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Twitter as interdisciplinary tool & culture

Day #123 interdisciplinary meeting

I have been writing a chapter on interdisciplinarity for my book on digital scholarship, and thought I would share this section which explores the idea that social networks (Twitter in this case) can be viewed as interdisciplinary tools. One of the ideas I am particularly interested in is that a barrier to interdisciplinary work has been the existence of different cultures in various disciplines. It may be that tools such as Twitter and blogs have a culture of their own, which can to some degree, compensate for these other differences. Put simply, do bloggers in different disciplines have more in common than non-bloggers and bloggers in the same discipline?

In this post I want to look at both the culture of twitter and how this combined with its features can aid interdisciplinarity.

Three key features of twitter demonstrate how an open
approach has allowed community norms to emerge. The first is the convention of
putting an @ sign in front of a person’s twitter id to send them a reply (eg
@mweller). This was a user convention first of all, so it would designate that
a particular tweet was for the attention of a particular user. As Twitter
developed it became a standard convention, and then incorporated into the
software, so now users can see all replies to them listed separately. The @
reply rule grew out of the email naming convention, but has almost become
synonymous with twitter now.

The second convention was the use of hashtags to define a
particular comment which could be grouped together. The use of the # was
proposed by
Messina in a tweet: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in
#barcamp [msg]?”. Hashtags can be seen as metadata, describing the content of a
tweet. They became relevant as the use of search on Twitter grew. People could
search on a hashtag and thus gather all of the tweets on a particular topic.
This was seized on by conferences, so all the delegates at a conference would
agree to use a hashtag, and later conference organisers began specifying an
official hashtag. Search was originally performed by a third party service,
(using the open API), but in July 2008, Twitter bought Summize, the most
popular Twitter search tool. Hashtags could now be incorporated into the
standard Twitter practice, and ‘trending’ became a relevant term as topics grew
on twitter, often denoted by a hashtag. Apparently the Twitter team initially
rejected hashtags as ‘too nerdy’, but their simple, and
unregulated, creation has allowed them to flourish.

can now be used as the means to define a community, particularly around an
event, course or topic. The open data approach of Twitter means that these can
in turn, be analysed to reveal connections between members, subjects of
discussion, locations, and prominent members. As well as a
useful means of categorising tweets, hashtags are now so ingrained in practice
that they form a part of humour on Twitter, with people often creating ‘mock’
hashtags (although there are no official hashtags) as an ironic counterpoint.

The third norm to emerge is that of the retweet. This is the
practice of passing on someone’s tweet. Originally this was achieved by copying
and pasting the tweet and adding RT and the user’s id at the start. Boyd,
Golder and Lotan
identify the following motivations for retweeting:

  • To
    amplify or spread tweets to new audiences
  • To
    entertain or inform a specific audience, or as an act of curation
  • To
    comment on someone’s tweet by retweeting and adding new content, often to
    begin a conversation
  • To
    make one’s presence as a listener visible
  • To
    publicly agree with someone
  • To
    validate others’ thoughts
  • As
    an act of friendship, loyalty, or homage by drawing attention, sometimes
    via a retweet request
  • To
    recognize or refer to less popular people or less visible content
  • For
    self-gain, either to gain followers or reciprocity from more visible
  • To
    save tweets for future personal access

As with the other community behaviours, the retweet became
enshrined in code, when in late 2009 Twitter implemented a retweet function on
their site. This allowed users to easily retweet a message by simply clicking a
button, without the need for copy and paste, but some of the subtlety as to how
it appears in timelines was lost (it is shown coming from the originator and
not the retweeter).

What these three examples demonstrate is that the community
has evolved over time, suggesting, experimenting and then adopting norms of
behaviour – the ‘stickiness’ we saw earlier with blog culture. Once it has become established,
and proven to add value, Twitter have then moved to implement it in code to
make it easier and also to further spread its use. They have not imposed the
practice from the start, and sought to define how users will interact, which
has often been the case with software development, instead they have allowed
the community itself to develop its own norms.

If I analyse my own twitter network (using TwitterAnalyzer.com) then it reveals that the geographic spread of my followers
is mainly across the following countries:

  • UK
  • US
  • Australia
  • Germany
  • Canada
  • France
  • China

By analysing the biography details people provide the top
professions amongst my followers are:

  • Consultant
  • Technologist
  • PhD
  • Lecturer
  • Manager
  • Teacher
  • Librarian
  • Author

Amongst these I can identify a number of communities and
networks, some of which will intersect. These include:

  • Bloggers
    – many of the people I follow are those I already had an online connection
    with via blogs, and twitter was an extension of this.
  • The
    Open University – I have acted as an advocate for Twitter in the Open
    University, and see it as a means of informal knowledge sharing within an
  • Cardiff
    – there is an active twitter community, which often meets face to face.
  • >UK Higher
    Education – As well as bloggers and Open University people there is a
    large contingent of peers in other universities, funding bodies,
    libraries, etc
  • Journalists
    and media – a number of journalists and media consultants use twitter
  • Tottenham
    Hotspur – I support Spurs and a number of the people I follow for this
    reason, but also there is a wider group for whom football is an interest
    (who are also members of the other networks)

There are a number of sub-groups in this also, for example
Canadian bloggers form a coherent network of their own, and many individuals
will occupy more than one category. One can view these many different groups
and sub-groups as networks that will become more or less active, and distinct,
according to external events. For example, during the general election in the

Huberman, Romero and Wu have investigated
interactions on Twitter and find that despite many followers the number of
people a user interacts with (ie sends replies to) is relatively small. This
reflects findings in Facebook and is interpreted as the existence of Dunbar’s number (1998) in social networks. Dunbar’s number suggests that people find it cognitively
difficult to maintain meaningful relationships beyond a certain number of
friends, usually given as 150, with a smaller core group around 20-30.  While this may well be true for the more
stable relationships, the use of tools such as hashtags and retweets allows for
a finer grading of online acquaintance. I can read, or retweet, someone else’s
posts without ever interacting with them, and they may reciprocate, without
engaging in direct conversation, yet these people form part of a valuable

As an interdisciplinary tool my twitter network has a number
of advantages, and associated issues:

  • Geographical
    diversity – while it is inevitably centred around the UK and North America,
    it is a global community which brings different perspectives. It is
    limited by language though, and the immediacy does not allow for
    translation so there is a danger of English language views dominating.
  • Professional
    diversity – within the different networks a number of professions and
    experience can be found, which will inevitably bring a degree of
    interdisciplinarity. One of the benefits of Twitter has been to improve
    intra-departmental communication within an institution. However, while the
    table above shows a reasonable range of occupations, it is still largely
    centred around higher education. There are, for example, very few (or no)
    priests, builders, make-up artists or senior retail managers in my network
    (which is not to say they are not present on Twitter). For
    interdisciplinarity this may not be an issue.
  • Size
    – at the time of writing I follow around 1,100 people and have
    approximately 2,800 followers. That represents a considerable network and
    pool of expertise which will share a wide range of knowledge and will also
    respond to requests for advice on topics outside of my own domain.
  • Immediacy
    – one of the changes Twitter required in my behaviour was a shift from
    exhaustive reading to regular sampling. As a blog reader I tried to keep
    up with most posts from those I subscribed to, with subsequent guilt when
    the unread count on my blog reader mounted. As my Twitter network expanded
    this behaviour was not possible and so a shift was required, where I ‘dip
    into’ Twitter, sometimes more intensively and other times I am completely
    absent. This is the concept of the stream, it is not meant to be consumed
    in its entirety, but sampled on occasion. Twitterers are responding in
    real-time and thus it is ideal for capturing diverse reactions and
    interpretations before they are filtered into disciplines. There is a
    consequent danger though that this relentless churning of information
    means useful research will be missed via this route.
  • Interdisciplinary
    bridges – the ease of sharing provides a means to bridge disciplines, in
    particular the retweet can be viewed as a tool for bridging audiences and
    disciplines as a twitterer in one domain can rebroadcast to their network,
    which will have the types of sub-groupings shown above.
  • An
    inherent set of cultural norms – the three features we saw above, as well
    as other practices indicate that, as with blogs, Twitter has its own set
    of cultural norms, which provide the required ‘stickiness’ for communities
    to develop. These may be sufficient to overcome the differences in
    cultural norms across disciplines, and provide a common framework.
  • Professional
    and personal mix – twitter occupies an intersection between professional
    and personal, formal and informal, resource and conversation. In many
    previous tools we have sought to separate out these elements, for instance
    when we create forums for students in VLEs it is a common practice to have
    a separate ‘Chat’ or social forum so that this doesn’t interfere with the
    academic discussion. However, this blend in one place in Twitter both
    provides motivation to partake (we don’t separate out our thoughts or
    lives so neatly) and also provides hooks into other areas of

The list above shows a number of benefits in developing a networked approach to
interdisciplinarity which may address the issues which have plagued it for many
years. Indeed if we had intentionally set out to create a tool for promoting
interdisciplinary discourse, then the resultant service may have not looked
dissimilar to Twitter.

One Comment

  • Scott Leslie

    I don’t know if it’s too much minutiae, but one other aspect is how twitter changed how @replies were visible, and based on this, how another convention emerged (appending a character before the @reply at the start of the line) so that other people who may not follow that person can also see the reply. It acts both to broden conversations and as a way for people to selectively promote followers they converse with who may not be getting followed widely, and thus also to increase interdisciplinary connections.

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