Last month, Ahmed Mohamed’s name was all over America. His controversial arrest over a homemade clock that administrators falsely assumed was a bomb sparked discussion and outrage about Islamophobia in his Texas high school. #IStandWithAhmed quickly became a trending hashtag on Twitter as people around the world expressed their support for the teenager. Three days later, he was invited by President Obama himself to visit the White House. A picture of the two hugging revived the story last week, garnering thousands of retweets, favorites, and follow-up stories. The spread of Mohamed’s story exemplifies how Twitter’s ephemeral, interactive, and personal nature is threatening traditional media outlets that have traditionally appealed more to mass audiences.
Twitter’s most revolutionary aspect in media consumption is its egalitarian nature—everyday people are news sources with millions of followers. The mobilization of Twitter users who empathized with Mohamed’s struggle and addressed blatant racism within American culture was instrumental in publicizing Mohamed’s story. Furthermore, the platform enabled Mohamed to have his own voice: his account, created shortly after his story rose to prominence, currently has over 100 thousand followers. His ability to take control of his media presence is evidence of Twitter’s unique accessibility. Melissa Wang (A ’15), who worked with Twitter during her internships with HubSpot, offered insight into this phenomenon: “Twitter is a channel through which grassroots social movements can breed and grow and thrive. A simple catchy hashtag can become a rallying cry for millions across the globe, and the evolution is quite fascinating to watch—and to take part in.”
Because anyone and everyone on the site may contribute to spreading or discussing a news item, these same people can quickly move on to the next big story. The constantly updating feed that is Twitter contributes to the ephemerality of the very conversations that take hold on the platform. Mohamed’s story continuously circulated during his arrest and the public response to it. Yet, most people probably do not know that Ahmed Mohamed and his family are currently emigrating from the United States to Qatar in response to their ordeal in Texas. The rate at which the story developed was paralleled by its disappearance from the media. On Twitter, this kind of rapid rise and fall from attention happens every day. The October 31 crash of a Russian airliner saw an immediate popularity in #PlaneCrash across Twitter, but quickly stagnated after terrorism began to be ruled out as a likely source of the tragedy.
Such examples of viral news stories raise questions about how Twitter is competing with mainstream media outlets. Professor Julie Dobrow, Co-Director of the Film and Media Studies program, commented, “Social media in all of its current and evolving forms has affected news by enabling more people to participate in the conversations… by alerting people in ever faster and more personal ways to things that are happening. And news organizations have struggled to keep up.”
User-integrated platforms become hugely beneficial for Twitter’s role in media consumption. A study by the University of Edinburgh highlighted specific instances where Twitter held a far greater power in quickly spreading news topics and facilitating conversations than televised journalistic reporting. Major natural disasters, sporting news, and terrorist attacks tend to dominate on Twitter. Meanwhile, traditional media garnered more attention amongst more nuanced topics, such as international economic relations and diplomatic issues. A pattern becomes apparent: the more straightforward and time-sensitive a story is, the more likely it will thrive on Twitter.
A parallel, then, becomes apparent between Twitter and these stories: succinctness. Twitter users are restricted to sharing their information in 140 characters or fewer. Such a limitation means that stories being reported may be somehow skewed. Despite this, Nic Serhan, a junior at Tufts who is familiar with Twitter through his work as a consultant, explained that Twitter’s format makes him trust what he sees more often than not. “I like the aspect of tweets needing to be short. There’s something challenging about getting a message across in 140 characters, so it makes whatever is being reported upon even better and more impactful.” Wang also argued that Twitter’s simplistic structure has its benefits. Within the marketing world, she notes, “Companies use Twitter not simply to sell products and notify followers of promotions, but to add personality to their brands and to build brand loyalty. By noting metrics like retweets, follower counts, and click throughs, marketers can then use actual data to judge brand reach.”
Furthermore, Twitter’s influence is affecting how the 2016 presidential nominees run their campaigns. Dobrow stated, “There’s a lot of talk about whether the Republicans can do a better job of utilizing social media to get out their base in voting, or whether this is something where Democrats still have an advantage.” Democrats efficaciously use Twitter to appeal to the youth vote. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, whose socialist platform is strongly backed by young liberals, typically garners four times as many favorites on tweets than leading Republican Donald Trump, despite Trump’s over 3 million more followers. Arguably, Democrats have been more successful in making themselves visible and active on the platform.
Serhan offered an anecdotal explanation of how users are able to dictate news and cultural trends through their social media presence. “It’s our generation’s classics or masterpieces. I remember a tweet about a joke from 2011 that is often retweeted today—its fast-paced elements are still funny and have lasted to the present.” Ellen DeGeneres’s Oscars selfie, which is the most retweeted image on Twitter of all time, is a clear example of a Twitter-driven story with lasting mass appeal. A recent interview with Bradley Cooper on her show saw a spike in retweets of the image nearly a year and a half after the original tweet was published. Dobrow explains how this hybridity of media outlets can affect how news is absorbed: “When tweets get picked up by other venues, both social media and traditional broadcast and print, their reach is extended.” It seems, then, that mainstream media can only be beneficial for Twitter. Its ability to serve as a personalized, interactive news medium engages vast usership, and intersections with other media only help in disseminating popular tweets.
Does this mean that Twitter is limited without the help of these traditional media outlets? Wang pushed back on this notion, stating, “Publications may be delivering news in just 140-character bursts, but [it allows for] news outlets share their full, in-depth articles through Twitter, and journalists can provide speedy, on-the-ground coverage of breaking news through live Tweets. That way, the word gets out as fast as possible.” Twitter’s unique position allows for the best of both worlds: a highly self-reliant platform that can also easily integrate with other news entities.
Twitter’s popularity is largely due to its format and the general direction of media trends today: shorter, faster, better. In a world in which people are constantly bombarded with new information and countless options for consuming and organizing content, Twitter seems to be the best fit for all of these elements. The question of its true effectiveness as a sole provider of information still stands, considering how often it is incorporated with traditional media platforms. Perhaps, then, the state of media is not directly entering a strictly technological, sentence-or-less format; instead, it is the mixture of new and old. Shorter and longer. Interactive and dissociated. Integrated, but never again the same.