Having used twitter for a few months now, I’ve begun to ask myself ”How could Twitter impact on social relationships?’. As this is a young technology there isn’t too much research in this area. At the time of writing a search of the Medline using the keyword ‘twitter’ produced 16 relevant articles (not to be confused with another strand of research into the auditory cortex) with a focus on direct health applications of twitter. Social relationships can be a proxy marker for health and a number of diagnostic criteria for illnesses refer to impairments in social relationships. Thus the question of the impact of Twitter on social relationships is a useful one to ask. There are a number of possible ways in which Twitter might impact on people’s social relationships and I have grouped them into broad categories. Most of what is written is entirely speculative but can be revisited once more research evidence becomes available.
Twitter and Face-To-Face Contact
Twitterers don’t use face-to-face contact. They rely on short messages to each other or to a wider audience. People are therefore focusing on what the person has to say rather than focusing on their appearance, their body movements or listening to their speech. This changes the dynamics of the interaction. People focus on their own appearance, movements and speech in face-to-face contacts to varying extents because they know that this impacts on the effectiveness of their message. The absence of these cues means that the time spent listening to and speaking (twittering) with a person may differ markedly from the equivalent face-to-face contact. There are so many ways in which this could occur that it is difficult to generalise. Here are a few examples of how it might change interactions.
- A person might choose to listen to another person for a longer period in the twitter environment than in face-to-face contact if the other person’s accent and attire are markedly different from people who they would usually socialise with.
- People who are anxious around others – for instance if they have social phobia – might find it more comfortable to ‘talk’ to other people using Twitter. In this way they might be able to ‘catch up’ on important social trends that help them to better join the conversations of their peers. This in turn might lead to a levelling of the ‘social currency’ playing field and may have implications for social inclusion. However this is speculation and research would be needed to investigate this possibility.
On the other hand, having another internet technology that uses people’s time might mean that they spend much less time with people in face-to-face contact. This has been suggested elsewhere. The premise is that people may become deskilled in using verbal and non-verbal methods of communication in real world interactions. If they are deskilled then this might have a number of implications. Real-world interactions might take longer, they might occur less frequently or twitterers might be less likely to be included by their non-twittering peers. The opposite might also be true however. Twitterers might develop their own method of communicating in real world interactions. They might be more efficient in their dialogue, may reference material from the twitterstream or may think more about what they say before saying it. A twitter culture might develop which would be easily recognisable allowing the listener to deduce twitter users from non-twitter users in casual conversation. Twitter might also be better suited to people with certain characteristics – those that are more comfortable with information technology, those that use other similar methods of communicating (e.g Instant Messaging) or those that are more introverted. Twitter might not influence face-to-face contacts at all. Again research will be needed to better answer these questions.
Twitter and People Knowledge
Twitters give people an opportunity to better understand a person – what they like to talk about, their patterns of twittering, how they interact with other twitter users. There are a number of possible implications of this.
- People who follow a lot of twitters from diverse backgrounds could quickly build up an understanding of lots of people and this in turn would enable them with ‘people knowledge’ that would better equip them for social interactions with people. On the other hand, twittering offers a limited insight into a person since it represents a relatively small proportion of their activities.
- People may follow people in a restricted field of interest and become quickly familiarised with the current topics of discussion. This approach is facilitated by the use of twitter lists which can identify people in a certain area of interst very quickly allowing them to be added to a person’s twitter stream.
- Twitter does let certain dynamics play out. Sometimes people are insulted at what some twitterers have said and respond. Alternatively they might be insulted at what some Twitterers have not said or done (e.g not following someone who has followed them). Twitter therefore offers a microcosm of the real world in which dynamics play out in real(ish) time and where these dynamics can sometimes spill out into the real world. This gives people the opportunity to learn about how people behave.
- Twitter could help twitterers to develop a more refined ‘lay psychology’ that would not replace study of the relevant discipline but would instead increase the knowledge level of the general twitter population. If a person behaves in a certain way, twitter followers can watch their follower numbers and see if they increase or decrease. It is almost as those they are following live twitter ratings. In this way they can see what effects certain actions have on people’s willingness to follow. This in turn is raw numerical information that they are using. Although there are no accompanying statistics for changes over a unit of time or per tweet at this point in time, it means that people are getting used to assessing behaviours using numbers. However not many people may be using this approach or if they are, they may not pay too much attention to it. Additionally the follower numbers may not be helpful in some instances (e.g. where a high proportion of follower accounts have been inactive).
Again much of this is speculation and will need research to provide accurate answers.
