Reading Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age


A book review

The problem with books about the impact of social media on society is that most of them are too polemic. The positive books make sweeping claims about how social media is going to change the world for the better. Their writers predict social media will cause more a participatory, open and democratic society. The dystopians, in contrast, sketch equally sweeping visions of a world full of shallow ego-senders who cannot deal with intimacy and cannot focus on more than 2 lines of text. In this battlefield of extreme ideas it is hard to find a balanced treatment based on a thorough review of existing scholarship and empirical evidence. It is this void that Dhiraj Murthy is trying to fill with his book on Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age.

It is fair to ask what makes Twitter so special to deserve its own book: shouldn’t the book be about the impact of all social media on society? In fact this narrow scope on Twitter works well for Murthy. It is easy to see if a statement about the impact of Twitter relates to a broader social media trend or to Twitter alone. Also, in a surprising number of cases, Twitter turns out to be different from its social media neighbors. Compared with Facebook, Twitter is more public, lean and lightweight. Most Twitter users go with the default of public tweets, they incorporate weaker ties into their Twitter networks and they form ad-hoc connections with other users with hashtags.  Hashtags, retweets, special purpose accounts and lists, also allow for collections of tweets as a new narrative form. Twitter shares a focus on news and opinion with blogs, which explains its close relation with the mainstream press, but there are important differences between Twitter and blogs too. Twitter is much more participatory, because of its quick reflections, for example. Twitter is an interactive multicasting system, allowing many too many communications. On Twitter, each tweet can have a different audience (size). Its users can select audiences in several ways: @reply’s, retweets and hashtags. These audience selection practices, make tweets part of a complex social structure and less ego-centric than regular blog posts. Twitter builds bridges between the private and the communal and between the mundane and profound. This is a lot like normal blog posts, but on Twitter people tend to mix these extremes much more. The differences between Twitter and other media may be a reason it has become the primary lens through which we look on the impact of social media on society, at least for Murthy.

Murthy is quick to disarm the polemics too. He starts his book with a comparison between Twitter and the telegraph. It is no surprise that many of the more sweeping claims about Twitter could be close echoes of early responses to the telegraph. This is a sobering thought and it makes clear that Murthy is planning to be more careful with his analysis. He continues this careful line of reasoning in his theoretical chapter. Building on ideas from, among others, Lev Manovich, Marshal McLuhan and Erving Goffman he tries to give perspective to some daunting questions around Twitter. Is it, for example, a democratizing force in society? Isn’t Twitters openness and instant information spreading, fueling equal access, the idea of a global village and public debate? This may be, but in practice Twitter participation rates suggests a digital divide and its social circles are fairly homophilious. Twitter is a tool for the elites and those turn out to meet like-minded people rather than those with opposing views and values. This hurts the democratic appeal of Twitter. On Twitter, we do get a sense of the global village, but it is a stratified picture.

Another question is what the key-motivations are for people to use Twitter. People may want to be connected with and informed about a wide circle of social contacts and they may want to build their identity with frequent updates about their lives. This is true for most social media, but Twitter may be special because of its focus on news. Twitter gives the possibility take part in something important. This may be what drives citizen’s journalist and the way users use Twitter at events such as concerts, conferences and with TV programs may be other examples of this motivation to be part of something larger. The second motivation is that, unlike many other media, Twitter is real. The mainstream media paint a stylized picture of the world, movies and advertisers show photo-realistic illusions which may feed a need to connect with real people sharing their thoughts about the here and now, mundane or profound. Twitter focuses our attention to the small and big events around us. It fosters and update culture and celebrates and event driven society.

Murthy discusses four case studies to develop these ideas about Twitter: citizen’s journalism, disasters, activism and medicine. I believe his chapter on citizen’s journalism is just as foundational as his theoretical chapter. It is hard to understand Twitters role in disaster and activism without considering the synergy between Twitter and the mainstream press. Twitter is an ambient news environment which plays two roles for the press. First, the press can harvest news from Twitter. The press can make citizens who tweet about important events their ‘ground army’. This changes the way the press acts as a mediator between the public and the people who ‘are’ the news. While there is also direct contact between citizen’s journalist and parts of the audience during a disaster, these citizens lose their following of once the news has traveled elsewhere. So, in return for the free updates, the press has the capacity to connect citizen’s journalist to news  audiences, which may be a motivation for citizen’s journalist to share the news at all. Second, Twitter is an outlet for news organizations. Twitter plays a role in the spreading and curating the news reports the press provides. As Twitter is an information and low threshold communication channel in one, it allows for direct contact between journalists and the public. This puts pressure on journalist to act in such a way that they can keep the trust of the audience while the direct lines between audiences and citizen’s journalist also a pressure to act faster. So Twitter supports a new relationship between the press and the public, which could be symbiotic, but is also subject to several new tensions.

