Post-Election Reflections: Rethinking Twitter’s Neutrality / by Lily Greenberg

Pre-Election Twitter was lit. Leading up to November 8, we live-tweeted every debate, created memes of the presidential candidates, and endlessly speculated what kind of America we would see over the next four years. My timeline rang out with #NeverTrump and #ImWithHer. A Trump victory seemed impossible, ridiculous--accounts I followed nodded back at me. We were all on the same page. 

Then November 8 arrived, and we watched states turn red one by one, culminating in a Trump victory.  I opened Twitter the next morning to find statistics of who voted what, of who is to blame. No more jokes. Every tweet seemed to point fingers, to cry out that there are more zeno/islamo/homophobic people than we thought. Everyone sounded betrayed, asking how could this happen? Every comedic attempt seemed to fall flat, like a deflated balloon.

Clearly, there’s been a disconnect between my feed and the election results. I saw no trace on Twitter of the 61 million people that voted for Donald Trump. Their voices weren’t present at all. At first, I wondered where were they? Why didn’t I know about all of these people? But then I started to wonder about Twitter overall as a medium, about what it means to be getting my news and entertainment from this singular source. Though I’ve had an account since 2010, I’ve never really stopped to think more critically, to examine it more thoroughly.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of the Twitter Corporation, said of the site in 2010, “I think Twitter is a success for us when people stop talking about it, when we stop doing these panels and people just use it as a utility, use it like electricity. It fades into the background, something that’s just a part of communication. We put it on the same level as any communication device. So, e-mail, SMS, phone. That’s where we want to be” (Djick 68).

Basically, Dorsey wanted Twitter to be a neutral space, as neutral as e-mail or phone calls. And for many of us, Twitter has become so normalized, so embedded in our every day, that it might actually appear to have this neutral quality we see in other technologies. But is it actually an impartial utility, like electricity?

First of all, what is Twitter? Like what is it?

Obviously we all know what it is. As frequent users, we probably find this question stupid, like the kind of thing your 84-year-old grandmother asks while jabbing at her new iPhone with her right pointer finger. But do we actually know what is that we’re using, and how it fits into the continuum of digital communications?

Twitter is not new. As Dhiraj Murthy explains in his book Twitter: Digital Media and Society Series, we must look at Twitter as “part of a larger historical trend toward update culture, social norms that encourage us to share more in the public sphere” (144). Murthy compares Twitter to the rise of the telegraph, when the idea of brief, near immediate communication was novel. Today, though our ability to communicate is seemingly limitless, mediums like Twitter are marked by “a new era of brevity”–Twitter is a “digital throwback to the analogue of succinctness of telegraphs and telegrams” (Murthy 22). Yes, “Twitter as a medium is revolutionary,” says Murthy, “but so was the telegraph” (100).

So where does Twitter fit in? Basically, there are three broad types of interactions–there’s face-to-face interactions, mediated interactions, and quasi-mediated interactions (Meikle 3). Examples of mediated interactions are making a phone call or sending an email. They’re direct, and usually private. The audience is specifically addressed. Quasi-mediated interactions, on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, are distinctive from the mediated in that they are both private and public. The audience is both someone and anyone (Meikle 72). This presents an immediate problem with Dorsey’s intention for Twitter to be “on the same level as any communication device.” To conflate the interactions as simply digital communications glosses over the major distinguishing factors of social media.

Twitter is both a microblog, inviting a stream of both banal and profound reflections, as well as an “ambient news source,” filled with headlines and statistics (Murthy 69). Twitter doesn’t require the cognitive attention that an e-mail or phone call might, so we digest the essential mixed right in with the nonessential. We take in Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon in the same breath as the Joe Biden memes.

Twitter is continuous in a long line of communication modes. But it’s also “instantaneous, multiplex, globalized, socially networked, and public,” a combination that makes it new (Murthy 100).

So, though Twitter might just feel like another app in our slew of apps, another tab in our browser, we can’t really think of it as belonging to the same category as e-mail or phone calls. Clearly it’s different. But can it still be a utility, just in a different form?

Can Twitter be neutral? We can pretend that Twitter is neutral all day, that it’s just another technology, but ultimately, this neutrality is an illusion (and a dangerous one).

