Twitter Conversations and the Potential of Change

Taking a stance against child trafficking à la Joseph Kony. The cancellation of ABC Family’s “Alice in Arabia” television show. International awareness of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than a hundred Nigerian girls. An apology from Stephen Colbert over racist remarks. Action by Facebook against sexually violent fan pages.

Photo from Voice

All of these have one thing in common: The conversation began on Twitter. Corporations, conventional leadership and advocacy organizations didn’t start these movements. Instead, everyday citizens started them, people who cared about the issue and wanted to take a stand — people like you and me. Why is it, then, that much of the world still expresses amazement when conversation movements spill over from the world of Twitter? Too frequently, the ability and reach that Twitter users possess through the network is downplayed, but it is becoming increasingly hard to pretend that the ripples created by people taking charge of important conversations on race, culture and inequality are not here to stay. Amidst the chaos, a group popularly known as “Muslim Twitter” is beginning to form as well — individuals strongly identifying with being Muslim, and openly discussing and confronting issues within and affecting the Muslim American community — unwilling to back down in the face of oppression and misunderstanding. It remains to be seen just how influential on-ground conversations within the Muslim American Twitter community will be, but given the current trajectory of the group, it can safely be said that the effect will be nothing short of revolutionary.

Before delving into the conversation, it is important to first define the very environment with which we are working. At its very core, social media are websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking, which is “a network of social interactions and personal relationships,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The future of communication, its potential impact and reach continue to be largely misunderstood, written off as simply a space for catching up with old friends or pursuing egotistical forms of communication. In 2007, however, the Altimeter Group established that social media was “the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism, one-to-many, to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people, and peers.” Quite literally, social media empowers everyday people to be a part of international conversations, shifting the discourse from a teacher to classroom model to a democratic forum of communication and discussion.

Among social media sites, Twitter has proven to be the most potent in communication and organizing. Founded by Odeo founder Noah Glass (although the popular origin story places Jack Dorsey as the founder), the concept revolved around the idea of status, an idea so simple and easy that it had never been thought of in that way before. During the early stages of the business, which began originally as Twttr, Glass said, “It makes you feel like you’re right with that person. It’s a whole emotional impact. You feel like you’re connected with that person.” The site quickly took off, and while Facebook boasts a total of 1.28 billion users, Twitter is coming up behind with 255 million users. Other sites like Tumblr, with 216.3 million monthly users, and Pinterest, with 70 million users, are farther behind, their systems and purposes not as dynamic as the two giants.

Yet Twitter has an innovation that Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, Gawker, and Google Plus were second in line to adopt: the hashtag. Created by former Google developer Chris Messina, his intention behind the hashtag was, as iterated in a blog post he wrote, to have “a better eavesdropping experience on Twitter.”

In the post, Messina elaborated further on what he wanted the “channel tags” to do:

“What’s really interesting, however, [is] how these channels can be used as tags within Twitter to open up entirely new possibilities.

Every time someone uses a channel tag to mark a status, not only do we know something specific about that status, but others can eavesdrop on the context of it and then join in the channel and contribute as well. Rather than trying to ping-pong discussion between one or more individuals with daisy-chained @replies, using a simple #reply means that people not in the @reply queue will be able to follow along, as people do with Flickr or Delicious tags. Furthermore, topics that enter into existing channels will become visible to those who have previously joined in the discussion.”

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Interestingly, Twitter initially rejected the hashtag. Its use became culturally mainstream in October 2007, when citizen journalists began using them to update about a series of San Diego forest fires. Messina said he messaged Nate Ritter, one of the men covering the fire, asking him to use “#sandiegofire.” With Twitter’s adoption of the hashtag, the future of conversation as we know it changed forever.

