Why Students of Social Media Love Twitter

In the history of media, there is often a golden age of low tech, wherein some of the most valued use of the media occurs.  In photography, there is a poetry to the early daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes that is missing in modern digital photography.  Not that there isn’t beautiful work being done now, but that somehow by working within the constraints of a young media, people create great beauty in just in spite of the limitations, but because the message is allowed to be greater than the delivery.

Twitter comes with a constraint by design. 140 characters.  In 2006, Jack Dorsey (@jack) and his company’s (Odeon) board had a brainstorming session where they came up with the idea of creating a system based on Short Message Service (SMS) – the underlying concept to cellphone texting. Dom Sagolla (@dom), one of the original Odeon brainstormers wrote,

Back then, we had no character limit on our system. Messages longer than 160 characters (the common SMS carrier limit) were split into multiple texts and delivered (somewhat) sequentially. There were other bugs, and a mounting SMS bill. The team decided to place a limit on the number of characters that would go out via SMS for each post. They settled on 140, in order to leave room for the username and the colon in front of the message. In February of 2007 @Jack wrote something which inspired me to get started on this project: “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.”

This self-imposed cursoriness has made for some fascinating shorthand, reminiscent of teletype messages (where customers had to pay by the letter). Naturally, there are the homophones used in texting, such as “R U going?” and “I C U went”.  Even more poetry is elicited with “hash tags”, with which writers bring focus to certain words so that they can be ostensibly indexed and searched. In a Twitter-specific patois, though, they have come to embody a whole new wit, for example:

Visited my ex-boyfriend today #whatwasithinking

Marshall McLuhan spoke of “media determinism”, wherein the medium shapes the message.  As an artist, I’d often move from one medium to another to help myself find new ways to think.  What came out of oil paint and canvas would be a world apart from what would come out of working with charcoal on paper, or from working on a lithograph stone.

Dr David M. Berry suggests that there are other elements that give Twitter a uniqueness :

“…the quality of media conversations are changing: instead of multiple, discontinuous, heterogeneous and unsystematic conversations, we now have single, continuous, homogeneous, nearly real-time updates of news, stories, lives, events and activities, all streamed through a common format that is distributed in real-time around the world.”

Berry argues that Twitter is more like a stock-ticker than any other medium!

The brevity of Twitter brings about ways of voicing ideas that wouldn’t occur in a format without those same boundaries.  The writer must say less, and infer more.  And it is in inference that magic happens – the power of suggestion.  A stage magician’s routine is dependent on that power, even illusion, just as the suggestion of a fact can be more powerful than the blatant statement of a fact.

Twitter’s constraints also mean that there are fewer variables to consider for students of social media.  There are three main approaches to these studies that I have noticed:

  1. Sentiment Analysis – for instance, when a person says, “This new Toyota is SICK”, do they mean that it’s a car that should be avoided, or that it is the next best thing since the Mustang?
  2. Subject Analysis – WHAT is being discussed
  3. Psychological – what was the motivation of the writer for writing the Tweet

And a lot of people are trying to create ways of classifying tweets based on semantics – preferably through the use of computing – some of my favorite examples include:  “Semantic Twitter: Analyzing Tweets For Real-Time Event Notification”; “Vuvuzelas & Active Learning for Online Classification”; and “Analysis and Classification of Twitter messages”.

It’s perhaps a little terrifying and exciting to think that one day we’ll be able to look up at a large screen and see emotions sweep across a whole population – like some world-wide mood ring. Right now, we’re seeing some great visualizations of how messages are flowing across large populations through social networks. If those projects in semantic analysis are realized, we’ll be able to see sentiment and intent as well.

I’ll indulge in a little more futurism in thinking that while the task is somewhat easier with the constraints of Twitter, eventually this will be feasible in other communications, and even across social networks. But it is the very simplicity of Twitter that is making the setting out on this journey imaginable.


Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

15 comments on “Why Students of Social Media Love Twitter

Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Wonderful post Ric. I love your weave of story, idea and possibility.

What I am really drawn to is this, your vision of the future (and of what is happening now):

“It’s perhaps a little terrifying and exciting to think that one day we’ll be able to look up at a large screen and see emotions sweep across a whole population – like some world-wide mood ring. Right now, we’re seeing some great visualizations of how messages are flowing across large populations through social networks”

This is exactly the difference that social media is bringing I believe, the ability of affects to be transferred across distances and cultures at a threshold rate that never existed previously. And when speaking of things like thresholds and physiology, emergent properties may appear. I half-jokingly referred to the present Age as the “Affection Age” come post to the Information Age. And your giant mood ring fits in well here. I’ve enjoyed talking with Jacqui Kimmel about this in response to my post on the eagle cam http://bit.ly/eBG70X – our moods, our affections, our states now pass between us like frost or other weather. The affective foundations of community and thought now shift and communicate even beyond species boundaries in way never before possible.

And I agree. There is something to the brevity of Twitter, the way that it challenges thought, the way it pushes the eye beyond the words, that allows it to achieve an ever greater speed. The haiku (of information and affection) as we once joked.

    Ric Dragon

    Your comment, Kevin, just gave me a brain spark: Do you know Simon Winchester’s book “Krakatoa”? When that volcano erupted, causing whole islands to perish and the evening skies worldwide to be reddish for years – the news of the eruption travelled around the world via telegraph. It was considered the first time that a global event had been known about worldwide so quickly. ANd as you mention, now it’s emotions that can be transmitted that quickly. Not sure where this line of thought is going – but intriguing. At any rate; also want you to know that your own blog post today got my creative thinking going; and this post owes its existence to chatting with you on Twitter today!

First of all, Ric, I would like to say I enjoyed your post immensely because of your great use of metaphor/imagery. As a reader I felt you take me by the hand and lead me down the Twitterville yellow brick road as I followed your train of thinking. You painted pictures with your words along the way, concluding in a Big Bang with the evolutionary thought of your vision for the future. It certainly makes an impact. I can see why Kevin felt drawn to emphasize it. I am reminded of Genesis where it speaks of the Tower of Babel: 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Could the evolution of Social Media be likened to a modern day version of this tower – where we “speak the same language” and experience a transfer of thoughts/sentiments/emotions through the medium, enabling almost transcendental communication, as never before?

    Ric Dragon

    OK, you DID read my post about the Tower of Babel, yes? http://bit.ly/i16fx6 . If not, we’ve got one powerful zeitgeist going on here. The interesting thing is that if we understand the PATTERNS of what’s being communicated in Twitter, we will probably find that the medium does transcend language – and harbors an underlying lingua franca. Jacqui, many, many thanks for coming by and commenting!


I was pointed to your post by @67tallchris of #usguys and agree with Jacqui’s appreciation of your word painting.

I think for me what stood out most perhaps though was your statement, “The writer must say less, and infer more.” This is very true, but in the succinct form you put it, it somehow stood out more strongly to me as a relevant aspect of the medium.

Typically I might associate certain personality types with various social media avenues, and while I enjoy Twitter, I don’t necessarily consider it a natural fit for me (for one thing, I can be rather long-winded). I think I tend to think of Twitter more as a comfortable avenue for those who speak succinctly, clearly, and in general are doers and action people more than idea people so much…painting broad strokes here, but hopefully the gist is understood.

I’ve read a fair bit on personality however, and I think I’m *intuitive* enough that to me the brevity of Twitter does add something…it means opportunity to pack a punch, to say much in little, to embrace the challenge of being professional AND pithy or even poetic…without being shallow.

Someone I know recently took a class in which he was studying Marshall McLuhan’s ideas and opinions, and I was vicariously fascinated. The medium shaping the message is at once both something that makes sense and yet also thought-provoking – even choosing to reply here has a different tone than if I tweeted my thoughts (and therefore has impact on how others read/reply/engage).