Twitter and Offline Relationships
Twitter could be used to communicate more frequently with friends and family in much the same way as with mobile text messaging. Needing to access desktop computers makes this more difficult than with mobile phones although it is also possible to use twitter from mobile devices. Twitter could make it easier to quickly follow what friends are doing in much the same way as Facebook does when the person is running short of time. This approach could also be used by a person to update lots of their friends on events quickly and efficiently again in much the same way as Facebook and here the use of private streams makes this practical. This means that if friends and family use twitter they will be better connected, if being better connected means having timely access to information. This might be expected to benefit relationships and people might prefer to use their ‘media’ time (e.g. television, radio, twitter etc) to follow their friends twitterstreams rather than those of celebrities. This might in turn impact on the relative influence of celebrities in culture and may instead mean that people form relatively small groups that are very well connected. However the ability of twitter to enable several streams to be followed simultaneously suggests that the more influential figures are likely to remain so and perhaps become even more influential.
Twitter and Work Relationships
Twitter users with public streams are communicating in a way which differs markedly from informal face-to-face conversations with friends and if this is not recognised it can cause problems. On facebook there have been cases when remarks have been made about the company that employs the person or where the person has made remarks about work colleagues which have led to their dismissal. This may lead to a much tighter demarcation between work and a person’s own activities possibly resulting in a smaller percentage of time being spent talking about work in their own time. Many companies are developing their own social media policies for use by employees. Again research will be needed to clarify how this impacts on relationships with work colleagues.
At the time of writing there are several people with over 3 million followers on Twitter and a number of others with twitter followers in the millions or hundreds of thousands. This is obviously a continuum which extends from such large numbers to a few friends or family members at the other end of the spectrum. Somewhere towards the upper end of this continuum there are a group of people who have through the medium of twitter alone accumulated many tens of thousands of followers. Even those with a thousand or a few thousand followers will have the same experience of having sudden immense popularity thrust upon them. This can change the way that people interact and is true of other media also. As the influence of these people increases so too does the likelihood that they can be helpful to more people. This might impact on the nature of twitter exchanges although research again would be helpful here. Away from the twitter world however there may be different interactions with twitter and non-twitter users. In interactions with non-twitter users, the influence that a person has on twitter may be seen as without merit and that person will have to be able to quickly readjust. Here the argument is similar to that used previously for face-to-face interactions. If the person is used to interactions in a setting where they have a lot of influence, then they will lose the skills needed in a setting where they have much less influence and may have to use various methods to adjust to this imbalance. Others may choose to capitalise on this influence and transfer it offline and again this might impact on the nature of their relationships. Twitterers may find it easier to form new relationships in the real world if people are familiar with them on twitter before having met them.
Twitter and Business
A number of businesses have a presence on twitter and some have both a large number of followers and twitter at a prolific rate. People who twitter in their own time and for social purposes may find that a certain percentage of their ‘conversation’ is spent listening to business messages. This might also be in the form of spam in direct messages which is in effect little different from spam e-mails. At other times they might choose to listen to interesting content directly from businesses. A number of business twitters will market a product and so twitterers may find themselves being exposed to marketing messages in a greater proportion of their time. However the ability to tune out certain twitterers or simply to follow a select group means that twitterers have a sophisticated level of control over this experience. If twitterers do find an increasing percentage of their socialising time is spent listenting to marketing messages this might impact on their communication skills (because they would have less time for other social interactions), the nature of their accumulating knowledge or it might even increase their opportunities to socialise. Again this is far from clear and research would be helpful to find answers to these questions.
Twitter was identified as the top word in 2009 in a Global Language Monitoring Survey as well as featuring prominently in President Obama’s election campaign reinforcing the importance of this social media tool. In a recent survey 28% of twitter users were over 45 years of age and 55% were located in the USA. The interactive nature of Twitter means that people are not only consumers of information but are also able to contribute. Thus Twitter has been used for social good such as in the case of raising funds for charity. Others have written about the possible benefits of Twitter including the effects that it may have on relationships. Like any tool however it can be misused and criminal activities have also been coordinated using Twitter followed closely by police surveillance. It has also been pointed out that Twitter can be a source of a misinformation. One author has suggested that Twitter may ‘enhance peripheral attention’ and impact beneficially on self-esteem although it has been argued that full attention is not required for some activities. Professor Greenfield has argued that use of social media such as Twitter could change the hardwiring of the brain in way which impacts adversely on functions such as attention and even morals although there are those that disagree. Strategies for using Twitter vary. For instance how many people a Twitterer follows has been dichotomised into low relevant numbers versus high non-relevant numbers. With so many uses of this technology it is difficult if not impossible to draw general conclusions about the technology and as with other technologies accurate answers will most likely arise in circumscribed applications of Twitter. Once the results of such research become available they can be applied to improve the effective use of Twitter and may one day be used for those with recognised difficulties in social relationships. Twitter is just one of many emerging social media technologies which solve certain problems and there is already talk of web 3.0 applications.
Conflict of Interest
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