The Message of Twitter: "Here It Is" and "Here I Am"

Last week, the following conversation unfolded via my Twitter account about, well, my use of Twitter as a technology:

>aramique@henryjenkins mr professor... you theorize on participatory models over spectatorial but i've noticed your whole twitter feed is monologue12:32 PM Aug 19th from web in reply to henryjenkins

aramique@henryjenkins p.s i am a fan...just wondering why you are using twitter to simply broadcast instead of sparking dialogue12:34 PM Aug 19th from web in reply to henryjenkins

henry jenkins @aramique it is the curse of having 4.5k followers! Feels odd to do 1 to 1 conversations @that scale!2:39 PM Aug 19th from TwitterFon in reply to aramique

aramique@henryjenkins so then what would you say to a brand or entertainment property with millions of fans?2:54 PM Aug 19th from web in reply to henryjenkins

mikemonello@henryjenkins Twitter conversations aren't 1 to 1, they are open to all. (re: @aramique)

henry jenkins @armique, @mikemonello, yr questions get Twt's strengths, limits. but answer won't fit in character limits. Watch for blog post soon.

I will admit that there is a certain irony about having to refer people to my blog for an exchange that started on Twitter but couldn't really be played out within the character limits of that platform. But then, note that armique's very first post had to be broken into two tweets just to convey the emotional nuances he needed. And that's part of my point.

From the start, I've questioned whether Twitter was the right medium for me to do my work. I've always said that as a writer, I am a marathon runner and not a sprinter. I am scarcely blogging here by traditional standards given the average length of my posts. Yet I believe this blog has experimented with how academics might better interface with a broader public and how we can expand who has access to ideas that surface through our teaching and research.

For a long time, I held off joining Twitter because I was not sure how it might expand meaningfully on the work I am already doing here. My friend, danah boyd, the queen of social networks, more or less threatened to do me bodily harm if I did not join Twitter and she personally set up an account for me to use. Now, I am really glad that she did because there is so much I've learned by experimenting with this platform which has been expanding in visibility and influence over the past handful of months.

My first impressions were correct that Twitter is no substitute for Blogs or Live Journal. And in so far as people are using it to take on functions once played on blogs, there is a serious loss to digital culture.

Someone recently asked me, "If McCluhan is right and the medium is the message, what is the message of Twitter?" My response: "Here It Is and Here I Am."

Here It Is

Let's break that down:"Here it is" represents Twitter as a means of sharing links and pointers to other places on the web.

I've been reasonably selective about which Twitter streams I follow -- and that selectivity has to do with both my respect for the person writing the account and my desire to get access to a broad range of communities. Different people give me a point of entry into conversations taking place around advertising, transmedia entertainment, journalism, civic media, intellectual property, fandom, and a range of other topics which run through my work.

I see each of those Twitterers as the only truly intelligent agents -- human beings -- and Twitter as a whole as a kind of knowledge community. None of us can spot everything in our field and collectively pooling our knowledge is of enormous value. For me, that's been my primary use of Twitter both as a consumer and as a contributor. I also love to monitor how my contributions circulate -- being able to read who has retweet me and watching the stats on as to how many people have followed my links gives me greater insights than ever before about my readership and the impact of different posts.

Unfortunately, there has also been some losses. Three years ago, when I started this blog, if people wanted to direct attention to one of my blog posts, they would write about it in their blog and often feel compelled to spell out more fully why they found it a valuable resource. I got a deeper insight into their thinking and often the posts would spark larger debate. As the function of link sharing has moved into Twitter, much of this additional commentary has dropped off. Most often, the retweets simply condense and pass along my original Tweet. At best, I get a few additional words on the level of "Awesome" or "Inspiring" or "Interesting." So, in so far as Twitter replaces blogs, we are impoverishing the discourse which occurs on line.