If the circumstances are right, a single tweet can gain an enormous reach and become famous. This happened to the first photograph of the US airways plane that had to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River in January 2009.  The story of the Hudson River tweet shows how citizen’s journalist can be important for the news, but also that the hype can be much bigger. The attention for the emergency landing quickly shifted into a raving debate about the importance of Twitter itself and the new reality it creates. There was a similar shift of attention for the Iranian postelection protest in 2009, the 2011 ‘Arabic Spring’, and the 2011 earthquake in Japan. It seems unlikely that the activist in Egypt coordinated their efforts with Twitter. It doesn’t make sense to use a public tool for coordinating protests, but more importantly only the flabbergasting low figure of 0.00014% of the Egyptian population actually uses Twitter. Other disasters and protest show low participation rates too. During disasters and revolutions, the enormous numbers of topical tweets, show ‘the West’ tweeting to ‘the West’ about the disaster, not the victims tweeting to ‘the West’. This raises the question whether Twitter can have any real impact for activists at all. But it does, because of the synergy between traditional press and Twitter. Murthy shows that Twitter may play a role during disasters to augment social communications on the ground (be it within the small elite of users), to empower disaster victims (because they have a voice to the world) and to call for support (or comfort) from this worldwide attention. Similarly: dictators who face protests on Twitter will not fear the small number of direct Tweets from the ground, but they turn out to be sensitive to the changing public opinion in the West that can be a result of it.

In last case study of the book: Twitter and Health we see the importance of a third paradox of Twitter. Apart from bridging the private and public and the mundane and profound, Twitter also mediates between information and community. While Twitter is less participatory than Facebook, its multicasting possibilities allow topical tweeters to build and audience. So while Twitter is much more focused on information than community, it can be a valuable resource for patients to build a support group around them. For these virtual support groups it is important that Twitter is a channel in which they can post mundane information. You would not write a blog post or visit an online health support group to share your anxiety for a doctor’s visit from the waiting room, but it is this time and place where support from like-minded people may be most vital. Twitters bridge between the mundane and the profound plays out in a different way too as health experts engage in lightweight communication with patients. Patients may connect directly to experts rather than through their doctors who may have an information lag. These experts may also play an ‘activist’ role for the disease by connecting to other audiences as well. We see a similar mix of tweets with celebrities, who are followed for gossip, but who can be at the forefront of the more profound Twitter based- fund-raising efforts for flood victims. Health care shows in several ways how Twitter creates an information and support network that transcends traditional organizational and social structures. This new network can be a welcome addition to health care and support.

With his book “Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age”, Dhiraj Murthy has written a tantalizing, insightful and balanced account of the existing scholarship about the question how Twitter changes our communication practices. These changes may not be as big as the web-optimists would like us to believe, but they are nevertheless significant. Citizen journalist may not revolutionize the news making industry, but they do change the playing field for journalists. Twitter isn’t the democratizing agent that some see in it, but activist manage to create international recognition and pressure because of its close relation with the regular press. Murthy has done a good job to bring perspective to these debates, but to me, his chapter on Twitter in health care is the most important chapter in the book. When we discuss the impact of social media on our communication practices , we usually focus on the ‘big events’ or ‘bright stars’, the disasters and revolutions. The small changes the medium brings in the everyday life of everyday people gets much less attention. Surely these are harder to see, but they may be more important for the well-being of the global village than the big events that everyone is watching so closely. In his chapter on health Murthy gets closest to this everyday use of Twitter. Here we see how Twitter’s paradoxes play out in a positive way. Twitter may be the noisy, superficial and banal communication channel for which it is bashed around by web pessimists. But Murthy shows that when the private meets public, the mundane meets the profound and information precedes community health care may benefit. It is this chapter which shows most clearly how the subtle differences between Twitter, social network sites, dedicated e-communities and blogs lead to different, new, and complementary communication practices.

Reading More

I wrote several posts about Twitter before which fit in nicely with the ideas in the book. In “Is Twitter Getting Fat?”, I discuss the lightweight nature of Twitter and how this may be changing because of commercial pressure and feature creep. In “Does Twitter Have a Tempo?” I discussed how Twitters update culture, originates from the way Tweets set a communicative contexts for other Tweets. In “Hashtags and the Semantics of Interactive Language” I discuss the history and interactivity of hash tags, and how these may influence their linguistic uses. My post Recipient Responsibility in Netiquette, continues this linguistic line of reasoning. I first commented on the possible problem of homophily in my post Turkle’s Turn

Earlier book reviews include my recent review of Lev Manovich’ book “The Language of New Media” and reviews of Wikinomics and Understanding Media.


3 Responses to “Reading Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age”

  1. 1 Avenues for Awareness | @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog
  2. 2 Photos Everywhere | @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog
  3. 3 Murthy: Chapter#1-What is Twitter? | zmansite

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