The mass of scattered voices eventually found their home together. The use of social media in the Egyptian Revolution signified a new kind of organization of socio-political ideas that were so far reaching that the cyber messages eventually gathered around the syntactical structures of a cohesive social networking revolution. The continuous power of the Occupy Wall Street movement indicates that the phenomenon of this sort of organization is not exclusive to the Middle East– a tool that began as a means to promote products and communicate with friends suddenly became an opportunity for creating a coherent message with a vast outreach. However, Twitter is not a non-profit, and as any other business, the company has found its niche market in advertisers and so called “influentials,” who help spread hype for various products.
My interest in this article is not in the usefulness of social networking platforms as tools for political dissidence. Instead, I will focus on the relationship of social and political discourse on Twitter to product marketing tactics that form around the organizational tools of of micro-blogging software. Tools such as hash tags and “mentions” on sites like Twitter together form a feature called trending topics, which seeks to direct users’ attention to the most discussed and relevant tweets at any given moment. Additionally, studies on the influence of top Twitter users demonstrates the utility of celebrities and political figures as carriers for advertising messages. I argue that the structural apparatus of the Twitter platform (ie. hashtags, retweets, and mentions) inherently demand a coordination and uniformity in its use that exists almost exclusively in the marketing strategies of synergized conglomerates, and ultimately can only exist to promote a true democratic forum under a user base that has the organization and persistence of a large internet marketing campaign.
I will look first at the evolution of Twitter, from its early stages as a service made up of a seemingly arbitrary set of tools for linking and distributing posts, to the platforms takeover by advertisers, and finally to its more recent state as a utility for organizing movements for political reform. Next, I will examine the advertising models that developed, as well as the uses of features such as ‘hashtags,’ ‘mentions,’ and ‘retweets.’ To analyze the usefulness of these features in recent social movements such as the Arab Spring, I will examine the obstacles that protest organizers found in surpassing the proliferation of endorsed content on the site. My paper will conclude with an analysis of the most successful tactics of mass communication on Twiter, and the ways in which a new paradigm has emerged that allows for both users and advertisers to utilize the twitter marketing model.
In a sense, the idea for Twitter itself emerged from a kind of disintegration. Members on the board of a failing company called Odeo INC., based in San Francisco, Calfornia were faced with the task of reinventing their product, and one of the proposals revolved around a sort of social dispatch service over text messages. But possibly the most attractive aspect of the concept was its exclusion of large companies (with the exception of Google and a few others). Also important to the course of Twitter’s evolution was its initial beta stage as a exclusively SMS based service.
The two elements noted above are relevant to this paper for three reasons. First, the apparent focus on individual users rather than organized bodies through the infrastructure of an existing prolific and mobile network meant that the platform’s investment in advertisers was not considered in the development of the tool. Second, the service was initially intended to be entirely mobile and didn’t require a smart phone or other form of Internet device. Finally, as cell phones at the time commonly did not have QWERTY keyboards, one of the important structural features of the service was the 140-character limit put on messages. This put a strict limit on the complexity of ideas that could be shared, but as another twitter founder, Jack Dorsey, pointed out, “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.” As I will discuss later, mobile tweeting played an enormous role in the organization of the various uprisings in the Arab Spring as Internet services rapidly became unavailable, and the three characteristics that I have outlined above paint a archetypical picture of both the audience and content of the tweets seen in contemporary socio-political dissent movements.
And in fact, the early stage of Twitter’s testing paralleled the platforms used in the Arab Spring. Dom Sagolla, one of twitters founders, identifies the software as the glue that held he and his colleagues together as the company that they worked for collapsed around them. But as per usual in the evolution of the Internet from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, structure and hyperlinking quickly became the force behind the Twitter evolution from a social networking project to a marketing instrument. In 2007, a new element of twitter emerged that formed the basis of creating a systematic organization of tweets based on their relevance to events, trending topics, or ideas. These were called ‘hashtags’, and were first used in the 2007 San Diego wildfires with the intention of making information about the disaster more accessible.
