Let’s make it official – Twitter is now the most important social media site in the world. With over 500 million users worldwide, it outshines the competition with its immediacy and relevance, and its reach seems nearly unlimited (approximately 135,000 new users sign up each day). Forget the pen – Twitter is now mightier than the sword, and it may be a hell of a lot more lethal than any other weapon out there as well and, make no mistake, in the wrong hands it is that dangerous.
Whoever would have thought that what amounts to a glorified text message – usually sent out via a handheld device (most often a cellular phone) – would subsume all media as the premier source for news and information? Twitter is not only the place to go to find out what is happening in the world, but it is also the number one place to tap into the public’s reaction to that news.
The President of the United States utilizes Twitter as a way to make news before it gets to the media. You can argue that this is either an extremely clever tactic or one that is fraught with peril, but Donald Trump’s millions of followers are waiting for his next message or what they hope will be another frenzied tweetstorm. His detractors are equally eager for him to text, hoping that he will stumble – as has often been the case – and say something upon which they can pounce with glee.
A majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s use of Twitter. According to a recent poll, 62% pf U.S. voters see the president’s use of the service as a “bad thing,” with 72% indicating he uses Twitter too often. Only 20% of the voters polled think Trump’s Twitter habit is positive. While these numbers seem rather telling, Trump isn’t going to stop tweeting anytime soon because he feels that it is his way to circumvent the media and go directly to the people.
This past week saw Twitter bring down another tweeting addict – Roseanne Barr. Roseanne’s recent reboot of her ABC comedy series Roseanne was a huge ratings winner, but a racist tweet about Valerie Jarret, a former aide to President Obama, showed the power of Twitter and the dangerous side of using it, especially early in the morning while impaired by some intoxicating substance – in Barr’s case she claims it was Ambien.
Within hours of the vulgar tweet Roseanne lost her sitcom because ABC canceled it, destroyed her reputation – some will argue that she has done this before – and ruined the lives of all the people employed on her show who are now out of work. Roseanne tried to apologize saying, “I’m not racist, just an idiot,” but nothing could stop the deluge once Roseanne opened the floodgates on Twitter.
This story is a vivid example of Twitter’s overwhelming power, but it is one that is predicated upon the user’s input – a case of the little Twitter Bird that doth mock the hand that feeds it. Twitter’s power is then within the tweeter’s control until it no longer isn’t. Once the person hits that blue Tweet button, all control is lost and the power is now in the hands of others – in the case of Barr, the president, and other celebrities, many others.
The truth is that sites like Twitter make career suicide – which is exactly what Barr has committed – all too easy. There are groups like AA who help people addicted to substances, but where is the help for those addicted to tweeting or using other social media sites? Friends can try to stage an intervention – apparently there were people in Barr’s inner circle who attempted to take her phone away with no success – but there is little recourse for those who cannot help themselves on social media.
This is not to say Twitter is a bad thing; in fact, I use Twitter to promote my writing and follow people including some celebrities, and that seems a healthy way to use it. Many other people use Twitter in positive ways, so it is not the service itself that is dangerous but rather how people intend to use (or abuse) it.
Still, I think we need to start thinking about ways to help those who cannot help themselves on Twitter and other sites. It is one thing to take a cellular phone away from a minor – as a parent I can say “been there and done that” – but it is another thing to try to do so with an adult. He or she has freedom to use the phone and has a right to free speech, so the waters get a little murky here.
The problem is that something that is so good can be bad when used in the wrong way. An automobile is a wonderful thing when used properly, but when an inebriated person gets behind the wheel and drives, that person can potentially kill others or him or herself. This changes the equation and then that person’s right to drive a car can be taken away or may even end up in jail.
Roseanne’s despicable tweet didn’t put anyone in danger, but that is not to say that she didn’t harm anyone. Her hurtful words about Ms. Jarret upset many of her followers on Twitter, became news beyond the service, and caused people on her show to lose their jobs, including nine-year old Jayden Rey who plays Mary Conner, Roseanne’s biracial granddaughter. How does one explain this to a child in any way? There is no apology or explanation that makes it understandable.
We live in a time where the virtual is subsuming the actual, and people are becoming more involved in staring at a little device than looking someone in the eyes. There is an isolating factor to it, making us retreat from our fellow humans rather than embrace them. It also makes saying things that we would never say in person all too easy to write and send.
Everyone from the rich and famous to the anonymous among us finds comfort in being able to speak their minds, but totally frank or honest dialogue can descend pretty quickly into an ugly quagmire. The ramifications of hitting “Tweet” do not usually become clear until after the fact, and by then it is too late. Twitter has cornered the market on this sad facet of modern life, and in doing so it has become the great equalizer, an opportunity for us all to either soar or crash and burn.
So, Twitter, you now rule the world or close to it. The president uses you to announce everything from foreign policy to his opinions about opponents. Celebrities tweet messages of support to one another or snarky ones meant to cut deep, and the reach of Twitter seems limitless, or as Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear says, “To infinity and beyond.”
The key to Twitter’s success and its importance is not the celebrities or politicians who use it. The power lies in its users – the hundreds of millions of everyday people who follow the big names and let their fingers do the talking in response to the tweets. The public is what makes Twitter a powerhouse because so many people are watching the tweeters and reacting, changing the course of people’s lives in the process.
Perhaps one day Twitter will go the way of My Space, though it seems doubtful. Right now, it is the most powerful social media site around and either makes or breaks the people who use or abuse it. So, go ahead and tweet, but you better think twice before you hit that blue Tweet button because that Twitter Bird has a sharp beak.