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Published in C. Crawford et al. (Eds.

), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education

International Conference 2010 (pp. 1712-1717). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from

Is Twitter an Individual Mass Communication Medium?

Helga Wiesenhofer
MA Student of Sociology
Karl Franzens University of Graz
Graz, Austria

Martin Ebner
Computing and Information Services / Division of Social Learning
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria

Isidor Kamrat
Computing and Information Services / Division of Social Learning
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria

Abstract: According to the theory of action, the use of the web-based microblogging service
Twitter’ seems to be a postmodern form of traditional social activity. In this way, traditional
communication appears through the development of virtual social networks. Within the never
ending flow of tweets, there is a wide range of different forms of communication: private
messages, directed messages using the @-symbol, directed conversation through re-tweets and
communication in general by simple status reports of the users. These different forms of
communication can be related to Littlejohns basic communication forms (2002). The fact that
tweets are public and directed to an undefined public assumes that twitter is a mass media which
can be therefore used by individuals. Following the field model of mass communication by
Maletzke (1963) we can show the characteristics of communication on Twitter and link them
within this traditional model.

Taking a look at the newest trends, social networks are increasing dramatically. Especially the microblogging tool
Twitter ( grows 1382% within one year what is even 6 times faster than Facebook
( - the worldwide largest social networking platform (Schroeder, 2009). From a research point
of view this facts are quite interesting – why are people using Twitter, for which purpose and why is Twitter that
popular? Twitter is the most famous and one of the very first microblogging platforms - only Jaiku has its launch
one month earlier than Twitter. It can be seen as the most revolutionary Web 2.0 application – since Tim O’Reilly
(O’Reilly, 2005) announced this term in 2004. Microblogging itself should be seen as a new form of communication
and is defined by Templeton as a small-scale form of blogging, generally made up of short, succinct messages used
by both, consumers and businesses, to share news, post status updates and carry on conversations. Owyang extended
it by pointing out the differences between blogging and microblogging (Templeton, 2008). Due to the fact that one
tweet cannot exceed 140 characters, it is fascinating how people are using it to communicate with each other.
Messages can be private or public, can be addressed to one or more other users (by using @ as identifier) or can deal
with specific topics by using # as identifier. Simplicity is one of the success factors of this application as well as
mobility and openness. There are numerous mobile applications where posts can be done or read just on the move -
today’s prime example of Mobile 2.0 (Griswold, 2007). This fact is underlined by a study which pointed out that
“only 20% of its traffic comes through Twitter website; the other 80% (logically) come from third-party programs
on phones or computers” (Arthur, 2009). Due to the fact that Twitter offered an open API from the very first
beginning, a high number of third-party applications appeared and allow for example to tweet also pictures (e.g.
TwitPic as well as hyperlinks (e.g. From this point of view Twitter can be
seen as a complete environment and big collaboration platform for fast communication without barriers, with any
content and through different devices.
Published in C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education
International Conference 2010 (pp. 1712-1717). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from

In the meanwhile several research works have been done dealing with real life scenarios. For example nowadays
microblogging is used for:
• enhancing conferences by using Hashtags (#) and live-twittering (Ebner, 2009)
• supporting groups of experts for exchanging ideas, work and research results (Ebner & Maurer, 2008)
• enhancing lectures by reporting stats, searching the web (Ebner & Schiefner, 2008)
By using special tracking methods and statistical analyses the impact of Twitter use was shown (Ebner & Reinhardt,
2009) (Reinhardt et al, 2009) also in scientific events. According to these findings and one further study (Java et al,
2007) that pointed out three different ways of how to use microblogging in general – information sharing,
information seeking and friendship-wide relationship – this publication deals with the research question: Can we
find an appropriate communication model that is able to explain the phenomena Twitter from a scientific basis?

