Literature Review

Twitter as public platform

The largely public nature of Twitter means that users can follow anyone, be it a friend or celebrity or the president of the USA. A very small number of people protect their tweets (which means that you have to ask permission to see their tweets). Anyone can see a public tweet and respond to it, and users can direct tweets at anyone, whether they know that person or not. Murthy writes in his book entitled Twitter (2013: 4) that this form of directed interaction is powerful because discourse is public and its audience is not limited to the explicitly specified interactants. According to Murthy, Twitter is structured to increase awareness of others and this awareness has been highlighted by Twitter’s ability to broadcast the experiences of ordinary people during social movements and natural disasters. The role of Twitter in political movements and events such as the “Arab Spring” has captured the public imagination. According to Rieder (2012), these and other entanglements with “serious” matters have gone far in transforming Twitter’s image from a system used to share “pointless babble” to a platform that allows for communication and co-ordination in significant social movements.

Twitter serves as a barometer for revealing everything, from the occurrence of natural disasters to the public perception of political candidates, and the medium is part of a larger historical trend toward update cultures that encourage us to share more in the public sphere – ranging from very private aspects of one’s life to public events (Murthy, 2013: 144). According to Murthy Twitter’s update culture is powered by vast arrays of complex, highly intermeshed networks, which reveal a highly efficient awareness system.  Users are aware of the fact that the audience of a tweet is potentially much bigger than a user’s follower list. Tweets can be retweeted, searched at any time and be read through third-party software.

The Imagined Audience

The rise of the Internet has enabled people to interact communally without ever meeting. According to Gruzd, Wellman and Takhteyev (2011: 1295) Twitter networks have less dependence on in-person contact or local proximity. Other than Facebook, which is structured for interaction with people that you actually know.

In Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book Imagined Communities (cited in Gruzd et al. 2011: 1297) he writes that “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. Gruzd et al. argue that this seems to be what is happening on Twitter. Users could never know everyone on Twitter, but they are aware of the presence of other users, especially those from their “neighbourhood” of sources. According to Marwick and boyd (2010: 117), relatively few people read most tweets – but most people don’t know which few people. Without knowing exactly who their audience is, participants imagine it.

Marwick and boyd investigated how content producers navigate “imagined audiences” on Twitter and how different participants use techniques to target different audiences, conceal subjects, and maintain authenticity (2010: 124). According to them, people present themselves differently based on who they are talking to and where the conversation takes place, whether you are going for a job interview, are out partying with friends or are at a family lunch. Social contexts differ in their norms and expectations and the same goes for socializing online. “This audience is often imagined and constructed by an individual in order to present themselves appropriately, based on technological affordances and immediate social context.”

Audience is critical to context. According to boyd (2010: 10) it is important to know one’s audience when trying to determine what is socially appropriate to say or what will be understood by those listening and without information about audience, it is often difficult to determine how to behave, let alone to make adjustments based on assessing reactions. To accommodate these, users make use of an imagined audience to determine whether or not their behaviour is socially appropriate, interesting, or relevant.

Networked Publics and Context Collapse

Marwick and boyd specifically looked at how people imagined their audiences on Twitter and what strategies they use to navigate them. Their findings also shed some light on how audiences change in networked environments.

boyd describes Networked Publics as publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies, and (2) the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. According to boyd, networked publics serve many of the same functions as other types of publics – they allow people to gather for social, cultural, and civic purposes and they help people connect with a world beyond their close friends and family. The ways in which these publics are structured by technology introduces distinct affordances that shape how people engage with these environments (2010: 1).

According to Papacharissi (2012: 1989) online social platforms collapse or converge public and private boundaries, creating both opportunities and challenges for pursuing publicity, privacy, and sociality. The reason for this is that the presentation must convey polysemic content to audiences, actual and imagined, without compromising one’s own sense of self.

