Twitter breaks down borders 140 characters at a time

13

Author: Elwyn Pratt

Twitter is entering a new phase of global relevance. The social networking website has been the brunt of Generation X jokes in valedictorian speeches and church sermons since 2006, but it is now time for global citizens to take their tweets more seriously. Twitter isn’t just a place for Beliebers and high school students to microblog about their #firstworldproblems. Twitter is a now an incredible hub of cultural exchange that is constantly bringing the world closer together – at the rate of 340 million tweets per day. Today, the world and its problems are on Twitter, but so are its solutions.

Some have dismissed the microblogging site as a petty means for venting. But looking beyond our friends’ 140-character quips about traffic or the Oscars, we’ll find that Twitter is a window to the world. Follow the right accounts, and we can become conscious of real, global issues.

Twitter offers a real-time feed of current events, but its usefulness doesn’t stop there. The website has evolved into an incredible tool for public broadcasting. The microblogging service is currently valued at $10 billion, but that doesn’t really paint an accurate picture of what Twitter is worth. Just one tweet can be invaluable.

Twitter co-founder Evan Williams acknowledged some of the most impressive uses of tweeting as part of his TED Talk in 2009. When the wildfires broke out in San Diego in 2007, not only did people use Twitter to communicate with their neighbors about the disaster, but the L.A. Times, Red Cross and L.A. Fire Department used tweets to broadcast real-time updates on the situation. Businesses like Los Angeles’ Kogi taco truck use Twitter to announce their current location and instantly attract a crowd of hungry customers. Twitter has been used to mobilize crowds for events ranging from surprise band performances to Occupy rallies.

Social media is growing as a key communications platform in global politics. Egyptians flooded the web in early 2011 with discussions about ousting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and in the next few weeks, the revolution was literally organized on Twitter. #Jan25, #Revolution and other hashtags were a call to arms, setting the stage for a civil resistance that would ultimately force Mubarak to resign and put an end to three decades of corruption.

Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo, is well aware of the power of tweeting. And while social media discourse may be largely out of the company’s hands, Twitter does carry a lot of responsibility. After all, Costolo’s staff is responsible for hosting nearly 500 million users in dozens of countries.

It’s no wonder that its limited servers have been exploited countless times, and the problem is growing. On Feb. 1, Twitter’s official blog confirmed that around 250,000 users’ emails addresses were exposed by a hack. Ten days later, hackers took control of Burger King’s Twitter account, replacing the company’s logo with the McDonald’s logo and posting phony announcements. Twitter’s account security management branch HootSuite was under scrutiny for the next few days, as it had been for previous account hacks, the victims of which include Jeep, the Westboro Baptist Church and the Internet activist group Anonymous. Last year, hacker group Script Kiddies accessed the Twitter accounts of major news publications, posting several fake “BREAKING” stories before the accounts were secured.

Most hacker groups have relatively harmless intentions, but the line between recognizing a practical joke and a terrorist threat is getting fuzzier. Fake news stories instantly cause a panicked response from the Twittersphere. On the web, it’s not easy to discern what’s real and what’s not. Even tweets from The Onion are taken seriously on occasion.

Twitter will never outgrow criticism, but the most important concern over the website’s future is that of censorship. We will be directly affected by how Costolo and company deal with the issue of balancing freedom of speech with local laws, and more importantly, the protection of its users. Recent decisions to censor users suggest Twitter has struck a fair balance between free speech and security concerns.

Accounts have already been removed for impersonating individuals and posting threatening messages. Al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab’s Twitter account was recently suspended because it had issued a threat to security in violation of Twitter’s terms of service. In late 2012, Twitter blocked access in Germany to the account of a government-banned neo-Nazi group Besseres Hannover. The decision was made with respect to a “country-withheld content” policy enacted last January.

While some may be weary of public transparency and the dangers of sharing their personal information online, it is highly unlikely that the architects of the social networking revolution have plotted to compromise user privacy. Social network pioneers like Mark Zuckerberg truly want to make the world better by encouraging openness. But the issue of capital interest versus social service will soon become even more muddled as cybersecurity, legal adherence and public safety are thrown into the mix.

Just as the world’s issues are on Twitter, Twitter’s issues matter to the rest of the world. The website’s control priviledges will soon be extended – or limited. And as the social media revolution has proven, the common citizens are the loudest policymakers.

Elwyn Pratt is an undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at epratt@oxy.edu. Do you have an opinion on this issue? If so, keep the conversation going and comment on this article at occidentalweekly.com or write a Letter to the Editor.

This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.