthropologists – look for patterns (of behaviour, language, etc) and try to relate these to their social and cultural contexts. Looking at hashtaged tweets there seemed to me to be some clear trends in types of participants, and in how they behaved.

Commentators have focussed particularly on those whose motivation for viewing was what McQuail would categorise as surveillance – ‘undecideds’ who watch in order to inform their own voting choice. A Guardian/ICM poll found one in four of those watching will change their vote as a result of watching.

The flip side of this, of course, is that three-quarters of those who watched didn’t change their mind at all. In my quick n’ dirty, unscientific analysis of the #leadersdebate hashtag , it appears a sizable proportion can be attributed to the personal identity category – that is, people who already have an opinion and watch in order to reinforce that pre-existing view. Many of these already sported a party Twibbon on their icon, indicating a clear, pre-held party allegiance. These tweeters – praising the leader they already liked and criticising those they disliked – came from the Twitterati across the three main parties and were not swayed by the content of the debates.

While this group comprised a small number of tweeters, they account for a disproportionate volume of tweets as they posted frequently during the 90-minute programme.

The third group were interested in personal interaction. Unlike the previous group, they’re not overtly political tweeters, but rather interested in the leadership as they would be another other televisual event, like finding out who killed Archie Mitchell in Eastenders. Their motivation is gaining social capital; they want to know about the debate in order to inform their on and offline interactions with others.

The smallest number of tweets could be summed up as motivated by diversion. This group watched, and tweeted, because… well, it’s something to do. They forgot to turn over after Corrie, or realised they’d already watched that episode of Have I Got Old News For You on G.O.L.D.

So what does this teach us? First, that noomedia isn’t (yet) proving to be the game changer it was talked up to be this election. The 36,483 people twittering about the debate represented just 0.004% of those watching. As I’ve said before, what people on Twitter say does not neccessarily reflect what the nation is thinking. That being the case, I would take Twitter sentiment analysis services with a pinch of salt.

But secondly – and somewhat conversely – while we talk about social media audiences being more actively engaged than those consuming mass media, it seems they don’t behave so differently after all. They have different reasons for consuming, producing and participating, and these reasons affect the outcome of that participation.

The field of communication studies has a rich vein of literature about mass media audience research. Those of us working in the field of digital engagement might learn a thing or two from looking at it again.