Tweethos – Is it the same ethos we know and love?

“What if Justin Beiber tweeted that there was a recycling can at point X and I said it was at point Y? Who would people believe?” The question arose within our team at a recent hackathon, where the goal was to design something that would encourage sustainability. Our team decided to embrace the power of user-driven and user-maintained software: the power of Twitter. There would certainly be inequalities in a sustainability-minded social group, especially in influence, so my friend suggested scoring users and putting the most green users or the most influential members at the center of attention. Yet, would the twittersphere respond the same way to popular names as does reality’s branded consumers?

I recently stumbled across Himelboim and Han’s Cancer Talk on Twitter: Community Structure and Information Sources in Breast and Prostate Cancer Social Networks, which recounts a study of the networking and relationships of health communities on Twitter. Himelboim and Han found that  depending on the focus of a group, their behaviors differed: “core communities” that persistently tweeted about breast or prostate cancer value anecdotal sources over institutionalized healthcare providers and seem to be more active in exchanging information than “visiting communities”.

The core community’s discussion-group-esque  style seemingly values plenty and intimate information over bureaucratically  or popularly legitimatized sources. This is not unlike local socio-ethnical communities that pool resources, share stories, and stay connected, where pragmatic and personalized advice is taken over suggestions from “outsiders.” In such groups that identify strongly, then, is there a fear of foreigners and therefore a fear of being isolated by the group? How does this group apply such pressure? If we look at the small business model, we see that while colleagues are means of enforcement, we still see bosses isolated from the grunts. This begs the question: Would the boss’ advice (ignoring any consequences) carry less weight than a teammate’s? What about the boss’ boss?

I take things to heart only when I am actively a part of the group being addressed; while I was a graduating senior last year, I had a hard time listening to any of the torrent of speeches when I had already identified with college students. Ultimately, those who wield  supernormal power, or that above which other members of a group share, lack the personal anecdotes that others identify with. For celebrities, their name and fame carry their messages, but for the leader in a digital group,  humanity seems to carry power.

Looking at a screen, it is often difficult to imagine the faces of the multitude also hunched over a keyboard creating the dancing letters you see. If you see one user posting too many times or have too many followers, you may not want to or may be shy to join. Or you may question that one isolated user. That user essentially becomes the “institution.” Users who respect the culture of the group, for example by being friendly, sociable, and involved, are often regarded as valuable members and worthy ones of helping determine the direction of the group. This tweethos mirrors the trustworthiness of a face-to-face encounter, while the technical background of a person that is regarded as ethos is not valid in such social groups. The leaders are those who can rally and move others as a common member, since organizational responsibilities are collective.

Anonymity seems to hold great importance, as internet users scramble to define the privacy that they hold dear. Yet we yearn not to read from bots but from human beings. Tweethos is a proof of humanity in a cyberspace oft barren of it. In scaling one-to-one conversations up to gargantuan Twitter groups,  the process of what computer scientists call SYN/ACK (Synchronize and Acknowledge) remains unchanged. For one to be influenced, he/she must be involved (synchronized) and must acknowledge the human behind the screen speaking through digital media. There lies the power of tweethos.


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