Last week, during the MTV Video Music Awards, news that Beyoncé is expecting her first child (and the pop diva subsequently showing off her baby bump during a performance at the ceremony) sent Twitter users into a frenzy, setting a new record of 8,868 tweets per second, beating out other major bursts of past Twitter activity like the death of Osama bin Laden and the Royal Wedding.
Twitter is, undeniably, a big deal. Whether it's a force for good or evil? That remains to be seen.
The German social theorist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas argued for a public sphere where private individuals could assemble for critical debate and discussion outside the state's supervision, and though he was critical of mass media for its tendency to encourage passive rather than active participation, Twitter ticks a lot of his boxes. The site acts as a reformulated democratic public sphere, welcoming and uniting anyone and everyone who wants to be a part of it and promoting active dialogue and deliberation.
In many ways, Twitter is brilliant. From news dissemination and networking to engaging in conversations with high-profile individuals and serving as a platform to mobilise people, Twitter has proved useful time and again in its five-year history. It's even become an obsession for some (8,868 tweets per second!), but only some: Twitter has over 200 million users globally, tweeting over 350 billion posts a day, which is still significantly less than Facebook's 750 million+ users.
But what of our manic tweets, which span everything from current political debates to whether or not David Beckham is actually balding? Our Twitter personas have ramifications in the real world; you can be sacked for inappropriate tweets, like a Melbourne tram driver was last month, or just vilified and humiliated. Whatever flimsy curtain still protected any modesty or privacy since the advent of blogging, Facebook and YouTube, Twitter has cast aside. The proof? There are women who feel compelled to live tweet their childbirths. Nothing is too sacrosanct these days, so long as you can spell it out in 140 characters or less.
In case, you can't tell, I personally am not a huge lover of Twitter. I admire the enormous impact the site's had and how quickly news disseminates from it, but at the same time, Twitter kind of creeps me out. Instead of all of these conversations being held in cyberspace, why not just meet up with a friend and discuss Beyoncé's pregnancy? Why tweet it?
Of course, Twitter has been a blessing for some, celebrities and their fans, namely. For once, the famous can get their words transmitted to millions, with their own pics and version of the story, whether they are looking to promote a new project (Eva Longoria frequently takes to Twitter to show off sexy photos of herself posing in her restaurant, Beso), flaunt their post-baby bodies (Mariah Carey recently posted an image of herself running with her puppies) or engage in a feud with a fellow celeb, fan or critic (see LeAnn Rimes repeatedly defending her ultra-skinny frame in Twitter debates).
Presumably, then, Twitter is the vehicle by which mere mortals can come face to face with their celebrity crushes and idols, unadulterated by the media, and (probably) not sanctioned by a manager or PR (we're hoping no media figure OK'd Charlie Sheen's rants). While this is a good thing on some level, for them and for us, celebrities tweeting are often among the big news stories of the day, which surely only fuels the public's obsession with celebrity news and therefore contributes to society's shallower pursuits.
The social networking site can also be used as a tool for good, like when groups organised via Twitter to clean up post-riots in London. Conversely, it was also used for negative purposes by rioters (along with BlackBerry Messenger) to coordinate their targets. While that 140-character Tweet, whether posted in a moment of rage or drunken euphoria, may capture a fleeting thought or moment in time, because it's online, it might be immortalised forever. Important to remember when you're slagging off your boss, past, present or future.
And that's actually my real issue with Twitter: words. Or lack thereof. Not only does 24/7 Twitter access mean that instead of seeing friends or going to see an exhibition or reading a book, you're engaging with a virtual network of people, to me, it also signifies that the lost art of the written word is upon us. Surely it's dumbing down the aforementioned public sphere?
Even avid readers who love to experiment with language would struggle with Twitter given that all the really exciting, four-syllable words would immediately be compromised for the integrity of the tweet (not exactly encouraging for children's budding vocabularies, is it?).
As a consequence, even when debates are being waged, sophisticated deliberations are undermined because of the word limit. There is also a tendency for the site to act as an "echo chamber" - you follow people who share your views, thereby strengthening your own position (and unerring feeling that you're in the right), and limiting true debate.
But then again, maybe we should just appreciate Twitter for what it is: a place to share thoughts, ideas, stories and pictures with a bunch of people. Nobody cares if you're eloquent or loquacious. It was Shakespeare, after all, who wrote: "When words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain."