For the second time in less than two weeks, Twitter crashed for nearly an hour Tuesday. The company blamed a “software glitch,” but the fact that the outage garnered national attention tells us everything we need to know about the microblogging site’s influence on both popular culture and our day to day lives. The previous outage was during the Academy Awards, when the sheer number of tweets about the Oscars (and the popularity of a “selfie” photo taken by Bradley Cooper of host Ellen Degeneres and several attendees) overwhelmed the site and crashed it. Twitter estimates that it has 250 million users who collectively post 500 million tweets a day – and that’s not counting those who don’t use it but who nevertheless hear about it every time Twitter figures in the news.
This wasn’t the first highly publicized outage for the site, nor was it the only type of problem Twitter has had in recent memory. Recently, a bug that affected about 93,000 users with “protected” accounts (accounts visible only to followers that user approves) for a staggering four months allowed unapproved users to view those protected tweeters’ posts. This was a problem discovered and diagnosed by the “white hat” community – hackers and advanced computer users who apply their skills in helpful, legal ways. And news of the fix comes on the heels of Twitter accidentally mailing password-reset messages to a large number of users.
If you’ve been living in a snow-cave in the Arctic for the last 10 years, you don’t know that Twitter is an immensely popular social networking site that limits users to posts of 140 characters or less. Most of the people reading this article have Twitter accounts; those users tend to use the site for sharing everything from quotes to pictures to pithy observations (not to mention the mundane minutia of their lives).
Twitter, however, has become an integral part of our communications infrastructure, particularly where celebrities are concerned. When “Transformers” star Shia LaBeouf was outed for plagiarizing a graphic novel to create an independent film, the scandal first gained traction on Twitter. It was on Twitter that LaBeouf engaged in elaborate histrionics to “apologize” for his plagiarism (by plagiarizing famous apologies), and it was on Twitter that LaBeouf repeatedly announced that he isn’t famous anymore. (Now that nobody cares, he’s posted a hopeful and artsy black-and-white picture that seems to indicate he’s ready to “start creating” again.) But Twitter’s influence – and its impact – run far deeper than celebrity shenanigans.
This week, the Huffington Post proclaimed that “Black Twitter” is emerging as a “major force in a technological civil rights age.” According to Jesse Holland, “Black Twitter holds court on pretty much everything from President Barack Obama to the latest TV reality show antics. But Black Twitter can also turn activist quickly. When it does, things happen – like the cancellation of a book deal for a juror in the George Zimmerman trial, or the demise of Zimmerman’s subsequent attempt to star at celebrity boxing.”
In other words, when rabble rousers rabble rouse on Twitter, poking fun at popular culture, raving about the news, transmitting threats to people they hate, or (in the case of “Black Twitter”) imparting a racist spin to topical developments, that court of public opinion has the power to motivate behavior. Where else can average citizens and famous people alike spar on politics in 140-character bites? Where else can sports stars, politicians, and those only just initiating their 15 minutes of fame garner accolades and condemnation with so little effort?
Twitter is one of the sites used to organize everything from flash mobs to serious political protests. In Saudi Arabia, using Twitter to call for protests against the country’s ruling family led to serious jail time for two different men. One of them is set to do eight years for “insulting” King Abdullah. Another of them was already serving prison time and is apparently part of a militant al Qaida-sponsored group. Across the ocean in Upstate New York, two SUNY students found themselves facing animal torture charges for tweeting an allegedly faked photo in which a dog appeared to be performing a “keg stand.”
Twitter can be used for things as harmless (even beneficial) as a “fiction fest.” It can be a platform for a troubled celebrity to share the course of her struggle to retain her mental health. It can be a place for oddballs to vent their spleens about numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. It can also be a ready means to harass and demean people we don’t like, even in good fun – as in the case of a very public spat between Major League Baseball mascots in which one mascot tweeted another about having an affair with the mascot’s wife. In San Francisco, firefighters are using Twitter to teach fire safety.
Twitter can even predict the type of day you are having … or going to have, claims Simon Rogers. Analysis of the different words and phrases used throughout the week and at different times of the day can indicate mood, predict when we’ll be late for work and provide fairly obvious correlation between Sundays and hangovers.
Twitter is, on its face, the least significant of the social media sites so many of us use, yet the site holds tremendous sway over our day-to-day lives. It influences our politics. It is remapping our celebrity interactions and our use of entertainment. It is providing us with windows into the lives of our fellow citizens, for good and for ill. It is gaining its users fame, earning its users infamy and providing its users a platform for both indictment and rebuttal.
It’s tempting to ignore Twitter. It’s attractive to play the contrarian, to dismiss such a cultural juggernaut and to deny its power. If you don’t have Twitter, however, you need to get it – before the rest of the world leaves you behind 140 characters at a time.
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