The Digital Bridge: How Interactions on Twitter Can Connect Students to the World Beyond Academia

by Benjamin Dally

Particpatory Culture and Activity Theory

The result of the technological evolution of the web is a drastic increase of participatory culture among internet users. Henry Jenkins (MIT TechTV, 2008) clearly outlines the salient features of the participatory culture:

Figure 1. Jenkins explains participatory culture

In an earlier work, Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison, and Weigel (2006) describe participatory culture in much the same way:

A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). (p. 3)

These low barriers on sites such as Twitter allow students in the participatory culture to easily enter into discourse communities surrounding a wide range of topics. Upon entering that community, users are able to contribute their own ideas and learn more about a variety of topics from other users. Not only does this participatory culture develop some of the skills that students need in the 21st century (Jacobs, 2012), it is a culture students are already a part of and a concept that they are comfortable with. Students operate within a participatory culture that supports and reinforces their participation; it is an expectation of theirs that they can consume and produce (also known as “prosume”), and it is therefore an expectation that they can participate in a number of aspects of society through their use of technology. Because of participatory culture, young people are reaching out into the world and attempting to interact with a wide range of organizations, people, companies, etc. Thus, it is a culture that is based on interaction. It is this highly valued interaction and participation that can be enhanced and focused through the use of Twitter.

Within the context of a participatory culture, one of the ways in which Twitter can be examined is through the tradition of Activity Theory (Engeström, 1987; Russell, 1995; Kain & Wardle, 2005). Activity Theory, originally a psychological theory developed by Vygotsky and Leontiev in 20th century Russia, examines people’s social interactions through their use of tools within activity systems (Cole and Engeström, 1993, p. 6). In Activity Theory’s most basic form (also known as first-generation), Subjects—those that participate in the activity—direct their activities towards Motives—including immediately attainable Objects and ongoing Outcomes—using Tools—both physical and non-physical (Cole & Engeström, 1993, p. 5). Because of the interrelated nature of subjects, objects/motives, and tools, Activity Theory requires that the entire system be understood holistically, as it is the system itself and the larger cultural structure in which it acts, more than simply the individual, that is the focus. Activity Theory is a valuable framework to analyze and understand how different activity systems work and interact in the world. Additionally, Activity Theory has been used in pedagogical approaches to writing different genres (Russell, 1997) as well as approaches to analyzing texts (Kain & Wardle, 2009).

The study presented in this webtext operates from the premise that Twitter is an activity system that has as one of its object/motives the connection of activity systems (see Figure 3); by bringing Twitter into the classroom, educators may have a constructive and relatively simple tool to bridge university and societal (with an emphasis on professional) activity systems.

Figure 3. Simplified version of relevant activity systems

In other words, Twitter may be able to act (and perhaps already is acting) as mediation between “boundary activity systems” in which students are “‘enrolled’ in the university and, simultaneously, the genre circulation…of some disciplinary activity system(s)” (Russell, 1997, p. 529). Charles Bazerman (1998) argues that achieving the mediation between university and professional activity systems is also vitally important. He suggests, “students and professionals need to develop as active, reactive, and proactive members of their communities” (p.p. 67-68). Twitter, as a result of the interaction inherent in a Web 2.0 within a participatory culture, facilitates the activity, reactivity, and proactivity in its members and thereby leads to the bridging of university and societal activity systems.