Twitter: A literature review

“Twitter has shaped modern social communication” (Murthy[1], 2013, p.153) and is “a revolution in simplicity” as it has brought “openness and simplicity” (Halavais[2], 2014, p.29) to the users who co-created it and influenced its simple architecture. Users contributed to developing a friendly Twitter interface. While users access the platform using different devices and applications, they share “a basic commonality, a text window limited to 140 characters” (p.31). Both the interface simplicity and the interaction opportunity make the success of Twitter.

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Available in 33 languages, Twitter encourages a participatory culture as “users shape the service through their practices of use” (Weller et al.[3], 2014, p.xxxi). Spencer[4] (2009) acknowledges the changes Twitter brought to the way we communicate today since the platform “forces people to get to the point, be concise, and focus on the message” (p. 5).

Humphreys et al[5]. (2012) consider Twitter as the successor to the old-fashioned diaries of the 18th and 19th centuries, which were “a way of documenting and sharing important events in the family and community” (p. 7). According to Humphreys et al. both diaries and Twitter are short writings and, “because of their audience, content, narrative style, and limited length, these historical diaries share many characteristics of modern micro-blogs and are thus worthy of closer review” (p. 6).

Deller[6] (2011) states that “Twitter has more recently been called ‘real-time social networking’, a discursive shift in emphasis that highlights it as a ‘rolling news’ platform rather than a static ‘blogging’ environment” (p.217).

Deller goes on and argues that Twitter users:

“Don’t represent the entire audience for any given text, nor can they. There are also clear hierarchies of power within the ‘Twittersphere’ with celebrities, journalists and ‘official’ accounts from organisations playing a very visible role in (re)circulating information and influencing debate, which must be recognised when we consider the claims for it being a democratic space where all can participate. Despite these notes of caution, for anyone interested in studying the media, studying the way ‘audiences’ and celebrities, producers and media professionals now interact, or simply interested in audience responses to different media, Twitter marks a potentially significant development, and one it would be remiss to ignore” (p.237).

Based on Lasswell’s statement dating back to 1948 “Who says what to whom in what channel with what effect”, Wu et al[7]. (2011) demonstrate the theory of “two-step flow of communications”, which occurs on Twitter. Unlike television, radio, and print media, Twitter enables one to easily observe information flows on the platform: “Almost half of information that originated from the media passes to the masses indirectly via a diffuse intermediate layer of opinion leaders” (p. 10). Indeed, opinion leaders, the so-called “media-savvy” group, are “more connected and more exposed to the media” (p.10) than their ordinary followers.

To date many commercial books have been published. They provide a large range of marketing techniques to help companies and individuals achieve positive results with Twitter communications.

Scott and Jacka[8] (2011) provide guidance on how to benefit from social media and how to minimise and avoid certain risks and pitfalls. They emphasise the role of social media in today’s corporate world.

With “Groundswell”, Li and Bernoff[9] (2011) introduce the term “groundswell” to define “social media” as a way to win “in a world transformed by social technologies”. The book highlights the power shift from organisations to people through social media. Not only does it illustrate the potential of social media and social networks via statistics but it also helps the reader stay up to date with the latest technology. However, it also thoroughly exposes the challenges of embracing social media communications and includes an important chapter on Twitter.

According to Shirley et al[10]. (2013) from 2006 to 2011, over a thousand academic papers focusing on Twitter were published. The authors’ intention was to identify these papers and categorise them to better understand Twitter. The authors used open coded content analysis to classify the papers, according to their titles and abstracts. They conclude that some 80% of papers focus on content aspects and user details, that is “the content of tweets and the people communicating” (p. 21) while the technological aspects are lessened, “perhaps reflecting the technical barriers to adoption in developing tools for the Twitter API[11]” (p.22).

By identifying research methods and areas and sub-areas of interest this study makes a significant contribution to providing “a framework within which researchers studying Twitter related topics will be able to position and ground their work” (p.22).

On 1 January 2014, Statistics Brain[12] published key figures for Twitter covering the period 2006 – 2013 (Table 1). The statistics prove once more that Twitter is in a leading position as the most popular social media platform.

Total number of active registered Twitter users 645 million
Number of new Twitter users signing up everyday 135,000
Number of unique Twitter site visitors every month 190 million
Average number of tweets per day 58 million
Percent of Twitter users who use their phone to tweet 43 %
Percent of tweets that come from third party applicants 60%
Number of active Twitter users every month 115 million
Percent of Twitters who don’t tweet but watch other people tweet 40%
Number of days it takes for 1 billion tweets 5 days
Number of tweets that happen every second 9,100

Table 1: Twitter statistics by Statistics Brain

“Twitter [… ] did rather well during disasters and elections, and subsequently became an event-following tool” (Rogers[13], 2014, p.ix). Moreover Schmidt[14] (2014) considers Twitter as a communicative space that embeds two major aspects: “The particular affordances of Twitter as a software service, together with the social and textual affordances articulated in ongoing use, form a communicative space which is partly stable (e.g., the connections between followers and followees) and partly highly dynamic (e.g., the tweets using a popular hashtag) (p.6). Twitter, as a communicative space, is therefore “framed by three structural dimensions”: 1) technological affordance, 2) social and textual relationships and 3) shared rules and expectations (p.6).

