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Understanding the Norwegian Twitter Elite

The next session at ASMC14 starts with Eirik Vatnøy, who takes a rhetorical perspective in his approach to Twitter. Social media are an arena for political debate, but how do they change the norms and praxis of political rhetoric? Eirik interviewed Twitter users who engaged in continuous political debate on the platform.

Rhetorics considers the public sphere as a reticulate public sphere (made up of many smaller spheres), and this applies to Twitter as well. Actors recognise the discursive and social norms which uphold such spheres, and a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis of communicative activities can help to explore these norms. However, this is a complex challenge, as different users may use the various affordances of Twitter as a platform in different ways.

Eirik interviewed 18 users, chosen through snowball selection; they included active politicians, editors, journalists, bloggers, communication workers, lawyers, etc. Interviews were structured around key themes including perceived affordances, toles and relations, discursive norms, and social norms.

This Twitter elite use the platform for running commentary and informal political debate. They include progressive and conservative actors, usually with very high levels of access to traditional media, and they are recognised by themselves and others as a distinct sphere in terms of discursive activity and social composition – they form a tweetocracy which has emerged out of the punditocracy, and have inherited some of the pejorative connotations of that former term, even though they also pride themselves on being part of that elite.

They understand Twitter as an elitist milieu and engage in broad political discussion (including arts, media, religion); they distance themselves strongly from other media and politicians actors who they say don't get social media. Their discussion is closely linked to other media; they discuss other media content, connect with controversies and humorous content, and participate in value politics and culture wars – which are seen as very Twitter-friendly topics. This is strongly connected with a personalisation of opinion and beliefs, but is also encouraging fundamental debates and principled argumentation.

Participants have a seemingly more open, casual, and egalitarian debate then in other spaces, but this may be only a surface appearance; some participants are more equal than others. Discussion is driven largely by disagreement, and there is a fairly consistent understanding of the rules of argumentation. Strategic communication (spin) and humourless replies are strongly disliked.

Styles of communication include chatter (unofficial and informal, but still serious), irony, wit, and aphorisms; this sets aside social hierarchies and disarms controversial issues, as well as attracting supporters for one's views. One attractive aspect of to kind of discussion on Twitter for these users is the ease of participation – people feel like backbenchers who are present and serious, but also somewhat outside the frontline of political debate.

What is interesting here is the connection between media affordances and rhetorical praxis, then – as well as the rhetorical potential of politicians and political organisations in social media. These are often seen as 'not getting it' and as humourless. The impact of social media on political communication in general must also be considered.