Saturday, November 13, 2010

Age of Twitter*

BEFORE Twitter came along, a “twitter” meant either a bird chirping or, in imitation of a chirrup, people tittering over something that’s agitating them.

By late 2009, when Twitter became the third most popular social networking site, next to Facebook and Windows Live Profile, a Tweet, which is a message of not more than 140 characters that you encode and send through the Internet, does not just have the capacity to stir up a sender’s circle of friends but a limitless public that the sender may not have known was out there.

In 2009, the market research firm, Pear Analytics, studied 2,000 Tweets sent from the United States. Pear researchers found that Tweets about news content and spam were identical at four percent each. Self-promotion represented six percent; Tweets with pass-along value, nine percent. Thirty-eight percent of the Tweets was conversational.

The most number of Tweets, representing 40 percent, was classified by the Pear researchers as “pointless babble”.

According to Wikipedia, social networking researcher Dana Boyd argued with Pear Analytics’ interpretation. “Pointless babble,” according to Boyd, is more meaningful when viewed in terms of Internet socialization.

She claimed that through “social grooming” and “peripheral awareness,” Netizens find out what other people whose “co-presence is not viable” are thinking or doing, as well as let others know what they are up to.

“Only connect!” exhorted E. M. Forster in “Howards End”.

Though the novelist was writing about class and gender differences in turn-of-the-20th-century England, his classic phrase captures the eternal chasm bedeviling humans. “Only connect!” is less a prescription than a challenge in the Age of Computers, where not just co-presence but intimacy and empathy are at risk.

Like many Twitter users expressing a random or candid thought, Maria Carmen “Mai “ Mislang Tweeted about what she claimed to be Vietnam’s bad wine, lack of handsome men, and dangerous streets.

Unfortunately, Mislang is the speechwriter of President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III. Worse, the assistant secretary for communications was part of the Philippine delegation when she sent those Tweets about her hosts.

While Mislang apologized and the Palace vowed to come up with guidelines for staff using the social media, the traffic of comments on the blogosphere and even traditional media show that an online indiscretion, no matter how brief, lives a long, long time.

Briton Paul J. Chambers was fired from two jobs and remains unemployed after he was convicted of “sending a ‘menacing message’ over a public telecommunications network under the Communications Act of 2003,” reported

His crime? He Tweeted that he would blow up an airport after a snowstorm led to the cancellation of his flight. He was on his way to Ireland to meet for the first time a woman he befriended online.

An airport manager searching online for materials about the airport read and reported Chambers’ message. Chambers was arrested, interrogated for eight hours, and fined $4,800. The judge who convicted him deplored the irresponsibility of his Tweet in the “present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports.”

Chambers is unrepentant. A Twitter regular who sent 14,000 Tweets in the 11 months before his Tweet to “(blow) the airport sky high!”, Chambers told the judge that Tweeting was just like “bantering” with friends.

Many Tweeters and bloggers have rallied behind Chambers. They claim he is a victim of Britain’s “erosion of civil liberties,” particularly free speech.

They accuse law enforcers of not understanding and knowing how to respond to the “anarchic culture” of social media. One person asked if adding “lol” (which means, in Internet parlance, “laugh out loud”) after a satirical comment will shield a person from possible prosecution.

Was the question serious or mock-serious? First, connect.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 14, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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