Even with the simplicity of Twitter and its innocuous hashtag, it is difficult for predominantly Facebook users to change over into the more status-focused platform. Despite recent innovations with image integration and a more user-friendly profile layout, the Twitter community is, for the most part, comparatively small, creating a more intimate feel of community than sites like Facebook. While 18% of online U.S. adults use Twitter, Pew Internet has found that the typical Twitter user is an 18-29-year-old minority — slightly more likely to be male. Furthermore, users are more educated (39% have some college experience) and have a relatively decent job (42% earn at least $50,000 per year). The stage is set, then, for conversations to arise outside mainstream culture.

Understanding the difference between engaging in culturally and racially aware conversations and social activism allows for a constructive discussion to develop. At its essence, activism affects social change to better the world socially, politically, economically or environmentally. Social activism is also defined as an intentional action whose purpose is to bring about social change. On the other hand, conversations are also defined as the informal exchange of ideas. Found on social media, they are appended with a hashtag and joined by many. Nowadays, the term “slacktivism” applies to many who undertake an offhanded approach to activism, unwilling to fully commit to a cause and the work surrounding it. The illusory reach of one’s social network only serves to propagate this issue of slacktivism. As a result, a careful delineation is being made now between conventional social activism and conversations taking place on social networks, particularly on Twitter. At the very heart of it all, the two remain in different camps: Conversations are a start, and activism is a response to an issue.

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History shows us a long record of thought leadership conversing on nationally pressing issues of race, culture and religion, among others. With social media’s inherent ease and accessibility, pressing issues are no longer simply provided for public consumption — instead, we are seeing that everyday people are having conversations about such topics such as Kal Penn and the effects of “stop-and-frisk” laws in New York City, conversations that are, in turn, sparking wider changes. With consistent information ebb and flow, accessibility becomes commonplace, allowing for ethnic and religious minorities to engage and flourish within the dialogue. In essence, there is a space for minorities to take control of conversations that have been, for so long, deemed off-limits. Although Twitter was originally intended simply for banal usage, people have begun using it from “the way [it was] intended, to using [it] in the way we thought was relevant to our lives,” says Jenna Wortham of the New York Times, by choosing to talk about complex, serious issues like racism and sexism. Classically, social movements face deficiencies in funding, manpower or knowledge about complex issues. Social media addresses these issues in important ways — users can transcend geographical borders and easily spread ideas and information. With more people of color and differences propagating conversation through social media, it must be asked whether the phenomenon of “Muslim Twitter” is here to stay — and what even spurred it into existence.

It is arguable that while social media is an indispensable part of the media landscape and public sphere, Muslim Twitter users only recently began using the site for more than scattered collaboration and back-and-forth conversations. Within the past two years, a collective identity has formed for many Muslims — predominantly in Britain and the U.S. — by way of conversations and national dialogue that moves beyond projected, individual identities. For the first time, a particular ideal — one’s Muslim identity — was propelling individuals to gather more constructively than before, and hashtags underscored that. The identity work involved quite literally incentivized further association with positive causes, and Muslims on Twitter reacted strongly to it.

With early hashtag conversations like #notyourstockMuslim and #notyourterrorist, movements were made to identify and declare collective identity — reactive, in a sense, against the predominant cultural discourse. Bloggers like Noorulann Shahid argued that such movements once again placed the responsibility on Muslims to prove their “normalcy” to the world. Sara Yasin, an editor at PolicyMic, noted that reactive hashtags like #notyourstockMuslim were problematic because they reinforce “the idea that it is up to the folks experiencing racism to ‘break the stereotype’ that they did not create in the first place.”

As time went on, many vocal Muslims on Twitter began moving away from the typical bad/good Muslim trope that typically bogged down movements. Instead, conversations were becoming more proactive and self-proclaiming, prompting more creative expression — and a higher level of thought — with movements like #EmpoweredMuslimWomen, which called upon sharing stories of strong Muslim women past and present, and #MuslimMaleAllies, a positive response to the highly upsetting sexism portrayed by Shaykh Abu Eesa Niamatullah on International Women’s Day.

