It's a dead give-away. Set up a Twitter account, and just above the sign-up button you'll find the words 'Join the Conversation'. It's a clue to the nature of the beast. Twitter is for communication. For sharing, for debate, for conversation. So why do so many use it as a megaphone? Why use networked media to broadcast?
I've become increasingly irritated by institutions and corporations that set up Twitter accounts, trumpet this 'innovation' through old media channels in an awkward attempt to show how 'with it' they are, then use it incorrectly and inefficiently. There are myriad examples across the globe but the one closest to home is my local authority, Norwich City Council.
Every few days some mandarin in City Hall is despatched along the lonely corridors to Social Media Operations, Room 101a. Here he/she finds the council's digital communications centre, a temple to new media. In pride of place beside the Fax machine a PC of indeterminate vintage is running Windows 95, hardwired into the heart of the information superhighway [sic]. Our part-time cyber-explorer taps out a self-congratulatory missive to all 789 followers along the lines of 'More ways to love Norwich', or 'Well done to our eco heroes', accompanied by a link to the Council's website. Then they embark on the long trek back to their real job. Done and dusted.
At least I hope that's what happens. Because if these tweets are produced by a dedicated and paid 'media professional', I want my council tax back. This broadcast media practice, shouting from the roof tops hoping a bored passerby pays attention, is not how to utilize social media. The point of Twitter is to engage in dialogue and share information, you can even expand the democratic franchise through it. But as yet I haven't seen one reply to a Norwich City Council follower, let alone a live vote on the colour of next year's Christmas lights. And after some rather cursory rooting about, I think I know why. Seven-hundred and eighty-nine people currently follow the council; how many do you think the council reciprocates to? You guessed it: Zero. Zip. Zilch.
Nice, eh? Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of conversing in social situations understands that standing in the middle of a crowded space shouting "I'm bloody marvelous" whilst wearing industrial strength ear defenders is unlikely to win friends or influence people. Yet this is exactly what my local council are doing in a virtual space. McLuhan said the medium is the message; a new medium alters the way we live socially and how we interact within our societies. Consequently this is the most important thing about new media, not content. He also suggested that when new media appear those schooled in the proceeding media continue to apply old rules and practices. Sounding familiar?
Just think back to the early days of film, musicals and melodramas ruled the roost, adapted straight from the stage. Even many 1950s greats such as 'A Streetcar Named Desire' still feel like watching a play due to the theatrical conventions and aesthetics. Contemporaneously the same thing happens with digital games. Many game designers and critics obsess about storytelling and cinematic graphics; desperately applying the language of a previous medium to a new one. Games don't need to tell stories or look like films, they do need to provide space for participation and ultimately some enjoyment. In fact some of the most celebrated games have no story (Flower, Pong) and fairly poor graphics (Tetris, Defender, Space Invader). (And yes, I know they're old but graphics, like realism, is relative anyway). The fact that games can tell stories and look good is a boon but not a requirement.
What this tells us, to summarize Manovich, is that new media create new languages, each with its own rules and syntax. The advent of the printing press invented a new language of linear textual meaning creation, film did a similar thing as it developed its own visual language. Both of these mediums traditionally tend to be one-way communications, with film in particular becoming organized around a broadcast model. Networked social media has its own language too; in the case of Twitter this language relies on two-way discourse.
Here's the thing: if you're going to use Twitter, learn to speak it.