If my grandparents were around to see how I discuss major moments with my friends, they would scold me for losing the ability to talk face to face or – heavens forbid – pick up the phone and call someone. Twitter allows us to operate outside of the world of traditional means of communication and talk about everything from the most mundane points of our day to the biggest political events of the moment in 140 characters or less. It’s revolutionary, and totally non-traditional – or is it?
In an interview with The Cycle, Twitter’s Adam Sharp talked about how Twitter actually brings us back to the “traditional form of politics where you all gather around on the world’s biggest couch to share in these events.” In the same way that we imagine our grandparents and great-grandparents huddled around the radio listening to FDR and his fireside chats, Twitter allows us to cluster around our computer screen and our television sets to participate in the discussion of major events in real time.
Clearly the public loves being able to participate. The first presidential debate drew in 10.3 million tweets making it the most tweeted about event in history. No longer is the public beholden to pundits and reporters telling them what the verdict is, but these pundits, politicians, and news men and women now interact with the opinions of the public that they speak to. The line between news creators and news consumers has been blurred and the process of creating news content has been democratized through these social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook.
Sharp argues that this democratization allows more voices to join the conversation and believes that with more voices, comes more diversity of opinion, and thus, a more complete picture of what’s going on. Toure agrees, adding that Twitter forces him, and others, to talk to non-like-minded people. This should, in theory, broaden the discussion and introduce people to different ways of thinking about the same issue, thus leading to what Communications scholar Jurgan Habermas called a forum of “rational-critical debate.” But in the process of pitting @HardRight and @HardLeft against each other online, the traditional politeness of debate is vanished. People are shielded and masked by their keyboards and computer screens, there is no pretense of civility – and for anyone who has ever gotten into it over Twitter, it becomes easy to cast off a dissenting opinion by just saying #yourewrong, or “you’re an idiot,” followed with a simple “unfollow.”
With the second presidential debate set for Tuesday night, millions will surely take to Twitter to vent their frustrations, extol their candidate’s virtues, and eventually claim victory for one side or the other. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably be participating in 140 characters or less. But while you’re sharing the couch with your hundreds of followers and Twitter buddies, think about if you’re getting a more complete, bi-partisan picture or if you’re just de-following everyone that calls bulls#@* on the candidate of your choice. Twitter can provide a balanced view of the debates and give a broad spectrum of voters a platform for expression, but only if you let it.