Marwick and boyd note that the phenomenon of context collapse makes it impossible to differ self-presentation strategies, and this creates tension as diverse groups of people flock to social networking sites. Participants must contend with groups of people they do not normally bring together, such as acquaintances, friends, co-workers, and family. Twitter users deal with these multiple and overlapping audiences by strategically concealing information, targeting tweets to different audiences and by attempting to portray both an authentic self and an interesting personality (Marwick and boyd 2010: 122). Users monitor and respond to feedback, watch what others are doing on the network, and interpret the interests and reactions of followers.

Properties, affordances and dynamics of Twitter

The network is a collaborator in the identity and content presented by the speaker, and the imagined audience becomes visible when it influences the information that Twitter users choose to broadcast. The architecture of a particular environment matters, and the architecture of networked publics are shaped by their affordances. It is therefore important to understand the properties, affordances, and dynamics of Twitter to see how it influences the identity and content presented by users (Marwick and boyd 2010: 130).

As a networked public, Twitter supports the gathering of large groups and allows anyone to be a broadcaster. According to boyd (2010: 14) an increase in people’s ability to contribute to publics does not necessarily result in an increase in their ability to achieve an audience, but the possibility for scalability exists.

Gruzd et al. (2011:1303) found that the collective Twitter community forms around high centres that are popular individuals, celebrities, or organizations such as media companies, but that less popular individuals on Twitter can also play the role of local high centres of predominantly mutual networks. Betweenness centrality is a social network analysis measure that indicates how many times an individual appears on the shortest path between all possible pairs of people in the network. Because people in Twitter networks with high betweenness centrality link different social circles, they play a critical role in community building and information gatekeeping on Twitter (Gruzd et al. 2011:1304).

Gruzd et al. argue that Twitter is a good case to understand how people integrate information and communication technologies to form new social connections or maintain existing ones. According to them Twitter is being used for collaboration and conversations despite being originally designed as a broadcast platform for diffusing information (2011:1313).

Just like in everyday expression and conversations, the form of connectivity on Twitter varies depending on conversation participants and topics covered. Organically formed conversations normally generate more independent contributions and are more likely to sustain stronger ties (Papacharissi, 2012: 1993).

Papacharissi makes use of Naaman, Boase and Lai’s distinction between “informers” and “meformers” (2010: 1994) and notes that the majority of Twitter posts are either “me-now” updates or contain information reproduced across networks – therefore interesting information. According to her, informers tend to have more followers and tend to refer to others in their posts more often. Research confirms that updates and connections on Twitter reproduce existing ties and patterns in sociality, but also vary in conversationality depending on both actual and imagined audiences.

How is audience conceptualized?

Twitter is a broadcasting platform with a potentially unlimited audience, and as a result users on Twitter imagine their audience when deciding what to post. But who do users imagine their audience to be? Marwick and boyd found that respondents with relatively few followers typically spoke about “friends” and respondents with large followings commonly described their audience as “fans”. Some users have multiple audiences in mind. Their informants conceptualised their audience in diverse and varied ways.

Most responses focused on abstract categories of people (e.g. “friends”), but a few indicated that their audience was articulated through the service itself (Marwick and boyd, 2010: 118).

Marwick and boyd quote Thompson’s (2008) argument that Twitter’s strength is in its encouragement of “digital intimacy” and that some users conceptualize Twitter as a social space where they can communicate with pre-existing friends. Others referred to their audience as “me” and used Twitter as a diary to record their lives and a personal space where they could express their opinions for themselves rather than others. For these individuals the opinions of others were not very important and they valued authenticity.

Strategies for dealing with the imagined audience

Users imagine their audience to be made up of various kinds of people and they use various techniques and strategies for navigating their audience.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Erving Goffman conceptualizes identity as a continual performance and suggests that individuals can be understood as actors who tailor self-presentation based on context and audience. Individuals habitually monitor how people respond to them when presenting themselves and this leads people to emphasize or de-emphasize certain things in a dynamic, recursive process. This process is self-conscious in situations of intense scrutiny, like first dates and job interviews, but is habitual even in relaxed social situations. Self-presentation changes based on audience factors (Marwick and boyd, 2010: 123).