I have been especially amused and dismayed by the way Twitter removes or distorts context as it moves across cyberspace. People take notes at lectures, pulling out a sentence here or there. It is fascinating data to me to see which of my points stuck. But then often the sentence doesn't capture the specificity of the idea and it rapidly takes different meanings as it travels. I am particularly dismayed by shifts in attribution. So, I quoted Ethan Zuckerman as having said that any technology sufficiently powerful to support the distribution of cute cat pictures can bring down a government and in my talk there is attribution. But the shortening needed for Twitter removes the attribution and before long, I am seeing this quote ascribed to me far and wide. Yes, I said it as in that the words came out of my mouth, but I did not write it, in the sense that the words are mine. I was equally dismayed when I qouted Shakespeare's Hamlet for "Brevity is the Soul of Wit" and connected it to Twitter only to have readers assume I originated the phrase.

Early on, I proposed a Twitter game -- Twik or Tweet. You throw out a quotation without attribution. And the Twitter community has to guess if it is an authentic tweet or a literary allusion.

If we see Twitter as part of a larger informational economy, it does very important work. It spreads my messages out to larger networks which might not even know my blog exists but who may be drawn to a post that s of particular interest to their memberships. Like many people out there, I was fascinated by some of the Twitter posts coming out of Iran in the wake of their contested election and Twitter expanded the information I had available to me. I sat in on a discussion at Annenberg last week with the program's incoming journalism students and a key theme was how reporters could deploy the platform to tap into larger currents in the society or identify unknown sources for their stories. This is spreadable media at work.

Here I Am

Even among the intellectuals and thought leaders whose Twitter flows I chose to follow, there is an awful lot of relatively trivial and personal chatter intended to strengthen our social and emotional ties to other members of our community. The information value of someone telling me what s/he had for breakfast is relatively low and I tend to scan pretty quickly past these tweets in search of the links that are my primary interests. And if the signal to noise ration is too low, I start to ponder how much of a social gaff I would commit if i unsubscribed from someone's account.

But even in my grumpier moments I find that I gain some loose emotional or social value out of feeling more connected to others in my circle. I feel closer to people I didn't know very well before through following their tweets. The fact that I hear from them every day means they remain more active in my thoughts. And when we connect again, we can dig deeper in our exchanges, at least in so far as the feelings are mutual, moving past the small talk into other topics.

Here we come closest to McLuhan's core idea -- "Here it is" is a function of Twitter; "Here I Am" may be its core "message" in so far as McLuhan saw the message as something that might not be articulated on any kind of conscious level but emerges from the ways that the medium impacts our experience of time and space.

This effect even extends to tweets which have greater informational value. The power of the tweets from Iran was not simply that they got out messages which the mainstream media could not have delivered to us because of the limits on how they operate under that repressive regime, but it was also that we felt a sense of immediacy because we were receiving those messages from average citizens, like ourselves, who were seeing things happen directly, on the ground. (and no doubt a fair number of fake messages fabricated for propaganda purposes, but that's another matter). As many of us turned our icons green as a show of solidarity, we saw the emergence of a larger community that felt linked to these developments.

"Here it is" became "Here I am" and more importantly "Here we are."

Broadcast? Not Really

Twitter works on a number of different scales. For some users, most I'd assume, Twitter represents a relatively narrow cast medium, a kind of social network which allows them to communicate with people they already know. For others, the scale of contact expands and the people who link to them might more appropriately be called "Followers." In my case, I currently have something approaching 4.5 thousand followers on Twitter, of whom I probably recognize by name only a few hundred. These are people who heard me speak, who saw my blog, and increasingly have picked me up because some one else retweeted one of my messages Thanks for Follow Friday shoutouts. This situation creates an asymetrical scale -- many of these people feel much closer to me because I am one of a small number of Twitter Streams they follow while I feel no closer to them because they are not sending me their "Here I am" messages back.

armique's initial question to me then asks why I am deploying Twitter as a broadcast medium.

The short answer is because the scale of communications, for me, is too great to allow for meaningful dialogue. A better answer would be because as an academic, I need a broadcast channel if I am going to get my ideas into broader circulation. I don't have access to the airwaves or to a printed publication which might bring what I write to a much broader readership. I don't have an advertising budget with which to put my ideas onto billboards. Twitter, as a platform, alters the scale of my communication by allowing me to expand my readership.

