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Exploring the Twitterverse,
This review is from: Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age (DMS - Digital Media and Society) (Paperback)
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One word of caution, there is a glut of `how to' or `getting started' books about Twitter today. This is not one of them. It is a serious academic treatise on the impact of Twitter today, socially, politically and culturally. The morality of Tweeting is touched on here and there, but the writer quite rightly points out that Twitter is not morally good or bad in itself, that value is defined by the content of Tweets themselves.
More ise said on its efficacy and impact as a communication tool. Is it dumbing down communication, speeding everything up in its terse 140 character, spontaneous and constant updating way until we have whirling mulch that does not give time for analysis or thought? Or is it a powerful, democratising, globalising, force for good, building new enfranchising networks, and empowering the individual to seek out answers and information for themselves?
With such issues the writer avoids a binary either / or approach, taking a more nuanced and complex line. The book begins defining Twitter as a social networking and communication tool, explaining what it means to be a micro-blogging tool, how it fits in with and feeds the `update' culture, allowing a means that individuals can record, understand and validate their experiences, whilst simultaneously a networking tool that breaks out of the private sphere of Facebook to potentially an unknowingly wide audience, some of which may be known family and friends, some not.
In the next Chapter, Twitter is contextualised in communications history. In this way Dhiraj Murthy debunks the notion that Twitter is a nefarious dumbing down of communication unprecedented in history. Rather it is following an evolutionary line that took localised oral communication that was revolutionised and democratised by the printing press, which many years down the line was revolutionised and made more instantaneous by the Telegram, and so on. It is shown that fast communication across vast distances is not new, neither is the ability to see other peoples communications. Witness the public `Notificator' of 1935 (p18). The writer also provides a check to those who would make grand claims that Twitter is an unprecedented globaliser, opening up the global village like never before. Such claims should not ignore that vast swathes of the world do not have access to the technology needed to function on Twitter, or access to a very limited version of it. Hence some villages are more global than others.
The next chapter, `Theorising Twitter,' explores background academic theory to some of the ideas on communication and relating that Twitter opens up. Such aspects as the democratising nature of Twitter, how it creates `tele-presence,' i.e. the feeling that communication is more direct and immediate than it actually is, how it creates and coheres already congruent groups (`homophily,'), and provides the means to transcend them.
Next, we move on to what was for me the most interesting central section of the book, which builds on and applies some of the ideas already explored. The impact and use of Twitter is explored during and after disasters, as a tool of political activism, and as a tool for health. In all of these a very balanced approach is taken, refuting sweeping claims. During disasters it is explored how Twitter gives a mean for immediate reportage by citizens affected, and how they can inform world media long before historically it would have arrived at the scene. Also, how Twitter users, including relief agencies, have helped co-ordinate relief. The writer heavily qualifies the idea of citizen journalism both here and in the chapter on activism. Generally speaking, individuals on the ground do get tweets out that are taken up by the wider media and that can be the first reportage available. However, it is still the national media and the wider internet that most go to source their news on such disasters, and it is till the national media that produces the most read and re-tweeted tweets.
In terms of political activism, again the writer gives some convincing checks and qualifications to the idea that e.g. the Arab Spring was a Twitter revolution. He argues that most of the affected states in these uprising had comparatively minimal use of Twitter, and that the most consulted Western sources were still established global media outlets. There were those who took a spokesperson role on Twitter or even claimed to be co-ordinating action, but often these could be argued to be exaggerating their claims whilst tweeting from a safer Western sanctuary. This is not to say that Twitter did not play an important part, but it must not be sensationalised or taken out of context. It must not be forgotten that what got the feet on the streets was not largely Twitter, but years of government oppression and brutality. Similarly, those in e.g. Cairo and Tehran did not need Twitter to tell them that a huge uprising was in progress. The crowds, standstill traffic and frantic word on the street would do that. Added to this are the ways Twitter can be used to actively disseminate erroneous or misleading information that can do active harm to either disaster relief or those fleeing from oppressive and brutalising authorities. Still, the writer argues, in the case of both Disasters and activism, new networks have been opened up, awareness has been raised, and a powerful and growing communication tool has hinted at its potential.
With health, the writer explores how the update culture has made public what was formerly intensely personal, e.g. updates on life changing health issues such as cancer, as a means to diarise and record what is going on, whilst networking for support and even news on treatment or clinical trials. Conversely, medical authorities use Twitter to reach the public on health awareness issues, as well as looking for participants for new treatments and trials. Again the shadow side of this is explored, such as a confusion of the doctor/patient relationship, and the dissemination of bad and unqualified medical ideas by non-practitioners. But the writer is clear that in the world of health, the opening up of new support networks has been and is very powerful. The spontaneous and portable update nature of Twitter also means that people will quickly give frank updates on their health e.g from GP reception rooms on smart phones in a way they would not do if they had to go home and boot up their pc.
Twitter, then, is a powerful communication tool that with its spontaneous updates, mixture of profound and banal, and global reach, allows the growth of new communication, support and activist networks. At the same time Twitter can be seen as a step on a clear line in our history of communication, and its potential to harm, or bless, humankind must not be exaggerated.
This is a sociological research project that deals with some complex and weighty ideas that may frustrate readers outside of the academic circle, specifically on the chapter on theorising Twitter. It also makes certain points again and again and uses pages of unnecessary exposition at times to underline e.g. how Twitter is a mixture of both the banal and profound.
The style though remains clear and accessible; it gives a heady brew of ideas and perspectives, has a sensible balanced approach that avoids binary theorising and is a good read for anyone who wants to look deeply and intelligently at the world of hash-tags and re-tweets.