Archive for Social Psychology

What should Twitter ask?

I’ve always regarded “What are you doing?” as mere placeholder text. Look at it this way: if you use Twitter long enough, you’d soon ignore the question’s existence altogether. You don’t even notice it’s there. Something like Seth Godin’s ‘Purple Cow’ analogy.

When it comes to prompts, I believe their primary role is to attract new users to Twitter. The prompt influences what their first tweet will be about. Twitter CEO Biz Stone would probably agree with me on this. (Initially, I thought Twitter was banal and pointless because I took “What are you doing?” at face value.)

Be it “What are you doing?” or “What’s happening”, I don’t feel that either question can justify itself based on the many ways Twitter is used. I feel that prompts like these can actually affect the type of information that flows on Twitter perhaps by subconsciously directing the user’s thought processes. Considering this, “What’s happening?” is disruptive and debilitates Twitter in more ways than one.

Firstly, the new question’s specificity makes it even more narrow and limiting than “What are you doing?”. If enough people are influenced and hence adhere to answering “What’s happening?” more and more often, the Twitterverse will be so much for the worse – being reduced to 5 million news organizations. People’s expectations and perceptions of Twitter will undergo a gradual mental shift, and you might be more likely to see Twitter as a news outlet more than anything else in the future. I don’t wish to see this sort of influence on a write-what-you-want platform. It seems to me insidious.

Secondly, I see the new question as an inadequate attempt to include the activity of linking Tweets to news stories and blog posts. The vagueness of “What’s happening?” seem to indicate classifying every linked-tweet under a single, universal category. Fort Hood is placed on the same cognitive level of importance as eating KFC chicken – the un-newsworthy but interesting/witty tweet will be marginalised gradually, moving Twitter towards being just another news aggregator like Digg. Contrary to the very idea of bringing people of different places and walks of life together via microblogging, we may see people drifting apart and communities separated just because they have a different take on “What’s happening?”.

Then again, the impact of the above may me reduced if users naturally begin to ignore the prompt altogether after say, maybe 100 tweets.

What should the prompt be then? I suggest something inclusive, catchy, and not even a question.

‘Go ahead’.


The trouble with 2012

On a 20-feet wide video screen plastered on the side of a grey-walled building in the heart of Singapore’s shopping district, images of a crumbling Christ The Redeemer and other world landmarks in the process of being mangled beyond recognition are played, over and over again.

The cities that were being swallowed up whole become numerous reflections on the many irises of those caught in the assault of doomsday imagery.

Around the world, this scene repeats itself regularly. From neon-doused Tokyo to faded and nondescript suburban malls across America, people stop to take in the bombastic trailer of 2012 that often comes with full sound – hard to ignore even if you do not like it.

Millions of cinema-goers worldwide are exposed to that same trailer every day.

Online, there is a burgeoning discussion about the significance of the ancient Mayan calendar end-date occurring on December 24, 2012, which a growing community quite solidly believes denotes the end of the world.

This is something that according to Roland Emmerich, director and co-writer of 2012, used as “fact” in his film.

The 53-year old German, who had helmed Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, said the year 2012 phenomenon on the Internet inspired his latest movie.

Referring to him and his production crew, Emmerich said: “We thought ‘wow’, this is a really great thing because if so many people believe that the Earth ends (sic), it kind of somewhat correlates and connects (the audience to the film).”

He added: “Recently, there is a pessimism in the world like there is no glorious future, so (audiences) are kind of drawn to end of time scenarios.”

Herein lies my worry: with filmmakers like Emmerich pandering to pessimism and negativity and with audiences oblivious to their intentions, films like 2012, even without explicit sexual acts or acts of violence, contribute negatively to society.

While I understand that it is not the role of creative arts to maintain social good, it is important to note that such films cannot be considered art, nor is figuring out how to aesthetically make skyscrapers fall particularly creative.

Nor is entertainment about feeding peoples’ fears and making many feel uncomfortable.

In making 2012, Emmerich and his team displayed ambivalence toward audience well being – based upon firm theories of social psychology – and plump for big box-office gains.

The most elementary of the social psychology theories is perhaps the self-fulfilling prophecy. On a personal level, the notion of future events being biased towards how we view them is at once both compelling and convincing. Collectively, individuals may risk being influenced to commit to negative decisions to the detriment of their communities.

Owing to this, pessimism and negativity do not deserve confirmation, most definitely not on a mass medium. Those with strong beliefs, principles and faith systems will not be affected by 2012’s doomsday scenarios, but those who are down and out and wandering in need of help could certainly use some positive reinforcements rather than being fed constantly with negative, insidious ones.

More complex is how the portrayal of human life as inconsequential may impact audience psychological well-being. This is an interesting direction of study for communications scholars. I remember the disgust that is Transformers: two full-length movies that degrade human beings to the role of props.

The Day After Tomorrow was a fine cautionary tale about global warming, albeit blighted by an array of scientific inaccuracies. Independence Day was a well-executed science fiction film whose plot served as a stirring metaphor for overcoming adversity. By the looks of it, I cannot see any redeeming message about 2012; I can only see it earning a hell lot of money at the box-office.