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23
Mar
2012

Twitter Theory and the Public Scholar

In celebration of Twitter’s 6th birthday this week, we offer an examination of Twitter’s application to pedagogical and scholarly communities.

I was very excited when I conceived of the original title of this essay: “Theorizing Twitter.” How disappointed I was to learn that someone had beaten me to it. Navneet Alang, a Ph.D. student in English at York University, Toronto, wrote “Theorizing Twitter: Narratives and Identity” on his blog in 2008. He did it really well, making some great observations on how Twitter users compile a simultaneously fixed and virtual identity on the web. In his investigation of Twitter’s facility in turning short posts into personal narrative, Alang writes: “In this sense of writing oneself, there’s something to the disjointed, microscopic nature of Twitter, the fact that it is only a collection of tiny snippets, that allows its users to piece together stories over time about themselves and those they follow.” In both micro- (personal) and macro- (community) senses, Twitter creates interesting opportunities for virtual identity construction.

What I would like to contribute is an extension of Alang’s post and Clive Thompson’s Wired article from 2007 “How Twitter Creates a Sixth Social Sense.” I want to investigate how Twitter encourages members of an academic community to work collaboratively within and across disciplines in addition to outside the boundaries of the university.

The common thread between Twitter users is that they like to communicate and share media with each other. Sometimes these activities can seem inane to anyone unschooled in the benefits (and appropriate limits) of social media. Yet, Twitter presents a community at once open and contained — open in the sense that most Twitter activity is available for everyone to see and contained in the sense that following and search functionality allows users to cultivate a channel replete with discourse on their own broad or narrow areas of interest.

The most important benefit of Twitter is its open compatibility with the best web sharing practices. The ability to drop a link (especially shortened ones) into tweets means that Twitter’s 140-character limit is actually a fallacy. I can write a 2,448 page manifesto and direct people to it with one 10 character link built on bit.ly. We can attach an image to tweets that do not impact the character limit. (For example, my students sometimes take pictures of our notes on the board that can be tweeted to other class members.) Twitter users can quickly review the metadata of other users following or replying to them, and make decisions about whether to encourage or refuse interaction.

A third function of Twitter, the hashtag, combines the practices of coding and searching to make tweets sortable by content. Adding the pound sign (#) to a word in a Twitter post is coding at its most basic level in that it turns a word into a function. New Twitter users rarely use hashtags because they have not benefited from others’ use of them. Seasoned users, who have ventured into hashtag searches seeking data on topics they suspect other people are discussing, use hashtags to generate a kind of positive digital karma. While I may not think anyone will care about my immediate impression of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, hashtagging the movie adds my voice to anyone interested in a crowdsourced evaluation of it. The hashtag links a tweet to a much larger discourse, building a metonymic world of words that a single tweet can build upon.

These simple functionalities — the link, the image, and the hashtag — make Twitter one of the best tools that currently exists for consuming content on the web. In some senses, Twitter even surpasses the concept of the browser (which, of course, it also depends on) as an interface for media consumption. Whereas the browser makes web content standardized and searchable, Twitter makes that searching increasingly discursive and digestible. It has also surpassed, in many ways, email as the default tool for communication across the web. Let me explain.

Before I used Twitter, I was social media averse. I did not perceive much value in sharing quick, casual impressions or web content beyond my own list of email contacts. I maintained a blog, but those posts needed to be so artfully crafted to be worth “publication.” Quick, interactive discourse was not scholarly enough. If I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that really inspired me (here’s one, for instance), I composed an email to a select group of friends or colleagues and sent out the link. However, sharing was not an integral part of my activity on the web. I took information from the web, and put it to use outside the digital world. I made withdrawals from the web but no deposits.

But social media in general and Twitter in specific encourage a more collaborative and dynamic epistemological approach. What we call knowledge now has shifted more than a few feet because of sites like Wikipedia, Flickr, and Twitter. At first, academics expressed a deep suspicion for dynamic, collaborative knowledge production 1) because it threatened our place as knowledge “specialists” and 2) because it made the process of learning outside of formal education so much easier. Who would we be, if our specific knowledge was not valuable (read: publishable/commodified) and if our process of conveying the knowledge (read: teaching) was rendered unimportant?

Contrary to those critical worries, digital culture has had neither of these effects. Our fields of special knowledge are still valuable, our pedagogical priorities still powerful, as long as we understand that we don’t have the market cornered on either practice. Wikipedia does not make scholarly activity unimportant. Instead, it creates a new stage on which scholarly activity can occur. Scholarly practices have become the ethos-machine of Wikipedia content (we’ve all seen Wikipedia pages with exhaustive lists of hyperlinked endnotes), the only difference being that a larger population of thinkers can now contribute to the collection.

Wikipedia does not dilute knowledge, but it does change it. In the same way, Twitter does not trivialize communication; it re-imagines communication for the new mediasphere.

The culture of the THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) series of un-conferences provides a valuable application of Twitter’s scholarly value. A common practice at most THATCamp sessions involves the pairing of a searchable Twitter hashtag with the link to an open and editable Google Document on which participants can collect notes, reflections, and questions. Anyone following the hashtag, anywhere in the world, can join in the composition of that document, can see pictures taken at the session, and can interact with session participants. Twitter creates a “backchannel” (see more here and here) for sessions that can influence the session itself.  At THATCamps, it’s common practice for participants in the room to read a question to the group posed by someone following along via Twitter.

All of this may have seemed like science fiction twenty years ago, but it’s the direction that many scholarly conversations are headed. And there’s more than just idle chat happening on the THATCamp hashtag. The collaborative nature of the un-conference encourages participants to begin scholarly projects that extend beyond the gathering itself. One of the more famous of these is the web text Hacking the Academy, a book about re-imagining the 21st century university, which was authored, edited, and published to the web by over a dozen authors in one week following their collaboration at a THATCamp.

Twitter is not a digital alley full of chatter. Its value lies in its ability to mesh seamlessly with and to enable other digital sharing and collaborative practices. Twitter provides the academic community with valuable communicative tools that help our work gain more public attention and relevance. We hear frequent discussion of “the public scholar” these days, whether those references are cynical, nostalgic, or descriptive. A critical practice of Twitter attracts a savvy and eager audience for our work and encourages an interactivity becoming the norm for public scholarship.

[Photo by Andyofne]

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