@FMmagazine: The Harvard Crimson’s Magazine
Describe Yourself (in 140 characters or less): On a mission to demystify Twitter, at Harvard and beyond
Relationship to Twitter (in 140 characters or less): TBD
Nobody wants to know what you had for breakfast.
That, at least, is what David D. Weinberger (@dwein-berger), Senior Researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says of recreational Twitter (over)users. Composed of 140-character units, Twitter enables users to create a web of information that can encompass the most dramatic of world events (see @ReallyVirtual’s unwitting live account of the Bin Laden raid) and the most trivial details of everyday life (see: breakfast). It has as many uses as there are users, from social and professional networking to political campaigning and instant news. And while not the most prominent social media tool at Harvard, its users encompass a broad swath of the undergraduate community, from political activists to athletes to, yes, people who will probably update you on what’s happening at HUDS.
“It’s a good form if you want to tweet what you had for breakfast, assuming you didn’t have a very big breakfast,” Weinberger says. But “if that’s your example of what Twitter is about, then you can’t possibly understand [it].”
Instead, “the interesting thing about Twitter is that it really works the way it works for you,” comments Ethan Zuckerman (@ethanz), Senior Researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
So how does it work for Harvard students? “Twitter lets me let my hair down,” says Gary D. J. Gerbrandt ’14 (@garyge-rbrandt). “I have a vague goal that if somebody is going to see my tweet and laugh at it or see it and think something, I hope that I can improve infinitesimally someone’s day.”
Sophia D. Chua-Rubenfeld ’15 (@semper_phi) agrees. “It’s a way for me to look at my own daily life with fresh eyes and a little grain of salt,” she says.
Siddarth Chandrasekaran ’12 (@sidd) takes a different approach. A computer science concentrator who interned at Twitter for two summers, he highlights Twitter’s capacity to provide a cross-section of enormous amounts of information, from news and pop culture to personal updates and political campaigns. “Some people view it as a manifestation of our lack of ability to hold full-on interest in something, but there is an infinite amount of information—we’re drowning in a web of information,” Chandrasekaran says. “The internet is the largest landfill of human thought that’s ever existed, so in that, I just want signals for the most interesting things.”
Interestingly, perhaps the largest sector of the Harvard population on Twitter is athletes. “A solid quarter of us are on Twitter,” speculates Treavor S. Scales ’13 (@t_scales24), a running back on the football team. “We connect on different levels. We tweet music. We share information with each other,” he says.
The politically involved have also found in Twitter a convenient medium to promote candidates and publicize issues. “It’s much more effective and productive to use it to spread awareness or talk about politics,” says Simon M. Thompson ’14 (@simonthompson), who is involved in Maine politics and has tweeted for the Harvard Political Review, the Harvard Democrats, and Generation 44, a young-adult offshoot of the Obama campaign.
This range of uses—with snippets of text composing broad networks, trends, and themes—represents Twitter’s greatest appeal. It can create a sense of coherence out of fragmentation, a broad perspective from the minute. “One of the things I think is most interesting about Twitter is that clearly it scales,” Weinberger comments. “So if you have five followers and they’re all your friends and you’re using it to coordinate your night out ... it works for that, and if you are a celebrity and you have five thousand to five million followers, it works there.”
Considering ourselves poised to enter the latter category, FM solicited some additional advice from the masters, #hashtag style.
@dweinberger: “[Without #hashtags] Twitter would simply be a stream of Heraclitus—you can’t step in the same stream twice.”
@semper_phi: “Twitter’s already forcing you to be pretty pithy, but then the #hashtag, that’s really where you crystallize what you’re saying.”
@simonthompson: “I don’t really see too much of a #twitteratharvard culture per se, I guess ... I know a lot more alumni who are on Twitter than at the college.”
@garyge-rbrandt: “So few people at Harvard, or so few people at Harvard that I know, have embraced Twitter. #twitteratharvard”
@semper_phi: “I feel like my Twitter universe doesn’t intersect with my Harvard universe at all ... for me, it’s really about getting out of the bubble and connecting with other people. #twitteratharvard”
@semper_phi: “Twitter really forces you to distill things, and you just have to really find the best, fastest, wittiest way of saying something. #140characters”
@dweinberger: “Here we have what looks like a terribly diminished form of communication, #140characters ... and it spurs new rhetorical form.”