In a bit of ragged analysis of the social geography of Twitter this morning, NPR’s Morning Edition demonstrated the survival of hidebound, “a-and-then-the-ring-around-it“-era prejudices about the nature of social media and the Web.
Host Steve Inskeep interviewed Shankar Vedantam, who was reporting on a study he attributed to Barry Wellman at the University of Toronto (only indirectly citing the paper, making any kind of responsible follow-up challenging; I think the paper he refers to is “Geography of Twitter,” in Social Networks, vol. 34, no.1, on which Wellman is a coauthor.) “The premise of Twitter,” Vedantam averred, “is that geography no longer matters…. A second premise is that Twitter is a truly democratic medium… a megaphone that is heard all around the world.”
But don’t those smell like red herrings? Wellman et al. indeed demonstrate that “a substantial share of (Twitter) ties lie within the same metropolitan region, and that between regional clusters, distance, national borders and language differences all predict Twitter ties,” finding that “frequency of airline flights between the two parties is the best predictor of Twitter ties.” On this basis, Wellman et al. rather soberly note “the importance of looking at pre-existing ties between places and people”—a conclusion NPR gives a peculiar spin. The “real world powerfully predicts” the Twitter world, Vidantam reports the study concluding—framing this observation as some kind of rejoinder to claims Twitter or its boosters make about the service.
In fact, don’t most of us already recognize that the power of social media lies in large part in its ability to reflect and capture data about “real-world” relations?
For Vedantam and Inskeep, the local nature of Twitter is not only notable, but somehow fails to be “democratic,” an analysis that seems unhinged from any useful political theory. But beyond this, there’s a whole social-media news-analysis paradigm reflected in Inskeep’s framing. Twitter here is supposed to exist in another world: a nebulous cyberspace of unbounded freedoms. But most of us already know that the Internet is at best a broken utopia (the only kind we’re ever likely to get).
“Wellman is finding that Twitter isn’t flat,” Vidantam says—as if Tom Friedman’s chimerical “flatness” (the analytic value of which has proven to be nil) is the only possible quality of transformative political agency. In last year’s revolutions, it wasn’t flatness that gave social media its power. It was its hyperlocality, its novel blending of intimate communities and witness at a distance.
Wellman’s network mappings don’t reflect the strength and impact of any twitter graph’s connections to outlying places. “For the longer ties,” Wellman et al. point out, “distance, language differences, country boundaries, and ease of travel can vary independently, even as they remain strongly correlated. This warrants a comparison of such variables.” And there’s a level of second-degree linking and retweeting that Wellman et al.’s mappings don’t capture. Even superficial examples suffice: I follow Andy Carvin, who RTs witnesses to ongoing struggles in the Middle East. Carvin is a shuttle flight away, but the cosmopolitan impact his account has on my feed is profound. Likewise the novelist Teju Cole, based now in New York, brings everyday violence in Nigeria to life with artful, unsettling clarity. My Twitter network reflects my local world—a local world enriched in ways that are hard to quantify by the loose ties it makes with farther-flung communities.
Other work in which Wellman is involved argues for the richness of real-world community life that gets instantiated in Twitter. In a paper called “Imagining Twitter as an Imagined Community,” Wellman and his coauthors find that Twitter networks are “the basis for a real community, even though Twitter was not designed to support the development of online communities.” There they conclude that “studying Twitter is useful for understanding how people use new communication technologies to form new social connections and maintain existing ones.”
Here’s the thing: Twitter is part of the “real world.” The Internet is part of the world.
In association with Wellman et al.’s work on the geography of networks, a rich and informative research domain takes shape. With Morning Edition we want a broad reading of Internet scholarship; what we end up with is “gotcha” reporting on a single study situated in a context of canards and red herrings. Followed, of course, by a reminder to listeners to “follow us on Twitter.”