Last week, I wrote this piece, a sort of overview of feminist activism and the role of Internet outrage. After my fiancé read the piece, we had a long discussion about the topic including social media and how it’s changing, whether or not this idea applies to movements other than feminism, and why we’re choosing to “use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” I was reminded through our conversation that there is such a wealth of information to discuss behind the topic of activism on the Internet, and I’d like to address these through a series of articles over the next few weeks.
For this article, I’m going to look at Twitter, where it started, and whether or not the changes made to it have helped or harmed its ability to be used by feminist and other political/social groups.
When Twitter began, it was the epitome of an egalitarian tool; as author Steven Johnson put it, “it’s just as easy to use Twitter to spread the word about a brilliant 10,000-word New Yorker article as it is to spread the word about your Lucky Charms habit.” The Twitter “timeline” was simply a list of Tweets by the people you followed in chronological order. Naturally, some accounts had more followers than others, and therefore a larger reach, but there was a definite possibility that a mag like Luna Luna could garner as many followers as CNN or other large companies, at least in theory. As I described in my previous piece, Twitter’s “equalization has allowed the arguments of typically underrepresented sections of the population—women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc.—to reach readers in the same way as more “reputable” news sources, resulting in the exploration of issues that would not normally be portrayed in the mainstream media, as well as the introduction of alternative views.”
Additionally, the fact that Twitter allows users to reply to Tweets in an extremely visible way allows for an interesting level of debate, even between “celebrity” users and “regular” users. Articles like this one and this one (about Twitter’s reaction to my first Luna Luna article) illustrate the way Twitter can promote debate and allow room for dissenting views. When a Tweet or link is posted by a mainstream media outlet, a smaller group like Luna Luna can reply with an alternative view, and every user who clicks on that Tweet will be able to read the responses (see this conversation, for example). These features make Twitter extremely friendly to feminist publications and other non-mainstream media sources.
However, changes made to Twitter in order to better monetize the application have led to a decrease in the democratization originally promised. Twitter itself admitted that they had “resisted introducing a traditional Web advertising model because [they] wanted to optimize for value before profit. The open exchange of information creates opportunities for individuals, organizations, and businesses alike.” In the same statement, though, they introduce a new feature known as “Promoted Tweets.” These are, essentially, exactly what they sound like—companies can pay for their Tweets to show up in your timeline, even if you don’t follow them. Other, similar “promoted” features have emerged in the past few years, including sponsored “Trending Topics” (the list in the sidebar on Twitter that allows users to view popular keywords and hashtags) and “Who to Follow” (user suggestions) sections. And, as Twitter prepares to go public, more of these monetized features are likely to be announced as investors demand a return on their investments. Similar ad-focused strategies have already been developed on Facebook and Youtube (as I’m sure you all have noticed).
What does this mean? I’m no business expert, but in layman’s terms, this means less user control and more company control over the content to which an average Twitter user is exposed. It means that the companies and media outlets with money and influence already will be able to garner more money and more influence via Twitter advertising. It means that users will have less time and energy to spend on user-generated content like Luna Luna, which may get buried by the hashtags and follow suggestions that have been bought. And it means that the site can no longer be deemed “democratic.”
Twitter is still an excellent tool, for now. However, as the company goes public, we may see more of these “content filtering” tools that benefit large, wealthy companies. Of course, we can hope and pray and beg apps like Twitter to stay weird—please!—but if we don’t have the funds to back it up, we may be out of luck.
What do you think about the future of Twitter activism?
Featured image via. Article images via my Twitter.
Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat.