Being Just Another Cog in a Microblogging Machine

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Image Credit: mkhmarketing via Flickr

I hold my hands up and admit, my first blog post may have been a tad irate about the future of the ‘microblogosphere’, but I can’t ignore that there are several advantages of being part of, and a contributor within, the digital realm.

Multiple microblogging platforms have burst onto our online radars in the past ten years – since it’s bloom circa 2005 when they were referred to more hesitantly, as “tumblelogs”. Today, the internet boasts sites such as Facebook, Tumblr, MySpace, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Jaiku, Google+ and even the business-orientated, LinkedIn, to name a few. These sites are now also available as apps on phones, only aiding to their accessibility and constant traffic. Video messaging applications such as Snapchat aggregate photos and video to a number of followers as a form of microblogging. The avenues seem to be endless…

The statistics illustrate the enormous number of active users on these social platforms, worldwide and more specifically, in the UK.

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Active Users by Social Platform. Infographic credit: wearesocial.com (accurate as of Jan 2015)

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Top Active Social Platforms in the United Kingdom. Infographic Credit: wearesocial.com (accurate as of Jan 2015)

So why do people do it? The answer is pretty simple: it’s free! And as a avid microblogger myself, the usual driving force is that a user is paid in reputational capital – or not (it can also very quickly undermine your status). Nevertheless, participation in microblogging on social media has been a 21st century addiction and one that you could argue is almost unavoidable. Any engagement with information is now, inevitably, shared on or accessed via the ‘microbloggosphere’ – this includes journalism, political movements, business, and marketing and advertising.

This social media comparison infographic of some of the most popular social outlets, their functions, and demographics, shows their uniqueness and thus, explains the success of each.

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Infographic Credit: Leverage (statistics accurate as of Aug 2015)

Microblogging sites, especially Twitter, are leaving a permanent stamp particularly on the field of journalism. Felix Salmon, financial journalist and blogger for Reuters argues that not only has Twitter “massively increased the velocity of news: people now know what’s going on before its formally reported…and made news travel faster than ever,” it has also “given journalists a much more human voice”. As a result, there is a greater focus on the way that news is disseminated, who shares this news, and how it is accessed by readers and audiences, and engaged with.

An evolution from blogging, microblogging has revolutionised the newsroom, news consumption and storytelling. Check out my Storify on the Marysville Pilchuck High School shooting, near Seattle, Washington, and you will see that the news of the shooting in the school cafeteria, broke on the microblogging platform, Twitter, via students at the scene. Journalists are turning to find stories on microblogging platforms, just as much as using them to share content. Microblogging platforms are so efficient in news dissemination that some journalists consider it “the next logical step for journalism”.

Journalist at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki, gives a great example of the power of microblogging in journalism, in his Ted Talk at the beginning of the microblogging boom, almost ten years ago. It’s no surprise that journalism organisations have jumped on the social media bandwagon for live reporting and proliferating news from their own sites. Sites like Twitter come alive during movements such as #JeSuisCharlie, #LoveWins or #BlackLivesMatter. And the enormous amount and breadth of coverage as a result of citizen journalists everywhere, has allowed journalism to experiment with storytelling and grow in its capabilities.

So I had a look at what all the fuss was about…

Exploring Twitter:

Despite already maintaining a casual presence on microblogging sites, I tried my hand at engaging in some conversations more centred around my interests and curiosities in journalism.

As a budding journalist, logically the Twittersphere was the place to position myself for the multitude of functions it offers its users; Twitter is not only set up for written content, but in-app video and photography, editing, group messaging and multi-platform links.

“Twitter is quickly becoming its own social media ecosystem.”

Admittedly, this “social media ecosystem” is a form of communication that I hadn’t appreciated quite so much before. Its multitude of capabilities allowed me to explore within and beyond the Twittersphere, with a whole new perspective.

Following my journalistic interests, including issues surrounding global development and international relations, I was already following key players in the field, alongside keeping a keen eye on the design and ballet industries. My newsfeed, however, felt a bit swamped with unrelated bits and bobs flooding through. Sifting through Twitter on a good day still felt like a decluttering process despite honing in on my specific interests.

That said, I began to note the prevalence of attention-seeking tools that Tweeters use within their 140 character allowance to make their tweets that little more eye-popping, colourful or even enigmatic: @mentions, #hashtags, links and eye-catching images. I may indeed speak for the majority in saying that clickable links and images were more encouraging to discover a topic or conversation further. The’hashtag’, in particular, is now ubiquitous! By ‘hashtagging’ key words within a tweet, the post links to a group of others concerning the same given topic. Grouping topics together makes information more accessible and noticeable for audiences. AdWeek gives some great tips on the basics and harnessing the best use of ‘hashtagging’ -> here. The cyber-appendage has also been adopted by other microblogging sites such as Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram demonstrating that it is going from strength to strength in connecting people. The power of the hashtag, therefore, was something I needed to capitalise on to boost traffic to my microblog and attract a readership and engagement with others in that field. Similarly, @mentions and links to outward articles or videos, with attached images, were evidently the way to play.

By conforming to this rubric of social media engagement, and ‘retweeting’ others within the field I was interested in, I found traffic and conversation increasing around my posts, including responses. Not only was I finding things within the Twittersphere, that I otherwise would not have been drawn to, but I was becoming part of the conversation, movements, and a community, not sitting on the periphery. I used Twitter Analytics to deconstruct my microblogging experience and it enlightened me on my successes and where there was room for improvement.