However, this solution to aggregating related topics quickly became an answer to finding a cheap online advertising strategy for building product hype. Although hashtags are user created, and a variety of redundant hashtags often divide up tweets on any given topic, television broadcasters attempt to maintain uniformity in these categorizing tags’ use by creating ‘official’ hashtags, allowing buzz around shows to be easily accessible and to emphasize its popularity. A variety of similar tools have formed over the years ranging from ‘mentions’, which allow users to publically or privately address or flag a friend, public figure, or company, and ‘retweets’, which allow users and organizations to spread information through ‘influentials’, or users with a vast array of followers. While these structural tools helped organize the mass of tweets rapidly growing on Twitter, they also dramatically changed the user base as well as the intentions of micro bloggers. But as I will argue in the remainder of this paper, Twitter’s aggregation apparatus isn’t only fitted to business promotion. Rather, it revolutionizes the concept of advertising, and allowed the political uprisings of 2011 to organize and generate hype for their cause using these new internet marketing strategies.
A great deal of research has been conducted on the habits of Twitter users, indicating avenues through which advertisers could endorse products in effective and far reaching ways. According to a study on the scope of user influence on Twitter, the most effective methods of spreading content revolve around a type of user known as an ‘influential.’ This group consists of celebrities, news organizations, and politicians—essentially users who maintain a high level of reverence from a large number of fan followers. The study found that on average, users who tweeted about all of the three top trending topics of 2009 (the death of Michael Jackson, the outbreak of swine flu, and the Iranian presidential election) had on average 2,037 followers, reaching an audience of 16 million users. This demonstrates the exponential value of a tweet from an influential user. The vast influence of celebrities and other influentials on Twitter suggests a new focus for advertisers. Rather than targeting users directly through company feeds, an advertising campaign can instead focus on using an influential as a surrogate for relaying the message to fans. This can be accomplished by one of two methods: seeking a ‘retweet’, or a ‘mention’ from a top user. This follows what Henry Jenkins describes as a totemistic approach to appealing to consumers, which appeals to consumers desire for membership to what appears to be an exclusive brand. By relaying an advertisement through an influential, a company not only reaches an enormous audience at little to no cost, but they create an image for their product consistent with the appeal of the influential.
While this discovery of the overwhelming power of celebrity and advertising agencies does not discount Twitter as a democratic platform in its self, it leads us to question the legitimacy of so called “trending topics,” which are intended to highlight the most discussed topics at any given moment. This feature is dangerous to the average twitter user for two reasons: as mentioned earlier, it privileges ‘official’ hashtags endorsed by large synergized conglomerates by ignoring any redundancies in hashtag creation and it privileges the corrupt advertising methods of what are called ‘spammers.’
In accordance with the study on celebrity influence on Twitter, spamming has emerged as a method of reaching the vast audience without forming an alliance with an influential. Through “brute force” attacks, hackers can ‘phish,’ or gain unauthorized access to a valuable twitter account and promote a product under the username of an influential. However, more dominant in forming the ethos of ‘trending topics’ is the proliferation of an advertisement through a variety of pseudonyms. A 2010 study found that 70% of scammers used identical hashtags in 52,000 tweets to make the spam to trending topic. Possibly more frightening than Twitter’s inability to avoid these attacks, is the success the spam has. In fact, 0.13% of spam links on twitter are clicked, which signifies almost twice the success rate of email spam links. If Twitter is to be propped up as a Democratic platform and to accurately represent the most discussed issues of the time, these issues must either be solved, or users must find a way to achieve the level of coordination and continuity present in these fishing scams and promoted content campaigns.