According to Marwick and boyd people use Twitter to carefully construct a meta-narrative and meta-image of the self. They refer to Jodi Dean’s (2002) “ideology of publicity”, in which people value whatever grabs the public’s attention and note that publicity culture prizes social skills that encourage performance. People who perform in appropriate and easily consumable ways are rewarded with jobs, dates, and attention. In contrast, tweeting for oneself suggests a true-to-self authenticity, untainted by expectations (2010: 119).

One approach is to write different tweets to target different audiences. According to Marwick and boyd, this approach acknowledges multiplicity, but rather than creating entirely separate, discrete audiences through the use of multiple identities or accounts, users address multiple audiences through a single account, conscious of potential overlap among their audiences (2010: 120).

Another approach is to conceptualize the audience as an “ideal person”. Writers and journalists often use this tactic. Marwick and boyd found that the ideal reader is conceptualized as someone similar to the writer, who will presumably share their perspective and appreciate their work. This ideal person is often a mirror image of the user (2010: 120).

Some users err on the side of caution and avoid broaching certain subjects completely. According to Marwick and boyd self-censorship can be a useful technique in the face of an imagined audience that includes parents, employers, and significant others. As tweets could be potentially read by anyone, users steer clear of controversial topics because they don’t want it to be viewed by the wrong person. Marwick and boyd note that Twitter can be viewed as a public space that should be carefully policed, and is seen by some as a “professional environment” with potential professional costs (2010: 125).

Participants often imagine their audience to be made up of its most sensitive members such as parents, bosses and partners. This “nightmare reader” is the opposite of the ideal reader, and according to Marwick and boyd this reader may limit personal discourse on Twitter, since the lowest-common-denominator philosophy of sharing limits users to topics that are safe for all possible readers. Twitter is framed as a place where the strictest standards apply (2010: 125).

The strategies used by those with very large numbers of followers are different from other users as they have specific and pragmatic understandings of audience. Marwick and boyd found that those with 100,000+ followers suggested that they imagined their audience as a fan base or community with whom they could connect or manage. Audiences are strategically maintained and tactically navigated by assuming a broad audience with disparate tastes (Marwick and boyd 2010: 121). Celebrities, marketers and other individuals who seek wide attention use this technique.

Balancing expectations of authenticity on Twitter

Participants must maintain a balance between keeping certain information private and the contextual social norm of personal authenticity that encourages information-sharing and socially acceptable communication. According to Marwick and boyd, the tension between revealing and concealing usually errs on the side of concealing on Twitter, and the consciousness of audience implies an on-going balance between the desire to maintain positive impressions with the need to seem true or authentic to others (2010: 124).

They note that content collapse problematizes the individual’s ability to shift between different versions of the self and come off as authentic or fake. The techniques used to navigate these tensions are self-censorship and balance. The respondents in Marwick and boyd’s research described an on-going loop of impression management as they altered the mix between revealing personal information and focusing on informative topics. They did so based on audience feedback.

A mix of personal and professional is necessary for active engagement on Twitter. This leads some users, especially those with numerous followers, to strategically target tweets with personal information. Their decisions to reveal personal information are strategic, and often framed as a way to reinforce relationships with followers. Marwick and boyd also found that similarly, several respondents mentioned that concealing personal information was a way to avoid alienating followers, deliberately avoiding topics that their followers might not agree with (Marwick and boyd, 2010: 127).

Twitter has evolved

The first tweet sent by founder Jack Dorsey on 21 March 2006 read: “just setting up my twttr” – a good example of the boring and sometimes banal tweets that Twitter is known for (Murthy, 2013: X). In the almost 8 years since, the network has greatly evolved, and along with it, the behaviour of its users.

To my knowledge, no country-specific research has been done to investigate self-censorship and the imagined audience of users in a specific country to date. I hope that my research will fill this gap. South Africa has a very unique mix of cultures and history. It would be interesting to see whether the strategies and techniques to target different audiences, conceal subjects, and maintain authenticity – as described by the authors above – can be applied in South Africa. Or are there unique things that South Africans won’t tweet about and do they use different strategies to navigate real and imagined audiences?