What’s In a Tweet?

What is in a tweet? Certainly, we see twitter elements featured on ads in subways and bus shelters, linking our digital and material worlds as if the hashtag symbol itself were a QR code. These hashtags and handles are symbols referencing meanings associated with the digital environment of twitter, whose content is itself comprised of references to the events of our physical world. This interconnectivity between different environments is only increasing as we move into a generation of smart electronics and Google Glass. As we witness this process of singularity occurring before our eyes, we must ask ourselves the question: What is the impact of these technologies on our social world? What I want to explore in particular is how these social networks impact the mobilization and radicalization processes of social movements, and how they can use these tools to build the political power needed to work toward either moderate reform or substantial systemic change in American politics.

As this exploration into the new social movements of the digital age begins, one method for ascertaining the role of social media would be to study current movements against the backdrop of similar mobilizations working toward comparable change in the pre-digital era. How do the protests, rallies, and sit-ins of today differ from past struggles for productive change? What portion of this difference can be attributed to communication via social media? For example, what distinguishes the current fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage from past movements of poor, disenfranchised workers in the United States?

­While the sociological study into these networked collective movements is just beginning, we have seen countless news and opinion pieces highlighting the role of social media in these new sparks of dissent, ever since the Arab Spring of 2011. The claims stated in these articles and books are likely true, as it certainly isn’t crazy to fathom that a technology which decreases the barrier for deliberative communication while spreading the reach and speed of conversations can be beneficial for educating and radicalizing citizens, especially in countries which are more restrictive toward speech in public spaces. Indeed, there are many countries where digital spaces like Twitter and Facebook provide the only form of a public sphere, which is necessary for both deliberative discussion and the mobilization and radicalization of social movements.

To launch this sociological study into how interactions over twitter can accompany and energize actions in both the streets and the political arena, I will begin by analyzing the basic elements of a tweet. A casual twitter user will know that there are four different types of primary content: Hashtags, mentions, links, and text.To better understand how to analyze Twitter’s environment, we need to think of how each component of a tweet effects its chance of visibility in the greater social network.

Hashtags: In twitter’s current environment, these can be identified as a blue phrase beginning with #.These delineate tweets by category, much like tags on a blog post. Using a hashtag opens up the potential visibility to all users of the social network who are performing a search of that tag. This characteristic allows conversations and debates to take place through certain hashtags, based on their referenced meaning in the physical world. Hashtags can culturally represent any symbol, even if the meaning is only understood by the creator of the tag. Some examples are events like #leftforum or topics like #anarchism. These hashtags can also be more complex, and even these can trend if the meaning is understood by a wide range of people, like the post-feminism debates of #NotYourAsianSidekick.

Mentions: Much like hashtags, this feature is blue, although it begins with a @, just like Twitter handles. As you can probably guess, a mention is utilized when an author of a tweet wants to open the visibility to a particular user and their followers. These can be used by participants in a twitter conversation, so that the other members of the group are aware of their latest contribution. While these generally allow for more focused, direct interaction across the social network, the reach is far less than if hashtags are used.

Links: These are traditional hyperlinks comprised of blue text, containing a URL of another destination on the internet, which can be visited through clicking the link. Frequently, these links are shortened using services like bit.ly and TinyURL to minimize the character length and provide room for hashtags, mentions, text, or even more links. In some cases, links are automatically generated when a viewer of a website or news article clicks a button to share content through a tweet. Usually the website will provide a template which includes a shortened link to the selected article. All videos and pictures which are viewed on Twitter are also represented as links in the tweet. These links don’t have a substantial effect on the visibility and reach of the tweet, but are instrumental in connecting the tweet to other virtual locations.

Text: This element includes all other textual content that isn’t a retweet, mention, or link. Words expressed on a tweet can also spread the visibility, as users can search for any keyword, regardless of whether it is a hashtag. While hashtags and mentions are more common searches, the text provides very important content as it is the only form not mediated through twitter. In a flurry of hashtags and mentions, the text frequently provides the deepest meaning, using the other elements as a vehicle to spread through the networked landscape of twitter.

There is no doubt that these instantaneous communicative platforms are an essential feature of current social movements, whether we are analyzing tea party patriots or socialists. Rather than asking if these technologies play a role, we need to study the digital aspect of each movement and the interplay between online and offline action. For instance, what features has Twitter interaction added to the 15 Now movement and what can we learn from analyzing the progression of the movement in the virtual environment? Also, are there any ways in which these new communication platforms actually detract from the movement, like if passive participants retweet Kshama Sawant and view this as active participation in place of physically attending rallies and marching through downtown Seattle?

Each individual piece of content can be linked to a community through the usage of hash tags and users can directly communicate with others through the use of mentions. One of my initial tasks is to perform a content analysis on the top tweets for hashtags related to Seattle’s battle for a $15 per hour minimum wage. By uncovering ideal types for both tweets and users who are involved in the virtual community, we can better understand their role in building and sustaining the movement while providing a blueprint for studying the tweets of a diverse range of collective mobilizations. Uncovering the dynamic patterns of twitter is a very important step in understanding how to fight for social change and political power in the second decade of the twenty-first century.


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