There’s a website you may have heard of before. It’s called Twitter.
Depending on your experience with said website, you have just had one of four reactions:
1.The “Ah, yes, Twitter” response:
“Twitter? Oh, Yeah, it’s a semi-effective form of sharing news and updates. You can check out my account, if you’d like.”
2. The “Eww, Twitter” response:
“Twitter? What’s the point? It’s Facebook statuses without the rest of Facebook.”
3. The “OMG TWITTER!!!1!!1!” response:
“Twitter? BELIEBERS UNITE! I ❤ JUSTIN!!!!! PLZ RT AND FOLLOW ME PLZ!!1!! 😉 BELIEBER 4EVAH!”
4. The “Twitter??” response:
“Twitter? Isn’t that the noise a bird makes?
Personally, I fall into a mix of the first and second responses. Like most social media sites, Twitter has its ups and downs, and I’ve found that its effectiveness depends on how you use it. I have a Twitter account, though my presence in the Twittersphere is minimal compared to many. I’ve had my account since 2008, and I’ve yet to reach 1,000 tweets (though I’ll probably reach it by the end of the year). At the moment, I follow 117 accounts and have 86 followers. I use Twitter primarily to keep up with the news, following national groups like CNN and The New York Times, as well as local papers like The Spokesman-Review and The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, so I can keep up with news in the places I’ve lived. I would be considered a consumer — I consume way more than I produce.
But my biggest problem with Twitter is the fact that the majority of its users produce rather than consume. And what they produce is often inane and unnecessary. Judging by the majority of trending topics, they also venture into offensive territory. Nearly every day, there’s at least one trending topic (usually a common hashtag) that’s either racist or misogynistic. (Or related to Justin Bieber, which is offensive to my sanity because every time I see something related to Bieber, I get the chorus of “Baby” stuck in my head.)
That’s the inherent danger of the site; the only thing you need to get a Twitter account is Internet access and an e-mail address. There’s no age limit; there’s nothing that says you have to use your real name. And there’s very, very little controlling what you can post — Twitter’s Terms of Service includes the clause, “All Content, whether publicly posted or privately transmitted, is the sole responsibility of the person who originated such Content.” Essentially, they enable us to do what we want and then wash their hands of it. Logically, it makes sense — after all, given the millions and millions of users around the world, it would be virtually impossible to try and control it all.
On the other hand, that freedom is what makes Twitter so useful and handy. Granted, the amount of space you have to express yourself is very, very limited, but that’s as much a strength as it is a weakness. Yes, it forces people to use abysmal spelling and grammar to communicate sometimes, but it also forces people to be succinct and to the point, and as a journalist, I can appreciate that. The brevity also allows for faster updating — again, both a strength and a weakness. If you aren’t selective in who you follow (or how you post), you could end up with a stream full of Tweets about how much school sucks, how great classes are, how horrid X’s lunch was, how annoyed Y is with nose-picker on the subway, and how excited Z is about Breaking Dawn, Part I.
But that brevity (and the fact that tweets can be sent via mobile devices) allows for instant communication, and more and more, Twitter is helping break news stories even before major media outlets. Case in point: the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Twitter and other social media networks like Facebook have also been utilized to report events like the Arab Spring and the June attack on a hotel in Kabul. And as Politco recently reported, the Department of Homeland Security is trying to develop guidelines for using Twitter as an intelligence-gathering tool. (There’s a dark side to this as well — there have been many instances where false reports have been spread either before information was confirmed, or as a result of a notable account being hacked. NBC News, for example, had its account hacked the day before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and false reports of another terrorist attack at Ground Zero went viral before the hack was discovered.)
In the wrong hands, sure, Twitter can become a useless jumble of sinister misdirection, spam followers, and tweens overusing exclamation points and abusing the caps lock key. But I appreciate the site for the abundance of social knowledge it brings to the table. For the links between countries and cultures. For the opportunity to swiftly break and create news in the moment. For the fact that it keeps me in the loop. It is a tool, and one I utilize. A hammer can build a home, or a hammer can destroy a home. I still choose to use one.