Twitter: Power to the Platform

Guest post by Rachel Lewis, ENG-PWR & Creative Writing ’15


As a student of Professional Writing and Rhetoric, something that has constantly stood out to me is the role of ethics in rhetoric. If we define rhetoric simply as communication, as some do, I believe that we are missing out on this essential element; specifically, our communication must be ethical in order to be rhetorically sound.

If nothing else, rhetorical communication requires an awareness of who on earth you’re talking to, and what medium you’re using to get your message across.

But let’s break this down and talk about Twitter. Twitter is a form of media that’s blown up in the past five or so years. If a company or business considers itself to be of importance, it has a Twitter account. Everyone from Denny’s to CCN is active on Twitter, as it gives companies the chance to connect with their consumers on a more personal and direct level. With a quick “favorite,” a company can show support or gratitude to a consumer; they can even do shout outs and include the handle of a consumer and make them feel important, hopefully encouraging them to remain a consumer of whatever product the company is selling.

This seems easy enough, but it becomes a massive problem when the people who run these Twitter accounts aren’t necessarily socially aware. As I mentioned earlier, these people are engaging in communication. However, they are doing so on a platform where communication is exchanged in quick snapshots. Once something is said, it’s there for good. Even if a company chooses to delete a tweet, there is almost a guarantee that someone out there has screenshotted the post, and, if angered by the retraction of said tweet, will put the screenshot out there via Twitter and other forms of social media as well.

What we have here is this very interesting and unique rhetorical situation in which the audience holds a fair amount of power over the speaker, but where the platform holds power above both audience and speaker. All are held to the 140-character standard. All are expected to stick to the fast-paced and constant flow of communication. The role of technology has always been massive within the world of communication. Even those who worked with scrolls were held to a standard – how many characters could fit onto a single line? What letters would be impacted by the rolling of the scroll? How far apart did letters need to be spaced so that ink didn’t drip and ruin a statement?

NRAtweetWhat makes Twitter unique is that tweeting goes beyond just using Twitter. Plenty of software is available that allows tweets to be schedule ahead of time, to multiple accounts at the same time, and even repeatedly. Again, the technology is given even more power and requires even more attention by the speaker – but this ethical communication doesn’t always occur. A 2013 BuzzFeed article featured the most major Twitter failures in regard to communication between speaker and audience. One of the most notable was a tweet by the NRA sent soon after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. This tweet was clearly unethical because it was paying zero attention to context. Most likely, this was the fault of a speaker who used a previously discussed software to schedule the tweet ahead of time.

What we learn here, if nothing else, is that new technologies mean new responsibilities for speakers. While in pre-tweet scheduling software times it was not necessary for social media directors to edit tweets in order to remain socially aware and ethical, now they need to stay on the ball and constantly pay attention to the surrounding world to ensure that their tweets are not offensive given the current context.

Furthermore, the role of screenshots gives everything a wider audience. The NRA could have taken down that tweet, but it would have ended up on loads of other media – Reddit, Tumblr, or, as we see here, Buzzfeed. News anchors could have pulled it up for discussion on national television. The media is one giant branch linking communication together, and what started as one scheduled Tweet could have blown up into a massive storm.

The idea that media is linked only further proves that communication must be ethical. It must be aware of its speaker, of its audience, of its context, and of the power of the platform through which it exists.


This entry was posted in Student Perspective. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. Posted September 27, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a highly relevant point for not only businesses but also individuals. However, I do not entirely understand the “ethics” aspect of your argument. You say communication–specifically, tweets–must be ethical, but your example seems to provide an argument that communication should be tactful in order to be the most effective. If your example had been from a different time would it still have been unethical? “Shooters” will probably have a negative connotation for a very long time since it’s the word the media uses to report a tragedy like the Aurora shooting, but does that make it unethical? I think the biggest problem with that tweet is that it was tactless and, therefore, unsuccessful in communicating with its audience.

    The concept of ethics in media is a much wider topic that, I think, does not deal as much with specific words as it does with right and wrong actions (war journalism, photographing celebrities’ children, etc.) I think your point is mainly about using tact to make your message have the desired impact, and in that case, I completely agree.