Twitter Chat

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Definition

A Twitter chat is an online conversation held on Twitter, focusing on a topic and linked together through the use of a specific hashtag [1] which enables people to follow what is being said and join in. Twitter chats can be used by anyone including businesses and celebrities but have also been utilised as a public engagement tool on topics such as public health.

A Twitter chat is usually initiated by a specific organisation or individual, and those who join can ask questions or comment on the topic at hand. This facilitates interaction between a broader public and the organiser, although there is no obligation to respond to all tweets in the chat. Furthermore, a Twitter chat also involves interaction and exchange between other participants [2]. The chat is usually held at a designated time, chosen to optimise the number of participants and engagement.

Problems and Purpose

The purpose of a Twitter Chat will vary according to the needs of the organiser. For example, public health organisations use Twitter and other social media as a means of providing reliable and up-to-date information which is particularly pertinent during a disease outbreak [3]. Other purposes may centre on community building or activism [4].

History

Twitter is a social media platform where individuals can register as users either as individuals or as organisations, and share short messages. The use of hashtags makes a word clickable and searchable, enabling users to follow tweets by topics by following the hashtag. Twitter chats are organised around a hashtag.

Twitter has been around since 2006, and Twitter chats seem to have emerged as a concept shortly after, although this is not entirely clear. Academic research evaluating the use of Twitter chats emerged several years later. From a rudimentary search on Google Scholar, a large amount of academic research on Twitter chats focuses on public health, medical practice and education. Notable examples include Twitter chats held during the Ebola and Zika virus epidemics [4, 5].

Participant Selection

Participants in a Twitter chat are self-selecting, although usually they will be made of a community of practice or community of interest [2] – people interested in, working in or invested in the topic of the chat. In theory, any number of Twitter users could join a chat. The number in practice will likely depend on the timing of the event, interest in the topic at the time, and is of course limited to those who use Twitter in the first place.

The nature of Twitter is asymmetric, in that there is no obligation for a user to ‘follow back’ someone that follows them [2]. Thus, on the standard Twitter feed, users will only see tweets from the users that they follow. However, in a Twitter chat the discussion is oriented around the chosen hashtag, so that a participant can follow the hashtag and view all the tweets pertaining to it – regardless of who follows who.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Conversation in a Twitter chat is relatively free flowing, since the host cannot control what other people tweet, although their responses can augment the chat. Interaction during a Twitter chat can be between the initiator and participants and between participants. Megele (2014) defines Twitter chat as a form of multilogue – many to many communication. That is to say, each tweet can be read by multiple users and may receive multiple replies from different users. She argues that this allows multiple strands of discourse to emerge and develop as ‘a broader range of participants contribute simultaneously’ [2, p.47]. This can result in a broader discussion with a loose structure that does not follow the usual ‘turn-taking’ of a discussion in person. Within this multi-way communication however, two-way conversations can also occur, where two users pursue a conversation to the exclusion of other participants chiming in [2].

Twitter chat hosts also have the freedom to ignore or exclude certain users or issues raised during the chat, and thus shape the scope and direction of the conversation, to a limited extent. For example, chats run by public health organisations on the Ebola and Zika outbreaks failed to respond to concerns about the risk to pregnant women and newborns. This could either be interpreted as an attempt to focus on what the organiser (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) saw as the most important issues only, or that the host simply didn’t pick up on this issue as a topic of major public concern [3].

Despite having an organiser or host, a Twitter chat is not facilitated by a moderator or anyone monitoring the conversation, although there are tools that can be used to analyse the engagement. There are also some suggested guidelines to follow to host a Twitter chat. These include carefully selecting a time when the most people are likely to participate to maximise engagement, inviting relevant people and organisations to join the chat, promoting the event, and using a specific tool to manage the chat such as TweetChat to help manage the chat [6].

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

There is limited empirical evidence on how effective Twitter chats are a form of public engagement and communication [4]. Findings so far suggest that the effectiveness of Twitter chats as an engagement tool can depend largely on the host/organiser and the aim of the chat. Multiple organisers of a chat in New Orleans focused on facilitating an open discussion about the culture around health in the city, with different organisers showing different levels of engagement with participants [4]. As with studies mentioned previously, the public health organisation acted as an information provider and did not respond to tweets.

Twitter chats may also be used as one component of a broader participatory process. A Citizens’ Jury in South Australia utilised a Twitter chat during one day of the jury deliberations. This can enable a much wider audience to share their concerns or ideas on an issue for the jury to consider in their deliberations.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The loose nature of a Twitter chat means that it may be more fruitful for generating ideas and brainstorming, rather than focused or in-depth discussion [2]. However, in an empirical analysis of Twitter chats on the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, the authors noted that tweets demonstrating expertise or extending the topic of the chat were excluded from interaction by the public health organisation running the event (Young et al). This suggests that the norms governing Twitter chats vary depending on the organisation or individual managing them; the Ebola/Zika example favoured a more question and answer based approach to the chat, rather than idea generation.

Analysis of Twitter chats can also illuminate the different ways in which broader publics and organisations understand issues. Another study pertaining to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks noted that public concerns about the diseases focused on the risk to women and babies, whilst the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who hosted the chats focused more on clinical features and education [3]. This could suggest a need for better management of Twitter chats to respond more effectively to public concerns.

Given that many studies focus on public health and twitter chats, future research on Twitter chats would do well to analyse the extent to which they increase levels of public awareness or understanding of diseases, rather than describing the type of engagement that occurs. It is also worth noting that Twitter follows a specific definition of ‘engagement’, as how many times users interact with a tweet [4]. This is clearly rather narrow and does not meet the requirements for meaningful public, community or civic engagement. However, this could further indicate the suitability for Twitter chats to be used alongside other deliberative techniques and as part of broader participatory processes.

Twitter users are not representative of the general public, with most users being under the age of 30 and predominantly male. Moreover, many Twitter users do not actively tweet but follow others, and only spend a small amount of time on Twitter [7]. In addition, Twitter chats are vulnerable to the same criticisms levelled at other self-selecting engagement processes: that those who participate are already actively engaged in the topic, the most articulate or the most dominant. Therefore, any general conclusions about public opinion drawn from Twitter chats should be made with caution and with these caveats in mind.

Secondary Sources

[1] Smarty, A. (2012) 5 Steps to Hosting Successful Twitter Chats: Your Ultimate Guide. Social Media Examiner. May 8 2012. Available at:  https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/twitter-chat-guide/

[2] Megele, C. (2014) Theorising Twitter Chat. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice. 2(2), pp. 46-51. Available at:  http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/16728/1/Theorizing%20Twitter%20Chat.pdf

[3] Glowacki, E., Lazard, A., Wilcox, G. Mackert, M. & Bernhardt, J. (2016) Identifying the public’s concerns and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reactions during a health crisis: An analysis of a Zika live Twitter chat. American Journal of Infection Control. (44) 2016, pp. 1709 – 1711. DOI: 10.1016/j.ajic.2016.05.025

[4] Rabarison, K., Croston, M., Englar, N., Bish, C., Flynn, S. &  Johnson, C. (2017) Measuring Audience Engagement for Public Health Twitter Chats: Insights From #LiveFitNOLA. JMIR Public Health Surveillance. 3(2). DOI: 10.2196/publichealth.7181

[5] Young, R., Tully, M. & Dalrymple, K. (2017) #Engagement: use of Twitter chats to construct nominal participatory spaces during health crises. Information, Communication and Society. 21(4), pp. 499 – 515. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1301518

[6] Gimmer, C. (2016) How to Create a Twitter Chat: 4 Success Tips. Social Media Examiner. February 2 2016. Available at: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/how-to-create-a-twitter-chat-4-success-tips/

[7] Hutchinson, A. (2017) Top Social Network Demographics 2017. Social Media Today. March 21 2017. Available at: https://www.socialmediatoday.com/social-networks/top-social-network-demographics-2017-infographic

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