The impact of 140 characters

Posted on 01. October 2014

by Kati Temonen

kati-temonen-modifiedAt the turn of the millennium I got my first mobile phone and for the first time, I had to think about how to write short text messages up to 160 characters. Now, almost 15 years later, I finally decided to join the world of Twitter, which immediately reminded me of the old problem of having to squeeze my thoughts into a line or two, like I had to do with my old Nokia. Modern technologies have undoubtedly revolutionised our ways of communication and interaction but what is their real potential and what are their limits?

Needless to say, social media has proved to be efficient and useful as a reactionary tool – whether reporting up-to-date news from Ukraine or sharing first impressions when the nominees of Juncker’s commission were released. However, today’s Europe faces many of its old as well as new challenges, some of them perplexing and hard to comprehend. A constructive Europe-wide debate via social media can only go so far. It can of course grasp the views of millions of Europeans in a dynamic way through visuals and appealing buzzwords; nevertheless, it should be more important to think about how to engage them in a fruitful debate beyond Facebook’s “I voted” buttons or “#EPelections” hashtags.

But I don’t believe that social media is only suited to discuss ‘simple’ or ‘interesting’ matters, either. In fact, it can offer a solution to the growing disinterest in politics – which at least in some way is the result of the lack of structured and comprehensible information available. Instead of making an effort to get a grasp on complex political analyses in weekly papers or to form an opinion based on broadcasted debates, social media can actually provide a comprehensive outlook of the main values and arguments, and most of all, reflect the most immediate reactions of statesmen to the pressing and worrisome issues the year 2014 is becoming infamous for.

Social media might not be the best platform to debate the complexities of today’s issues. But on the other hand, even if hashtags or “stemfies” do not alter the downward trend of voting rates across Europe, the 140 characters could bring the political world closer to ordinary citizens. Even if the impact of one tweet might not seem sufficient in itself, it does bring coherence to the existing debate and also boosts transparency.

Nevertheless, I remain sceptical whether a truly European discussion could be realised through short texts of a hundred and something characters (just to use Twitter as an example). But perhaps social media is best utilised as a way of bringing multiple arguments to the fore that can be easily accessed and comprehended in the fast flow of information in today’s world where immediacy and reactivity are highly valued.

This post has been written as a follow-up to the Europe@debate in Oslo on September 1, 2014.