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Twitter: Changing the World 140 Characters at a Time

With its recent blackout in Pakistan, the micro blogging enigma known as Twitter has become a global social force with powers all its own. Not only does Twitter have the power to affect government bureaucracies, it has helped facilitate their destruction as seen in the Arab Spring. Our politics, as well as our culture, are now going to function with Internet social media in mind.

One could say that there is nothing new about “social” media today, and that all media forms throughout human history have performed social interactions in some way. Indeed that view is compelling, but with so many millions of users with such a wide range of content sharing, one cannot help but to wonder how Twitter factors into what sociologist Emile Durkheim called, “collective consciousness”. Twitter as of today functions as a new avenue for Internet users to pother and belabor over culture and current events; the totality of its social impact will prove to be intense.

Collective consciousness is a term from Durkheim’s 1893 work, The Division of Labor in Society. While social scientists and philosophers of all stripes view collective consciousness in a variety of ways, Durkheim referred to it as, “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own”. One can see how Twitter fits into the collective consciousness of Internet users in 2012. Sure enough, some kind of monster arose out of Twitter, but whether it is largely positive or negative is yet to be determined in our advanced form of organic solidarity.

First, let us overview of one of the planet’s most popular websites. Twitter started around 2006 in San Francisco, California by Jack Dorsey. Within the past six years, Twitter has grown to 140 million users posting 340 million tweets daily. With a 140-character limit for each tweet, a given user can hashtag noteworthy search terms and social memes in order to informally relay their posts to others. It is a hard thing to explain until you try it yourself. The content of Twitter posts range from spam and mindless babble to up-to-the-second news updates and shortened links on the latest trending web articles and videos. Mass groups of people can find both solidarity and human connection on a scale never seen before.

Enthusiasts of Twitter have many reasons to be excited. Sharing interesting content to like-minded web surfers has never been easier, global perspectives on current events are more readily available than ever, and now you can finally discover in-depth fashion critiques from Kanye West (note to self: do not wear a hoodie with a sport coat). More to the point however, quick information sharing has played a critical role in revolutions around the world and will continue to do so. Even the medical community is seeing the potential benefits of widespread communication on serious public health issues. Solidarity of many forms has found a new home on Twitter.

However, one must consider the downsides of the site. Oversharing and too-much-information has been a conversational staple for social media websites. One could write a book on the potential (as well as the actual) attainment of personal information by third-party clients without the knowledge of the user and the morality of such transactions. Sometimes what is meant to be a joke online can lead a user to serious circumstances, as was the case for two teenagers in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Furthermore, factual distortion can run rampant (as anyone can post virtually anything possible) on Twitter as seen in a recent false death rumor of Mikhail Gorbachev. All of this can add up to a false consciousness (oh hey Marx!) mired by its own reproduction, or rather, a defected (but still manufactured) form of human solidarity that leaves us more alienated from each other and our collective desires than ever before. 

So what does this all mean for the global social interaction Twitter has become? Has Twitter’s net effect on society been positive or negative? It is hard to argue that Twitter cuts either way. Like most technologies, Twitter by itself has little moral value and can be used in positive, negative, or benign ways. The effects of the micro blogging giant on society so far speak for themselves, but what Twitter will bring to our future remains to be seen. 

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