Tuesday, June 09, 2009

T-weet t-who?

Twitter has been big news for a while among media folk, with lots of celebrity tweeters singing its praises. If you're unfamiliar with what Twitter is and what it allows you to do, check here. And if you want to see how it's relevant to your study of language, have a look at this blog post from earlier in the year.

But a report on today's BBC news website, casts into doubt some of the hype around Twitter. Who' s actually tweeting who(m)? According to the Harvard research quoted in the article, 10% of Twitter users generate 90% of the content and most people who sign up only ever tweet once:

"Based on the numbers, Twitter is certainly not a service where everyone who has
seen it has instantly loved it," said Bill Heil, a graduate from Harvard
Business School who carried out the work. On a typical online social network, he
said, the top 10% of users accounted for 30% of all production. This implies
that Twitter's resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more
than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network," the team wrote in a blog

So, what are the implications of this research on our study of the language of Tweets and Twitter users? If it's less of a conversation and more of a broadcast or publication, then does this mean that it's more like a blog and less like email, text or MSN? In other words, is it less of a conversation and more of a series of monologues?

Perhaps more importantly, if it's all about numbers - as so much language change often is - and there's a limited core of Twitter users generating most of the content, will there be much of an impact on the language styles of the majority of Twitter users who don't tweet? In other words, will Twitter have much of an impact on the language styles of most of us? Probably not...


Ant said...

The problem with these studies of 'Twitter' is that they tend to be obeservations from outside, and therefore regard it is a uniform entity, rather than as a medium that is used in myriad ways.

There's an obvious flaw even in the headline figures given in that report. If 90% of content is generated by 10% of users, then what is a 'user'? Presumably the figure includes everyone who has a Twitter user account. But as the article points out, the majority of people who sign up for Twitter only ever tweet once, and most of those probably don't even log in again regularly, if at all. S they're not really 'users'.

Will Twitter 'change the language'? No more than texting has 'changed the language' (ie not a lot).

Are there identifiable types of language use that are characteristic of Twitter? Yes. Might some of them bleed out of that context into other registers?

It seems possible.


Dan said...

I *knew* you'd be the first to comment Ant!

What do you reckon are the Twitter language features that might bleed out? And do you think there's anything in Twitter-users' language that is markedly different from - say - MSN or txt speak?

I take the point about this type of survey treating Twitter so homogenously though.

Ant said...

Yeah - I am starting to look like a bit of twitter obsessive, aren't I? Well, more than just look like.

Twitter features that *might* start to be used in a wider context? I tried to indicate in my post that I can see hashtags, especially ones that run whole phrases together into a single word as some kind of self-referential comment on the disourse as a whole, or a s discourse marker (a bit like 're') maybe starting to creep out.

The 140 character limit makes twitter much more like text than MSN, but I think one key difference is that abbreviation is much more frequently created by ellipsis rather than vowel deletion / deviant spelling:

eg. "Twitter Research, findings inconsequential! Should have researched impact on networking, media, knowledge and news (in the widest sense)"

Dan said...

This is a bit more intersting from a research point of view, but still quite anti-Twitter in its tone: http://blog.oup.com/2009/06/oxford-twitter/

Apparently it's "intrinsically solipsistic ". Miaow! Get them.

Dan said...

...and going back to your comment, presumably there's the keyboard/phonepad thing that's different with Twitter, since you're nearly as likely to tweet from tweetdeck (via a keyboard) as you are to tweet from a mobile, aren't you? Or is it more a phone-based phenomenon?