America / Communications / Events / Politics

A Digital Avalanche

The first presidential debate contained many memorable moments. From the heated arguments difficult for moderator Jim Lehrer to control to Mitt Romney’s widely-targeted “Big Bird” comment, Wednesday night was a very entertaining night of television. Despite the excitement on our TV screens, it was the excitement on the screens of computers, smartphones, and tablets across the nation that truly made the history books.

Twitter users sent a record-breaking 10.3 million tweets during the 90-minute debate, rendering some Tweetdecks impossible to follow as tweet after tweet piled on to the discussion. A digital avalanche of political discourse. Such an astounding figure continues to point out how social media has revolutionized the way people exchange ideas. What was once the Roman forum or the town coffee shop has now entered a digital plane, enabling citizens to engage in the kind of dialogue so critical to sustain a democracy with the simple press of a button. In the case of the presidential debate Wednesday night, citizens were able to do so 158,690 times per minute. To get a better sense of this staggering figure, Twitter itself released a graphic charting the conversation throughout the debate.

Social media has become an actor for political change because citizens have found a way to engage in instantaneous political discourse without any formal institutions to facilitate it. This phenomenon presents a significant power shift in the way a citizenry participates in a democracy. Traditional media and government organizations have lost some of their power to the growing network of Internet users. These users no longer solely depend on traditional organizations to gather information. Some of the dependence has shifted, not only to Twitter, but also to a cyber network of blogs and social media sites, in which users collaborate to disperse information based on their interests or proximity to certain kinds of information. Clay Shirky, a scholar on the socioeconomic effects of the Internet, refers to this as a “cooperative system” that sidesteps the need to “form a professional relationship with an institution” in order to disseminate information. For further insight into Shirky’s findings, feel free to watch his TEDtalk video below.

A personal experience of mine greatly evinces Shirky’s idea. While I was grilling outside my house one night in October 2011, a car exploded outside the Allen Lee apartment building across the street. Police immediately arrived and blocked the street. Being right there on the scene, I took a picture of the burning car with my iPhone and immediately tweeted the photo.

I did not need to go to a newspaper or call the local TV news station to get the information out; I had the ability to do so myself. As more of my followers saw the tweet, they began to tweet about it as well. Eventually, it got the attention of some George Washington University administrators who follow many GW students’ Twitter accounts, and GW Campus Advisories sent out an alert to all students, informing them of the incident. Despite GW being the first formal institution to acknowledge the explosion, the information came from a network of collaborators, in this case Twitter users, that acknowledged it first.

Shirky’s findings on this network of collaborators establish the current power struggle in which nations and their citizenry currently find themselves. The basic element of Shirky’s works is that within a networked environment, it is the system’s ability of allowing contributors to discover things for themselves and engage in a public dialogue that greatly demonstrates the distinct shift in the information environment and how institutions organize it. Tweeting about events, tagging photos, sharing links with friends on Facebook, all of these actions are mechanisms of identifying what is important, similar to traditional media agenda setting. The major difference here is that traditional institutions and governments or bureaucracies are not involved in it whatsoever. The Facebook users, Twitter enthusiasts, and bloggers are doing it. The Internet has revolutionized the nature of the communication. As a result, people are able to spread messages fast and subsequently mobilize even faster.

This newfound ability to rapidly and easily send messages clearly explains the 10.3 million tweets during the debate. What’s more, the ability to mobilize just as fast is clearly seen in the rapid rise of Big Bird memes on newsfeeds across the nation.