Cracking the Code: Towards a Semiotic Understanding of Twitter and Its Use by Media Fans
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Since Twitter joined the social media club in 2006, its use has increased steadily, particularly since 2009 (Deller 2011). Although it has received a lot of attention in the traditional media because of its use in relation to protests in Iran and then Egypt, the percentage of users in the US context remains well below social networking sites like Facebook—8% vs 65% according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Madden 2011; Smith 2012). That said, Twitter has gained traction among media fans. Between September 2010 and April 2011, I collected survey (n= 671) and interview data (n = 71) for a large-scale study on multi-screen television viewing and participatory culture. Just over 36% of the survey respondents said that they used twitter for fan-related activity. Only 10% more said that they had “liked” a TV series on Facebook. Further statistical analysis showed that younger viewers were more likely to use Twitter than older ones. As more quantitative and qualitative data, produced by industry and the academy alike, becomes available, the time is ripe to formulate more complex understandings of Twitter as a code. Drawing on Barthes (1968) and Fiske (1982, 1987), I take a socially-oriented semiological approach, conceptualizing Twitter as a shared system of meaning in order to critically examine its underlying structural relations. Specifically I map out the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations of Twitter at the micro-level of the tweet and then at the macro-level of the aggregation feed. As an empirical researcher, my interest in Twitter as a code is not an end in itself but rather a basis upon which to build a more rigorous analysis of its uses by media fans. To move from system to use, I draw on Barthes’ (1968) notion of second order of signification. After outlining the structural relations of Twitter, I will focus on user aggregation and the specific pleasures fans get from following favourite television actors, reality stars, characters and showrunners. The study of fan practices helps media scholars better understand uses and meanings of new technologies in general and social media in particular.