Many of the Muslim Twitter’s hashtag conversations are fringe movements even within the community, although given Twitter’s tendency to attract those who do not typically fit into mainstream spaces, the impetus to speak out resonates in a space where all have a chance at a voice or to trend. While one can scoff at the need for these conversations — aren’t we having them already? — the reality rings true that Twitter’s open, social platform gives people the chance to connect and collaborate on a level more involved than anything else today. Quite literally, it is this world’s version of an open-air forum; instead of a few moderators and a listening crowd, a dynamic that is commonly present in Muslim communities, it is a democratic attempt at a discussion where everyone’s voices can be heard. Simply, it is a revolution of the way movements in the Muslim community have taken place for so many years, movements that stagnated without solid leadership and a respect-based dynamic. Instead, the power is in the hands of the individuals now, conversations freely sparked without need for real moderation. Activism and involvement in the world is accessible — more so than it’s ever truly been for Muslims and other minorities. This is not to say that activism has been overtaken by hashtag conversations, but by having the opportunity to engage in social media conversations open to all within and outside the community, it further opens up the opportunity to take ownership of the chance to be an activist and makes change accessible for the common person to undertake.

Granted, the Muslim community faces struggles on Twitter, not to mention other minorities attempting to develop their collective identity and confront much-needed issues online. Slacktivism and “trolling,” to create an online posting that is deliberately offensive or provocative in an effort to upset someone, are two very real issues that hinder efforts at having real conversations and movement-starting discussions. Users who either do not put enough time into their responses or exist simply to attack certain causes work to hold progress back. At one point, rumors heavily circulated that Twitter was looking to eradicate the hashtag — a move that would have crippled minority communities in their organizing efforts. Furthermore, many people mistake the Internet as being a simple, finite space rather than an open, dynamic space that they should be reaching out and listening to and not simply pontificating toward.

Amid all the hubris and potential chaos, however, Twitter — and its vibrant Muslim contingency — remains strong and is getting stronger. As conversations and organizing gets more prevalent, the question arises: What can we do to keep the spirit of discussion and radical change alive? It is important to maintain a persistence of conscientiousness — remaining accountable to ourselves and the world. A disturbing string of personalities have arisen who seek not to fight for a discussion or cause because of their own beliefs, but because it is what everyone else is doing. While a collective identity remains integral to long-lasting action, it cannot do much if such characters slip beneath the radar. Ultimately, however, accountability prevails and the circle of life pushes the insincere out into the open.

Earlier this year, a pundit proclaimed on The Atlantic that Twitter is dying, arguing that in losing its original purpose, the site was no longer relevant and was fading quickly. The assessment could not be further from the truth — or closer to it. What once was the original purpose of Twitter — statuses prompted by narcissism and singularity — is no longer; in its stead, a vibrant network of conversations and change has begun flourishing. Accessibility presents itself in a way that historically has only been dreamt of. Ensuing discussions that prompt organizing and thought are being propagated, not by conventional scholars or leaders, but by concerned people of every background and socioeconomic calling. Amid the flanks are Muslim Twitter users — dissatisfied with sitting back and passionate about keeping the world accountable. While it might be said that we are moving into a new era where apathy is the norm, the era of openness and conversation has just begun — and everyone is allowed to take part.


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  • About the autor
    Laila Alawa

    Laila Alawa is a cultural pundit, social entrepreneur​ ​and digital strategist. She is​ ​the founder and president of Coming of Fait​h​,​ ​LLC, ​associate editor at The Islamic Monthly, manages nonprofit communications and media outreach,​ ​and​ ​​regularly​ ​​writes columns for The Huffington Post, ​Mic​,​ and The Guardian.​ ​​To learn more about her work, visit her at​ ​

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    • Zainab Laurie Vanhorn-ali

      Exhausting article but you captured it all. Twitter is a tool which expands as your gain mastery over the possibilities. When you gain your Twitter voice… It will open up abilities of interaction many are not able or ready to deal in. 65 yr old Muslima