‘Don’t get too obsessed with Twitter’ is one of the key lessons we are taught at the beginning of our Social Media and Community Engagement module as Interactive Journalism students at City University. Journalists, we are told, have a tendency to become obsessed with Twitter, to think it is the be-all and end-all of social media interaction, because Twitter is full of other journalists all interacting with each other, patting each other on the back, backing up each other’s points and being obsessed with Twitter. Well, not just journalists, but members of the “digerati“: “the elite of the computer industry and online communities”. (Wikipedia) It’s implied, I think, that this is a well-off, mostly-white, privileged and tech-savvy group. And the tendency of this group to mostly interact with its own members, producing an inflated sense of agreement and concord, is known as the “echo chamber effect”.
I’m all in favour of approaching every kind of social media critically and questioning the assumptions that we make about these platforms where we spend so much of our time. And there’s definitely a lot of truth to the echo chamber idea. But as I see the warnings popping up in my Twitter timeline that “remember guys, Twitter is an illusion; Twitter is just an echo chamber for journalists and members of the digital upper class”, I’ve started to wonder. Aren’t some of the assumptions that are being made here insulting to the users of Twitter who are not members of this group? Is it productive or helpful to dismiss Twitter as just an echo chamber for a certain group of people, rather than encouraging those people to seek out a more diverse community to interact with?
Last month I read an article by the New York Times about the black civil rights movement that has developed on social media as a response to police shootings of unarmed black civilians in the USA. It outlines how young black activists like Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson are using mobile technology and social media – mostly Twitter – to document protests and police violence, amplify their own voices to call for change, chronicle and broadcast the growth of a movement, spread their message and co-ordinate action. In the article, the two younger activists meet Diane Nash, a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and organiser of the Freedom Riders.
Mckesson told Nash she needed to get on Twitter to share her wisdom.
“Twitter?” Nash asked. “I just figured out how to have a Facebook.”
“Twitter is the revolution, Ms. Nash,” Mckesson said.
For him, the social network seemed to have become not just the site of revolution but the conduit for his ideas. Two days later, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Mckesson was scheduled to speak at a rally before a ceremonial crossing of the bridge. As we drove from Montgomery to Selma, Mckesson wrote drafts of tweets on his phone.
“I do this to make sure what I say can be tweetable,” he explained. “And it helps me be precise in what I say.”
Oh, but Twitter is just an echo chamber for some journalists and the white digital elite, right?
I’m not trying to say that if you dismiss Twitter as an echo chamber, you’re missing out on ~the revolution~. I’m just saying that in actual fact, it’s made up of much more diverse voices saying important things than the “echo chamber” narrative would have you believe. I’m saying that dismissing Twitter out of hand as nothing more than an echo chamber for a certain group of people only helps to reinforce that echo chamber. Because if journalists think of Twitter as an echo chamber and not much more, they’re not going to think it’s worth their time to do anything to try and break that effect. They’ll just pop in to give their opinions and hear them echo around, congratulate themselves on how aware they are of the illusion that is Twitter, and then leave.
I’m reminded of the Medium post ‘A Teenager’s View on Social Media (written by an actual teen)‘ that did the rounds online in January. (Medium is another platform that has had a fair few “echo chamber” accusations – not entirely without basis). Apparently it was much vaunted in digerati circles as finally cutting through all the speculation and supposition about teens’ social media habits to bring the truth about what young people thought of social giants like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat and how they used them. I also read the response post, ‘An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media‘, written by Danah Boyd, who has extensively studied teens’ social networking habits and has published a book about them. (Her post was linked on Twitter by Adam Tinworth, our SMCE lecturer who also taught us about Twitter’s “echo chamber” effect in the first place).
In her response, Boyd speaks out very strongly against the idea that one narrative about social media use (in this instance, teenagers’ social media use, but it’s something that applies to all kinds of narratives about social media) should be taken as representative of the way that social media works for every single demographic. Specfically, she says of Twitter,
The world of Twitter is many things and what journalists and tech elites see from Twitter is not even remotely similar to what many of the teens that I study see, especially black and brown urban youth. For starters, their Twitter feed doesn’t have links; this is often shocking to journalists and digerati whose entire stream is filled with URLs.
She also points out that by tarring every Twitter interaction with the same brush – in this case, categorising everything that is said and done on Twitter as a “complaint” or “self-expression” – commentators risk dismissing a lot of Twitter activity that does not fall into that category by refusing to entertain the possibility that it could be anything other than that, simply because it was published on Twitter. Which is exactly what I think the “echo chamber” narrative is in danger of doing. Again, it’s not that I think the “echo chamber” doesn’t have a basis in fact. But I think that there are more productive ways of dealing with the effect than simply warning journalists against “becoming obsessed with Twitter” because “it’s an echo chamber”. Sometimes it is, but it can also be much more than that – and how echoey your Twitter experience is depends largely on who you interact with.
Follow outside the box
Rather than just blindly repeating the notion that “Twitter is an echo chamber and I should avoid spending too much time there”, maybe journalists should think about how to defeat the echo chamber effect. On Twitter, do you just follow other journalists and media professionals or a wide variety of people who talk about different topics? Are most of the people you follow on Twitter of the same race or socio-economic background? Are they mostly Western? This doesn’t just apply to journalism either, but to areas that you might be interested in reporting on as a journalist – or just your own interests as a person. If you’re interested in feminism, are you following mainly white, cisgender feminists or also feminists of colour and transgender feminists? If you’re reporting on a certain area of the country (or the world), are your Twitter lists made up of news organisations, businesses and politicians from that area or also local people, activists and independent bloggers?
One of the sections for our Social Media and Community Engagement portfolio, the main assignment for our module, required us to demonstrate how we’d linked online and offline interactions by connecting with people that we’d met online in person, and vice versa. This is a good exercise to make sure that we don’t interact with people exclusively in one sphere (online or offline) and that we’re capable of carrying over connections from the digital world to the offline one, and vice versa. But surprise surprise, almost all of the interactions I detailed in this section of my portfolio were with journalists, and journalism events and hackathons and social media meet-ups. They mostly had to be, because meeting up with people offline is geographically limiting, and it’s most likely that I’ll want to meet up with people who work in my industry and then form connections with them. But maybe there should also be an equivalent section for efforts made to defeat Twitter’s echo chamber, to follow outside the box and connect online with a diverse array of people, not just fellow members of the digerati.