Finally, the comment that “somehow by working within the constraints of a young media, people create great beauty in [not?] just in spite of the limitations, but because the message is allowed to be greater than the delivery.” is very nicely put. I often wonder how much we’re missing out on by all our “improvements” in technology and other media. Sometimes simple is better, and while I like convenience and style and good design as much as the next person, I appreciate the reminder to savor and endeavor to support & engage with the message above its medium of expression – hopefully in a way that brings beauty, joy, and inspires yet more art & science both.

Thanks for the post!

    Ric Dragon

    OK, wish you could see my smile, and subtle shaking of the head. Not shaking of the head because I agree or disagree, but because I’m so delighted, tickled, no – moved – by your thoughtful comment. Your appreciative words are kind and soothing. I’m so grateful that you’ve come by to read the post and comment – and to make your acquaintance, albeit in words.

      Thanks for the reply, Ric – whenever I take the time (usually through a recommendation of a friend like Chris) to read and comment on a blog, it’s very rewarding and enjoyable – and all the more so when there’s interaction and replies!

      Have a great evening, and I look forward to reading more of your work and talking in the future.


Semantics for me will be the savior of twitter. Google’s own real time updates on new stories is a great example of that.

Without filtering Twitter seems more the personification of white noise then the dawn of new age of communication. Without a heavy duty filter to assist the process it becomes a task of content sorting left to people dedicated to such a task.

I think the stock-ticker idea is well suited … more in that you have to specialize in the data being streamed to you in order for it to have impact on you. It could be black Friday and the stock ticker is still just a blinking stream of light to those not specialized in interpreting the data.


    And what’s interesting, Shawn – is that those people reading the stock ticker got really accustomed to it, and could just sit there and read it all day – their own internal filtering kicked in. If you ever do one of the big Twitter chats, you have to do that, too.

Mike Vaz

Me Gusta Ric. Me Gusta.

    Ric Dragon

    Thank you, Sir!

Ashley Drewes

I hated twitter until I couldn’t avoid it any longer. It took me a while to see the nuances of language possible with 140 characters. I have already read at least one article/study of how “positive” tweeters tend to tweet with other “positive” tweeters, and negative with negative, so your future is not hard to imagine but it is utterly fascinating. Great article.

    Ric Dragon

    Thanks for commenting, Ashley. You’re reminding me, I’d love to write about that phenomena of which you speak – how positive group with positive, negative with negative – in short, what they call “affinity groups”. It really gets into the essence of tribalism, and how we like to be with people that affirm our own nature or type. One of the reasons I love social media is that it introduces people to me outside of my affinity groups. Even people that I don’t necessarily have a lot in common with – but that introduce me to new ideas.

Dan Perez

Surprisingly, this post didn’t make my head hurt (like a large percentage of posts from your fellow tribesman). I wasn’t quite sure of the point of the post, however. I think the trend towards short, electronic communication offers little benefit to the human race. I, for one, hope to never see social media replace face-to-face (even phone) communication. Magic doesn’t happen when “The writer must say less, and infer more”, only confusion.

Online relationships are easy because they’re low risk. It’s easy to like someone online. But put your little “tribe” to work together for the same company from 9-5 for a whole year and I guarantee you, you’re gonna start disliking a large percentage of your fellow tribesmen (and vice versa).

Twitter is what it should be, a way to connect with other people across the world and a never ending stream of real-time news & events. I hope it never becomes anything more than that.

Nice job.

Peggy Fitzpatrick

Love the post Ric, still processing the information. The New York Times just posted this article about Twitter: http://nyti.ms/mrCFKr which talks about people using the hashtag outside of Twitter for expression. Definitely a cultural shift occurring for our language and culture.

I agree with Dan’s statement about relationships being more “low risk” on Social Media and would add that they are also more disposable which could be higher risk.
Insightful as always Ric