Murthy (2013) warns about the egocentric side of Twitter: “However, placing primacy on more egocentric tweets is at the expenses of the fact that many tweets on Twitter are also highly communal” (p.144). Twitter is, in the end, a corporate business as Murthy mentions (2013): “In its initial stages, it was focused on user growth. Currently, it has begun the process of increasing revenue. Its advertising models have raised controversy amongst Twitter users” (p.149).

Bruns and Moe[15] (2014) consider public communication on Twitter a threefold model, which, in their view, consists of three layers (pp.16-22):

  • Meso-layer: Follower-followee networks

This layer is made up of the basic Twitter function that enables the users to follow others and access the tweets flowing from the followed users.

  • Macro-layer: Hashtagged exchanges

This layer is made up of the tweet content as such which, in most cases, includes hashtags – a keyword having as a prefix the symbol “#”. Hashtags are markers of a theme, event and any other pieces of content that the author considers important to mark a tweet. Hashtags, which originally were introduced by users and then adopted by Twitter as a method of marking content, is a powerful feature that enables searching and accessing the full list of tweets containing a certain hashtag.

  • Micro-layer: @Reply conversations

Consisting of the @mentions and @replies generated by a Twitter user when addressing another user (whose username follows the sign “@”) this layer is composed of the interpersonal communication features offered by the platform.

Bruns and Moe (2014) argue these “layers do not exist in isolation from one another” (p.20) as users pass from one layer to the other and a “topical tweet can be regarded as an intentional move from the macro- to the meso-layer” (p.21).

Pennebaker[16] (2011) starts his book “The Secret Life of Pronouns” commenting on four tweets published by public figures. He looks at the words’ meaning as well as at the communication styles of the authors. He notices that each tweet “is like a fingerprint” (p.2), which can provide relevant information about the tweet author and his/her communication style as “each person uses words in an unique way” (p.2).

In his book Pennebaker shares his story of how he and his team developed LIWC, a piece of software that can be used for computer-based content analysis. Based on research findings and relevant examples, the author also describes the methods and the experiments they employed to make LIWC what it is today, a referential piece of content analysis software.

[1] Murthy, D. (2013), Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age, Cambridge, Polity Press

[2]Halavais, A. (2014), “Structure of Twitter: Social and Technical” in Weller K. et al. (eds.) Twitter and Society, New York, Peter Lang Publishing.

[3] Weller, K. et al., (eds.) (2014) Twitter and Society: An Introduction in Twitter and Society, New York, Peter Lang Publishing.

[4] Spencer, M. (2009), Literature Review: Twitter’s Relevance and Use as a Communication Tool, University of Hawaii at Mānoa, Educational Technology Department

[5] Humphreys, L. et al. (2012), Historicizing New Media: a content analysis of Twitter

[6] Deller, R. A. (2011), “Twittering on: Audience research and participation using Twitter“, in Participations, Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 8 (1), pp. 216-245

[7] Wu, S. et al. (2011), Who Says What to Whom on Twitter

[8] Scott, P. R. and Jacka, J. M. (2011), Auditing Social Media: A Governance and Risk Guide, New Jersey, Wiley Business

[9] Li, C. and Bernoff J. (2011), Groundswell: Winning in a world transformed by social technologies, Boston, Forrester Research, Harvard Business Review Press

[10] Shirley, W. S. et al. (2013) “What do people study when they study Twitter? Classifying Twitter related academic papers”, in Journal of Documentation, Vol. 69 Iss: 3, pp.384 – 410

[11] API stands for “Application Programming Interface”, a software program running certain tasks.

[12] Statistics Brain

[13] Rogers, R. (2014), “Debanalising Twitter: The Transformation of an Object of Study” in Weller K. et al. (eds.) Twitter and Society, New York, Peter Lang Publishing

[14] Schmidt, J-H, (2014), “Twitter and the Rise of Personal Publics” in Weller K. et al. (eds.) Twitter and Society, New York, Peter Lang Publishing

[15] Bruns, A. and Moe H. (2014), “Structural Layers of Communication on Twitter” in Weller K. et al. (eds.), Twitter and Society, New York, Peter Lang Publishing

[16] Pennebaker, J.W. (2011), The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our words say about us, New York, Bloomsbury Press, 2011

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