Through both ‘official’ hashtag creation and spamming, hegemony is enforced through the organization and coherent narrative of large conglomerates with the resources to proliferate their message throughout the twitter universe. In other words, by default, Twitter’s “trending topics” will almost always be congruent with capitalist ideals. But in the past year a trend has emerged that provides an answer to the media and capitalist dominance over the platform. The successes of the Arab spring, along with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrate a hope for battling the overwhelming presence of product placement as the default focus of Twitter’s user dialog. Some theorists argue that, “blogs and microblogs rise to prominence as news disseminators on occasions when access to mainstream news and/or other communication media is restricted or blocked.” This was true in the Egyptian revolution. Neither the mainstream media nor big businesses could take credit for, or suppress the dominance of tweets from individuals inside the Egypt simply because social networking was essentially the lone source of information on the subject. In a sense, the advertising campaign models suddenly became relevant to forming continuity in the messages and news of the Egyptian revolution. International news agencies became the influentials through which tweets from within Egypt could be spread to a larger audience abroad. In their article on the successes of Twitter in the Egyptian revolution, Zizi Papacharissi and Maria de Fatima Oliveira observe, “whereas feeds of news organizations and journalists are modeled after the news values and practices of the parent organizations, organically developed hashtag feeds deviate from the organizational logic of prominent news values to provide coherence by blending fact with opinion and objectivity with subjectivity.” This highlights the element of the Arab spring that transcended the lack of organization plaguing other unrepresented discourse on Twitter. Through an nationwide social network based movement, all elements of discourse, from religious or class bias to reporting of atrocities, were combined under the single hashtag, #egypt, and available to the world as a unified trending topic independent of the support of any corporate or government entity. The international demand for exclusive information on the events in Cairo matched the capitalist paradigm for creating brand loyalty and toetemism for celebrity endorsed products. The organization of events and planning of both the Occupy movement and the Arab spring required unification of ideas under one hashtag in order to occur at all.
I would like to advance this idea of organization out of necessity by relating the methods of communication in these movements to concept of synergy in horizontally integrated conglomerates. Because large media organizations can increase revenue and visibility by incorporating smaller enterprises, promoting a variety of products across a broad spectrum of media becomes a basic element of maintaining unity. General Electric, News Corp, and Disney among other corporations commonly cross promote their products using their subsidiaries as platforms. The socio-political movements of 2011 took on a similar form of achieving unity through a kind of cross promotion. A prime example for this is in the organization of the Occupy Oakland protests. While a variety of media outlets spanning a wide spectrum of opinions existed as individual entities, a group of protestors set up a website that merged a variety of sources into one space. This is significant in that it combined all thoughts and news related to the movement into one location, allowing users of the site to connect related hashtags and maximize the dialog emerging from initially fractured and disorganized elements.
In the past few years, twitter has facilitated a revolution of both Internet marketing and of political reform. While many features are so commonly misused that the platform risks losing its user base, I have argued in this paper that the unification of the socio-political revolutions that begin last year have given a new power to the average twitter user and ultimately offered hope for the legitimacy of ‘trending topics.’ I believe that if users acknowledge the necessity of organizing ideas through ‘official’ hashtags, Twitter will remain a relatively democratic platform for the years to come.
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 Kate Starbird and Jeannie Stamberger. “Tweak the Tweet: Leveraging Microblogging Proliferation with a Prescriptive Syntax to Support Citizen Reporting.” Proceedings of the 7th International ISCRAM Conference (2010): 2.
 Ruth Deller. “Twittering on: Audience Research and Participation Using Twitter.” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 8.1 (2011): 226.
 Henry Jenkins. “Buying into American Idol.” Convergence Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2006. 224.
 Chris Grier, Kurt Thomas, Vern Paxson, and Michael Zhang. “@spam: The Underground on 140 Characters or Less.” 17th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (2010): 30.
 Zizi Papacharissi, and Maria de Fatima Oliveira. “The Rhythms of News Storytelling on Twitter.” World Association for Public Opinion Research Conference, Amsterdam (2011): 2.
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 Zizi Papacharissi 5.
 Zizi Papacharissi 3.
 Julia Skinner. “Social Media and Revolution: The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement as Seen through Three Information Studies Paradigms.” Sprouts: Working Papers on Information Systems 11.169 (2011): 5.