For others, companies for example, it may do the opposite, helping them to move from communications at an impossibly large scale, to something much closer to the ground. They can start to see their consumers as individuals or at least as a community of people who have a broad range of responses to what they are producing. They can sample public response to their products. They can discover groups of users they didn't know existed.

Once again, they are combining the "Here It Is" and "Here I am" functions of Twitter to both collect data and feel greater closeness to their consumers.

In return, almost without regard to the content of their message, the consumer feels greater connection to the companies -- the company ceases to be an anonymous entity and develops a face or at least a voice of its own. To me, this relationship -- even at a large scale -- is very different from broadcasting because of the ways that it creates a greater sense of intimacy and connectivity between both parties involved. When I watch a corporate message on television, I have no sense that the company can or would want to see my response.

But a smart company goes further. We are hearing stories of companies that scanTwitter looking for references to their products and reaching out to consumers to respond to their concerns. In some cases, consumers get quicker and fuller responses to their problems because they posted these problems on Twitter than they get calling the customer service department. And this is where the "Here I Am" message is especially strong -- this company cares enough about me to actively seek out people with problems and make sure they get fixed, rather than hoping nobody complains. A really smart company hires people full time just to respond to Twitter: they can respond to many more people and they can get their responses out in real time, neither of which is really possible to me given that my day job involves many more activities than just dealing with Twitter.

Now, here we get to the interesting part: does the company do this through direct messaging or through a general post to the community? There are trade-offs in both case. Twitter certainly can through its Direct Messaging function allow for private one to one conversation.

But in many cases, there is a performative dimension for both parties. The customer did not simply want to get the attention of the company; they exploit the potential of Twitter to spread the word about their complaint, to identify others who share their concerns, and to exert collective rather than personal pressure on the company, thus potentially increasing their influence. The companies are responding more quickly to Twitter based complaints because they feel exposed or at risk as what was once a personal matter transmitted through the telephone as a one-to-one channel now because a public issue and if they don't respond quickly, they may lose control.

On the other hand, because of this public complaint, the company wants to perform its concern not just to the individual customer but to the larger brand community. They don't want to simply fix the problem; they want to show they care. And if there is an answer or response, they want to send it out to everyone who might have the same concern, thus expanding the impact that any given customer service call might have on their buying public.

Now, that's the delimma I face as an academic confronting this much larger scale community. The 4 thousand plus followers I have amassed is larger than the audiences I draw at any speaking gig -- even large hall events at South by Southwest.

We can imagine the exchanges there on two levels: in some cases, the queries I get feel very much like the questions I would get during a Q & A period after a talk and it feels totally natural to respond to them through the main Twitter feed in front of the large audience. Yet, it is challenging for people to link my response to the original question. If I was speaking some place and most people couldn't hear the question, then I would feel compelled to repeat the question into the microphone. Yet in Twitter, by the time I did that, there wouldn't be any characters left to answer it with. And in any case, the question is apt to be much more concise than any meaningful answer I could provide. So you can ask questions on Twitter that are impossible to answer on Twitter -- present case a great illustration -- and so you then have to use the "Here It Is" function to direct people to another space for the response.

Other questions feel much more intimate and personal, more like the kinds that I get when people crowd around the table after the talk, and it feels weird to share such intimate exchanges in front of the larger population that reads my blog. And in some cases, I get very personal messages which don't belong in a public arena at all, that function more like texting, and it is clear that the direct message function is much more useful. I am still trying to sort out the different levels of address here and how they might shape my relationship to my readers.

I have seen a few Twitterers who are aware of this one-to-many aspect of Twitter and use it to create a kind of call and response or crowd sourcing relationship with their readers. Neil Gaiman seems to be a real master at this use of Twitter. I've seen him ask his readers for advice about specific language in a script he is crafting, almost like polling the audience on Who Wants to Be the Millionaire, and then make decisions based on the response. This is much like the company which performs its concern for the consumer and is designed to strengthen the sense of ownership and attachment his fans have to his work. If I was less over-extended, I would be playing with this community aspect of Twitter, and I suspect this may be what shaped aramique's question in the first place.

All I can say is that I am still experimenting with the medium and have not yet achieved its full potential for my work. I hope to respond to this larger challenge in the weeks ahead.

So there you have it.