Representation: Who’s tweeting? When I’m scrolling through my feed, Twitter feels so full. Comprised of friends, celebrities, and parody accounts, it seems like everyone I could ever want and more is there. But in reality, a meager 7% of Americans use Twitter. And that’s not to say that all these existing accounts are tweeting equally–a 2010 study showed the 90% of existing tweets came from 10% of its users (Djick 74). Those numbers haven’t changed much since 2010; stats from November 2016show that out of the 1.3 billion registered accounts, only 100 million of those are “daily active users.” The pool just gets smaller and smaller.

So before we even consider who we’re following, Twitter overall is not representative of the whole. It’s a vast minority of Americans we’re dealing with–and that’s not to say that those tweeting are all equally influential either. Sure, plenty of everyday people are active, which might give Twitter the appearance of challenging traditional media hierarchies, but the actual influence of these voices is pretty limited depending on their follower count (Murthy 31).

Homophily: Who are we following? When Twitter was first on the rise, many thought that the site would encourage “cross-talk,” the bringing together of dissimilar voices (Murthy 34). However, what’s actually been the case has been more in line with homophily (Murthy 35). Homophily is a sociological theory that speaks to the tendency of forming connections with others who are similar to ourselves in socioeconomic status, values, beliefs, or attitudes. More succinctly, birds of a feather flock together. Whereas cross-talk would involve willful action on our part to find and engage with voices unlike our own, homophily is much more self-reinforcing. It’s following accounts that make jokes like we do, vote like we do, roll their eyes at those same people that make us cringe.

Ultimately, Twitter “seduces its users into thinking tweets will traverse more pathways than they do in practice” (Murthy 33). It can’t be neutral, because with only 7% of Americans actively tweeting, it’s not representative of the general population. Even less representative are our individual feeds, which reflect ourselves more than anything else.

Twitter is a corporation and you are the product. That’s right. We are not the customers here. We users are literally the products (Meikle 67). One media theorist said of Google, “Google is not ours. Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another. We generate product for Google, our every search a miniscule contribution. Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef in human minds” (Meikle 66). Much can be applied to Twitter as well–this site does not exist without its contributors. Twitter is constantly fine-tuning its filtering functions to keep you around (Djick 75). It’s constantly gauging the influence of its users in order to better organize search results, in order to optimize your experience. With neutral mediums like e-mail, we don’t really care about the “experience” as long as our message arrives to the recipient. With Twitter, we have so much more to consider, so much more to care about.

So what do we do with Twitter? In short, we keep tweeting. We keep following and favoriting and retweeting. But as much as we integrate Twitter into our daily lives, we must not mistake this normalization for neutrality. We cannot give into the illusion that Twitter is some free-standing infrastructure just transporting streams of tweets, regardless of who its users are and indifferent to the contents they exchange (Djick 69). Of the multitude of things that our election has revealed, one of them is surely this: we have believed Jack Dorsey’s intent for Twitter to be true, to be our reality. But the truth is that our feeds reflect ourselves more than anyone else, that our tweets keep Twitter afloat, and the corporation knows it.

“Technology shaping our world is different from determining it,” Dhiraj Murthy aptly remarks (41). Just because Twitter is not a neutral platform does not mean that we are exempt from responsibility, that somehow Twitter has been the problem in election discourse (or lack of discourse) and the American public is off the hook. We can dig into the factors that distinguish Twitter all we want, but at the end of the day, we are the ones using the tool. Twitter is not radically altering American ways of life. Rather, it’s intensifying pre-existing conditions, creating a way for Americans to more vigorously pursue their characteristic way of life (Murthy 41). We follow people like us on Twitter because we reach out to people like us in our daily face-to-face interactions. Twitter only exaggerates our tendencies.

This is new and it’s not new. It’s connected to a long line of communicative modes, and it’s distinct. But moving forward, we must take the time necessary to examine our tools before we allow them to fool us, to isolate us, to leave us wondering what foreign country we have inhabited.



External Works Cited

Dijck, José Van. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013. Print.

Meikle, Graham and Sherman Young. Media Convergence: Networked Digital Media in Everyday Life. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2012. Print.

Murthy, Dhiraj. Twitter: Digital Media and Society Series. Polity Press, Cambridge: 2013. Print.