Communication Models
‚Communication’ is an ambiguous term with different meanings. Every communication process needs a medium
within the message gets transferred (Graumann, 1972). The term ‘medium’ refers to human communication as an
interpersonal medium as well as a technical device, for transferring a message (Maletzke, 1963). Littlejohn defines
four basic communication forms, whereas each higher communication level contains the preceding (Littlejohn,
1992): - Interpersonal communication (face-to-face communication limited to two persons)
- Group communication (one additional person joins the communication process)
- Organisational communication (a process in large cooperative networks)
- Mass communication (deals with public and mediated communication)

Transmission models
Most of all communication models include the aspect of intermediation, transmission and transposition. The crucial
thing is that most of these theories reduce communication to a one-way process. So information gets transferred
from A to B as one-sided linear intermediation from transmitter/source to receiver in an encoding process. One of
these basic models was created by Shannon and Weaver in the late 1940s (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Transmission model of Shannon and Weaver (1948)

This simple model equates to the Lasswell-Formula of early mass communication: Who says what in which channel,
to whom, with what effect? Lasswell simplified the field of communication into the parameter communicator
(who?), message (says what?), channel (in what medium?), receiver (to whom?) and impact (with what effect?).
These models have also influenced early studies of human communication. But many theorists now consider them to
be misleading because of the neglected interactive aspect in the form of feedback.
In contrast to ‘simple’ communication, mass communication occurs when messages are mediated public (no limited
and personal defined receiver), medial (medial diffused), indirect (there is a spatial and/or temporal separation
between the communication partners) and unilateral (without role change between sender and receiver) to a disperse
public (Maletzke, 1963).
The concept of a disperse public
A disperse public is defined as a social structure in the purpose of an ‘attention aggregate’ (Lasswell, 1948) which is
no lasting formation. I can be described by the following criteria (Maletzke, 1963):
- A lot of people turn to mass media messages.
- These messages are mediated by mass media and not trough personal or interpersonal communication.
Published in C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education
International Conference 2010 (pp. 1712-1717). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from
- The members of a disperse public are locally separated from each other.
- There is no interpersonal relationship between the members of a disperse public.

The field-schema of Mass Communication

One model which considers the interactive aspect of communication is the Field-Schema of Mass Communication
(Maletzke, 1963). In this model sociological group- and system correlations get significant. The field contains the
four elements: communicator, message, medium and receiver. These four factors are interactive and have influence
on each other. The communicator constitutes of one or more persons (communicator-side), who select, design and
publish messages. The message incorporates content and form of the statement. The medium is a technical device
which supports the distribution of the message. The receiver - or the receiver-side - picks up the signal and decodes
the message.

The function of the field-schema

Because of technical characteristics, each medium modifies the process of perception and experience of the message
transmitted and received. But it depends on the receiver if a message is chosen or ignored. Because of his allocation
to the message the receiver gets part of a disperse public. Through the process of selection, experience and effect the
receiver gets an impression of his position in society, his social rolls and functions. It depends on the communicator
what messages he produces, what kind of messages are offered and how they are designed. Furthermore the
communicator has a certain character which depends on the situation and his intentions related to the
communication process. The selection of the content and the production of the message are depending on the self-
perception of the communicator. Other factors of influence are the profession of the communicator, his tasks within
his profession, his roles and functions within a team or institution and the society within he lives and work.
Interactive elements as answers, requests, affliction and suggestions stop the one-way-communication process of
mass communication although as spontaneous contact between communicator and receiver. The process gets
modified by generated images of each other: On communicator-side occurs an image of the receiver and on the
receiver-side an image of the communicator (a shown in fig. 2 below).