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My Twitter Analytics Page

At the end of my experimental stint of intense engagement on Twitter (which I now intend to maintain as part of my every day), I was up over 60 followers (37 in the last month alone), and engagement with the audience I was intending to attract had increased exponentially and beyond my expectations.

A small selection of my most popular tweets, not just with retweeting, liking or responses, but also impressions and engagements made:

Most of my engagement began to happen as my followers increased also. This illustrates that attracting a greater following boosts engagement with others in those fields, too. In turn, engagement and impressions grow and you begin to build your online presence. I enjoyed the element of interaction with authority figures in the arena I hope to enter one day, and considering journalism is relying more and more heavily on social media, being part of the daily conversation was both rewarding and demonstrative of the impact social media and microblogging sites have on the ‘storymaking’ and storytelling process.

My voluntary participation in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, commenting on US gun control, witnessing tweets coming from war zones and aiding journalists in telling a more complete story, or even seeing tweets of public figures going viral, first hand, allowed me to be part of a larger group, accessing and engaging with news almost in real time with events going on around me – a perfect example of citizen journalism contributing to the reporting process.

So for these reasons I say go for it! (All the cool kids are doing it!)

#Twitter10k

Considering the beauty of Twitter with its delightfully short posts and ease of use as a microblogging platform, has the site shot themselves in the foot by the rumoured #Twitter10k? For those of you in the dark, literally – because who doesn’t keep up with these things – Twitter has flirted with the notion of allowing its users to write up to a whopping 10,000 characters, sometime in the not-so-distant future. This may be one of the single most irresponsible and irrational decisions to-date. Tech Crunch offer a more tangible idea of what this means – Here’s what 10,000 characters looks like… it speaks for itself.

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Photo Credit: Andy Melton on Flickr

No Twitter, what are YOU doing!?

But in all seriousness, Twitter may indeed, be following through with this plan and with that tease has come a lot of criticism and backlash, even on Twitter (check out #Twitter10k). Sadly, the whole microblogging platform may be under threat entirely. Its existence as a simple yet genius creation of social buzz, aka a microblog, would be completely undermined by the larger character posts – and where’s all the fun in that? Allowing users to essentially write blog-sized posts on a site that eat, sleeps and breaths the art of the micro-post, defeats its point completely. Therefore, watch this space…because I think Twitter might be in for a bumpy road ahead.

The downfalls of Twitter:

Despite the blindingly obvious ease of Twitter for social interaction and its wealth of information circulating its users, I can’t ignore its drawbacks.

I found the experience too performative given that on Twitter for example, you do have the ever-so-generous 140 characters to express yourself. In a way, as stated, this is the beauty of the microblogging site – it encourages quick, short and sweet posts. But this limitation also gives rise to an immense pressure to come off ‘strong’ in all that you post. I, for one, struggle with making meaningful comments that do not get lost in the sea of ‘twatter’. I couldn’t agree more with Juliet Jacques, writer for New Statesman:

“What is an opinion worth if everyone has one?”

When Twitter becomes saturated with everyone’s opinion, whether trite or intellectual, I can’t help but be put off somewhat. I don’t want to speak for speaking’s sake. But, simultaneously, having the conviction in my opinion can be difficult to find when I pre-empt its loss in the expanse of the social network.

That said, exercising my right to an opinion ensures that citizen journalism remains alive and kicking.

But where do you draw the line between work and play?

This is where I could not see myself creating an alter-ego Twitter page – i.e. having one page where the gobby me moans about my growing appetite, inter-dispersed with confessions of a forever-poor final year student in the middle of somewhat of a mental breakdown, and another page where I appear as a would-be super-intern, mediator, multi-talented, opinionated journo-buff. How can one person possibly be all of these things at once? Therefore, my main challenge was to retain myself throughout my microblogging experiences and try not to vie for unwanted attention, but make myself part of the movement… part of a larger conversation, yet still involve my non-working self as this contributes just as much, if more, to my personality. I also didn’t want to disillusion my audience by delivering a new me with some split-personality disorder. Because microblogging requires fast publishing of snippets of information – photos, statements, comments, videos – to attract attention and exponentially gain followers, friends or an audience, my posts, above and beyond, have to be trusted as myself, not a fictional self trying to impress and please the whole microblogging stratosphere.

It cannot be avoided but wherever you turn, you will have your critics, but the most crucial element of my experience was to maintain a clarity in myself and my posts. To me, there was nothing worse than finding tweeters who tried to cover all bases and in many ways, they just become sheep, or people-pleasers following whatever their idols, peers and fans WANT to hear, rather than being themselves throughout all elements of their microblogging news feeds, and gaining the followers and friends this way. I also found that I simply don’t draw a line under my journalistic self and my student self – the two are intertwined. Therefore, why not project that all in one Twitterfeed?

My overwhelming view of using microblogging sites is that whilst enjoying being a part of and being entertained by a social movement, I am buying into the conglomerate of creating a personal brand with everything I post online. Microblogging just gives rise to quick snap statements with no need to elaborate. Therefore, I think it encourages quick comment and opinion. But with that opinion comes the building blocks of the online brand of ‘me’, Joanna Bearman.

My experience was riddled with some hurdles. Microblogging may be a positive and logical next step in the field of journalism but with the masses all vying for attention and a voice, when do we take a step back and reexamine these opinions as unqualified, unjustified and unnecessary? I guess only time will tell whether Twitter has longevity, whether there will come a day when it becomes too saturated that it drowns out even the best tweeters and begins to hinder journalism.

That said, we can’t ignore that the game is changing. It’s no secret that microblogging may be the up and coming future of journalism – or that reality may have already begun. But, I can’t help but think that it may have a shelf life… and then, onto the next ‘big thing’!

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