The most-watched rap feud in years started with just a few tweets this past July. Meek Mill claimed that Drake, the highest selling rapper of 2015, didn’t write all of his lyrics, a cardinal sin for hip hop purists.
Since this was a challenge to his authorship and skill, Drake responded with a “diss track” (intentionally disrespectful song) that instantly went viral and generated a flurry of social media activity that has yet to subside.
This would have been unimaginable ten years ago. Not solely because microblogging wasn’t as a popular as a medium back then, but because Twitter changed the way a generation communicates. Social media is where one can see the opprobrium over the killing of Cecil the Lion, community discussion over beloved television shows, and breaking news before it grows into an article.
The controversy over Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, is a prime example. Michael Brown, after being stopped by police, was shot while unarmed by a local police officer on August 9, 2014. As protests arose in the wake of his death, Michael Brown became symbolic of the loss of black lives at the hands of police officers. Protestors and reporters on the ground shared updates, photos, videos, and live streams on Twitter that captured the demonstrations as they turned into riots. By the time the unrest had quieted, the need to make racism and police brutality marquee topics in the national conversation was solidified.
#BlackLivesMatter refers both to a plea to end racism and police brutality, and also a national organization helmed by the women who coined #BLM. They have kept its official name in hashtag form, a sign of social media’s power. Twitter is the primary means of news sharing for America’s social movements, especially #BLM. That’s another thing that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago.
To grasp fully why Twitter has shifted our culture, picture yourself in a bar where there’s a TV playing a news broadcast in the background. Perhaps there’s a couple nearby that’s not really paying much attention to anything other than their own conversation. Maybe there’s a patron next to you whose eyes are glued to the screen. This is what media scholar Anna McCarthy calls ambient television: the audiovisuals that become part of the background to our experiences in salons, laundromats, doctor’s waiting rooms, and so on, and the tidbits of information that seep through into our consciousness as we inhabit these spaces.
Let’s say the anchor onscreen says something you find preposterous. You blurt out your objection. The bartender agrees and the two of you banter away. The anchor of course can’t hear you, and no one outside of the bar bears witness to your discussion. Digital media expert Alfred Hermida argues that the distance between viewers and newsmakers is something that social media has perhaps collapsed, as the reporters, the hecklers, and the viewers can all share the same platform and converse together, giving way to a “more participatory media ecosystem.”
“Non-linear, many-to-many digital communication technologies have transferred the means of media production and dissemination into the hands of the public, and are rewriting the relationship between the audience and journalists,” wrote Hermida in a 2010 paper.
But Twitter is not just rewriting news. A recent Pew report found that Americans are increasingly using it to engage with politicians. The debates by candidates for the 2016 presidential election primaries have taken the concept of participatory media to a whole new level. During the debates, hashtags such as #GOPDebate or #DemDebate erupt with comments from opposition candidates, political analysts, and ordinary viewers live-tweeting the debates. For the second Democratic debate, Twitter teamed up with CBS News to measure responses to what viewers saw on the screen and bring questions from viewers to the debate stage. Twitter’s goal was to allow users to experience the debate as if they were watching “on the world's largest couch” by providing instant feedback from thousands of viewers watching the same event.
Twitter is also having an impact on how products are marketed. For a new ad campaign, American Apparel chose a teen who proudly flouts traditional gender lines and had originally gone viral for voguing (a form of dance created by black and Latino gay men in New York City inspired by poses found in Vogue magazine) behind news correspondents. Based on CEO Paula Schneider’s comments during an interview with Marie Claire, we can expect to see more ads like this. “Our customers expect social commentary; they expect it to be a part of their lives,” she remarked. It’s obvious that social media played a role in creating the new model’s celebrity, but American Apparel’s marketing strategy is arguably a ripple effect of the social movements happening on Twitter too.
So where might Twitter’s influence on American society go from here? That’s hard to tell. In a 2009 paper on news sharing on Twitter, researchers at the University of Maryland wrote, “It is important to observe that Twitter, or most likely a successor of it, is a harbinger of a futuristic technology that is likely to capture and transmit the sum total of all human experiences of the moment.” This prediction, at the very least, is already happening.