Model Adaption to Twitter

spontaneous answers of the receiver

self-perception selection of the self-perception

full supply


as personality selection Medium as a personality
in a team experience as part of the public
in an institution in social relationships

force of the message force of the medium

in social relationships image of the medium

force of the medium

image of the Receiver on communicator-side

image of the Communicator on receiver-side

public force (agenda, opinions,
social norms and values

Fig. 2: Field-Schema of Mass Communication after Maletzke, 1963

How can these traditional models be linked to the communicational behaviour on Twitter? Which similarities and
which differences occur and what implications occur?
Apart from the fact that on Twitter a lot of people write trivial statements to no distinct person we have
communicating individuals which are sending messages through a medium to an unknown public. This fact matches
the basic definition of mass communication. So Twitter is a mass media and there is mass communication within.
The tweets are seen as messages which are sent by different communicators (Twitter users) through a medium
(Twitter application) to different receivers (followers and/or people who read the tweets but are not identified as
followers of a user). So at first sight Twitter is public and the published tweets are indirect and unidirectional for an
undefined, disperse public with all its essential criteria we have listed above. The users are scattered all over the
world and take part of Twitter from mobile, client or web interface. In difference to traditional mass media,
messages on Twitters timeline appear in real time and are not temporally shifted. The criterion of a unidirectional
Published in C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education
International Conference 2010 (pp. 1712-1717). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from

communication is given because of persons who send messages and other users who receive them. But if we look a
bit closer we find out that within Twitter the users can change their roles from communicator to receiver and back
any time. The communication behaviour within Twitter shows different types of tweets and can be adapted to the
basic communication forms of Littlejohn: As the theory says, each communication level includes the former level.
After this, mass communication includes interpersonal, group and organizational communication. This means in
relation to Twitter that all public messages on the platform are mass communication but the messages can be sorted
into different categories of communication as figured below.

1. Interpersonal Communication  directed tweets (all tweets with the @-symbol and direct messages)

2. Group Communication  all tweets within the group of followers which pass information containing links and
+ directed tweets (all tweets with the @-symbol and direct messages)

3. Organisational Communication  all tweets outside the group of followers which pass information (links, re-
+ all tweets within the group of followers which pass information (links, re-tweets)
+ directed tweets (all tweets with the @-symbol and direct messages)

4. Mass communication  Tweets in general (status updates, private information)

+ all tweets outside the group of followers which pass information (links, re-tweets)
+ all tweets within the group of followers which pass information (links, re-tweets)
+ directed tweets (all tweets with the @-symbol and direct messages)

The disperse public of Twitter

Because of mass communication, Twitter has its own mass public referring to the disperse public of Maletzke
(Maletzeke, 1962). In difference to a traditional mass media public, Twitters public is switching the roles between
communicator and receiver. A lot of Twitter users are passive users, which means that they mostly read what other
people write but they don’t write on their own. This is conform to the first criterion of a disperse public which
means that a lot of different people expose them to information through a mass media. Also the second criterion -
missing personal communication through face-to-face communication - is applicable to Twitter. Thirdly the Twitter
public equates to an aggregate of separated individuals which defines the basic term ‘disperse’ public. Further
criteria of a disperse public can be verified within Twitter, for example a temporary small public because of used
time, date or topic of a tweet.
The field-schema of mass communication referring to Twitter
Referring to this communication model we have the following four factors on Twitter: user (communicator), tweet
(message), Twitter via mobile, client or web interface (medium) and the follower or user (receiver). As in the
traditional schema, all included factors are interactive. In the case of a traditional mass medium like television or
newspaper, the communicator side is mostly made up of several persons who are involved in the selection and
presentation of messages. The Twitter user (in the role of a communicator) is usually an individual and decides
about the content of his messages. All readers of Twitter messages can be seen as particular receivers or as a
complete receiver-side.
The function of the field-schema referring to Twitter
A Twitter user must decide for certain statements through the action of following special users or searching for
special statement using the hashmark (#) in front of terms of interest. As Maletzke already has formulated for mass
media of the 1960s, it now depends on the individual, which statements are read and what effects result from them.
A major influence on this decision process have most of all the existing interests, opinions and attitudes and the role
of the individual in society. It is also significant when and where Twitter is used and for what reasons. There are
different studies which explore intentions why Twitter is used (e.g. Java et al, 2007). In addition to the individual
role of a Twitter-receiver he participates in various social relations including as part of a disperse public. As a
consequence a Twitter user will get certain impressions of other users. Additionally the user has certain impressions
of Twitter as a medium due to the technical characteristics, the ‘rules’ of Twitter as the restriction to 140 characters,
the use of hashtags and the practice of following. It can be said that a Twitter user, in his function as reader and
receiver of tweets, acts simultaneously as a communicator of messages. As he writes and publishes tweets, he
intervenes the mass communication process. Comparable to traditional mass media, a Twitter user will always
Published in C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education
International Conference 2010 (pp. 1712-1717). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from
subject to some constraint of the public, as he will account to public opinions, beliefs, norms and values in his
statements. More than in any traditional mass communication, the potential emphasis in Twitter is on the interaction
among members. Because of that, twittering is less a one-sided process of mass communication than individual, than
an interactive mass communication process. Twitter offers entering discussions in a spontaneous way without
preconditions. Through this interactive form of communication both, spontaneous contacts as well as longer-term
social relationships, may emerge. The communication and interaction processes within Twitter lead to a personal
impression of each other (as shown in fig. 3 below).

replies of the follower using the @-symbol

self-perception selection of the self-perception

full supply
as personality selection TWITTER as a personality

in a team experience as part of the public
in an institution in social relationships
force of the message force of the medium
in social relationships image of the medium

force of the medium
(140 character limit) image of the follower at the user side

image of the user at the follower side

public force (agenda, opinions,
social norms and values)

Fig. 3: The field-schema of mass communication referring to Twitter

Discussion and Conclusion

The linkage of Maletzkes field-schema of mass communication with the functionality of Twitter shows certain
compatibility. Hence it is clear that Twitter enables mass communication, as most of the tweets will be addressed
public, indirect and unilateral through an electronic medium to an undefined audience. Unlike traditional mass
media, Twitter offers the possibility to use the service as an individual mass communication media. This potential
has been largely underestimated or not consciously perceived. But how can we verify that twitterers are using the
service in the sense of a mass medium? And if so, how do these users go ahead and what do they achieve? There are
different reasons why people are using Twitter. To tell friends and acquaintances what I am doing right now is not
the only reason for twittering. A lot of actors, pop stars and politicians are using the service to keep their fans up to
date. Other people use Twitter extensively for seeking and sharing information, to some extent job-related, within
different interest groups. But who is yet really a ‘prototype’-twitterer? Who uses Twitter consciously in terms of a
mass medium? To talk of Twitter as a mass medium will be generally understood because it is similar to a mass
communication process in a print or television medium: information runs funnel-shaped from a few people to the
mass, the basically thing on Twitter. Much more interesting is the formation of different networks of communication
streams between individual users or user groups. Due to the possibility of different communication forms (through
simple statements, mentions, replies) and by the practice of following, a field of individual communicators and
receivers arises, which communicate directly or indirectly to each other in mass media dimension. The great
Twitter-Network consists of individuals, which connect among each other through the act of following. So we can
speak of the formation of temporary communities, considered as the adaptation of the social phenomenon of post-
traditional communitarisation (Hitzler, 2003). This type differs from traditional forms of community by the fact that
one is not born and socialized into it. Instead the individual decides to get involved in for a time. Despite this lack of
obligation within Twitter the building of social relationships occurs, depending on which information is exchanged.
Users who only babble about trivial things will get as less interesting as those who overfill their messages with links
to websites, pictures or videos. An interesting and likeable twitterer has a feeling for the right balanced mixture of
private and current information, interesting comments and ideas. Twitter can create a sense of familiarity and
sympathy in terms of a quasi ‘communitas’, a social networked community. This is a unique feature of a potential
mass media. A very interesting thing would be the visualization of the communication flows between the individual
users and groups on Twitter. According to the Lasswell formula it will be really useful to visualize who says what to
whom with what effect. This requires appropriate computer programs and applications to record the connections
Published in C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education
International Conference 2010 (pp. 1712-1717). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from

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next steps will be to verify the chosen models by analysing specified users and their daily use of Twitter.
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