The questions during the interview process focused on a number of issues with regard to Twitter usage: what they feel is the purpose of Twitter, the purpose of tweeting and retweeting, the purpose of hashtags, whether or not they feel Twitter is “educational” or “academic,” can they direct me to a time when they used something from Twitter in an academic class, etc. While the number of students who indicated on the survey that they would be willing to participate in a follow-up interview was quite high, only two students, for whom which I will use pseudonyms, agreed to an interview, Alfred and Katharine.
Alfred is a highly active Twitter user; he reported on his survey that he accessed Twitter in excess of ten times per week, tweeted in excess of ten times per week, “often” uses hashtags, mainly follows Journalists and Brands, has used Twitter for research, and has tweeted “@” someone he does not personally know and received a response. Only three other students gave similar responses on the survey portion. Two themes emerged from my interview with Alfred: the ability to expand his professional network and the efficiency of Twitter.
Alfred also uses Twitter to expand his personal network and thereby “[k]eep up with a very concise group of individuals: the designers and the companies and etcetera that I follow.” Twitter allows Alfred to establish a dialogue with professionals in his field while still in academia. Because of this he is likely capable of pulling information from his professional life into his academic life. Additionally, if he were not already doing this, it would probably take little prompting or direction for him to begin. Alfred has already used Twitter “to reach out far beyond [his] own network and use social media as a very, extremely direct tool in [his] professional life” and use Twitter to “get some of George Zimmer’s [founder of Men’s Warehouse] words for a book I’m writing.” Alfred is already using Twitter to professionally connect with people and organizations that will shape his future. Alfred is also in school and participating in discourse communities there. Without prompting or direction, Alfred linked his university and professional activity systems quickly and effectively. It would seem that little effort would be needed to bridge these two worlds compared to the gain that bridging them would bring.
For Alfred, the efficiency offered by Twitter was one of its main assets. In terms of this webtext, efficiency is defined by the ease with which actions on Twitter can take place versus their relative difficulty in other circumstances. In other words, Twitter is efficient because the cost of performing an action is low compared to the gain involved. When asked whether or not he thought Twitter was a community, he indicated he did believe it was a community and that, “Everyone who uses it, more or less, [is] there for the same reason—to communicate very quickly on a number of topics, in shorthand.” In his opinion, the brevity of tweets allows for prompt communication and is therefore what Jenkins et al. might see as a “low barrier” (pg 3, 2010). The idea that users can “communicate very quickly on a number of topics” means that users can participate in a number of activity systems—some of which they might not have felt comfortable entering through the use of email, phone, or blog. This also insinuates that Twitter, for Alfred, is not a necessarily just a place of personal social communication, but rather a place where topics are discussed that might or might not have personal relevance.
Additionally, the efficiency of Twitter allows users to more easily reply to each other. Alfred stated that he had used Twitter for research during his current semester and believed that the number of responses from other users might be increased because of the tweet length: “It takes so little effort on the replying party, it’s not an email, it’s extremely candid, and you have two sentences, pretty much, maximum, so it almost guarantees a reply because there’s almost no effort required.” Responding is easy, thus promoting participation and interaction. Twitter not only allows communication between parties who do not know each other personally, it actively facilitates and encourages it. For Alfred, at one point it meant contacting a number of graphic designers to get their opinion on a topic. He sent out a few “hundred” tweets to graphic designers for an ethnographic study he was writing. In Alfred’s view, issuing a response is easier through Twitter than email, phone calls, etc: “A qualitative reply on Twitter is almost no more effort than clicking a button, but it’s ten-fold as far as value goes for a company,” or a student seeking to engage with the world. While responsive value may or may not be the case, what is important is Alfred’s perception of response ease. Since it is easier to respond, then it is easier to try to interact with other users, and interaction, as the foundation of the participatory culture, facilitates and promotes boundary interactions.
Katharine is another Journalism student at the university. In addition to her studies, she is a journalist as well, working for the campus newspaper. Katharine’s survey responses were quite different from Alfred. She accessed Twitter and tweeted only 0-3 times per week. While she used a hashtag “sometimes,” she has used Twitter for research and has also received a response from someone she does not personally know. Despite their differences in Twitter usage, some of her interview overlapped Alfred’s perspectives, but other parts brought in additional avenues of thought. For Katherine, a couple of themes resonated within her interview. First, she felt that Twitter could be used to “push” a user’s ideas out to the Twitter community, and second, she sees Twitter as an ideal place to gather information on a wide range of topics.
The ability to “push the media,” as Katherine described it, was a very important feature for her both in her professional and personal use of Twitter. She believed that the people who use Twitter do so because of an ability to push their ideas to their followers:
I think that a lot more politicians are on it, a lot more media personnel are on it, whether it’s to push their own agenda or just to publish their own articles; I think it’s used a lot more professionally than Facebook or anything like that…usually more to push a specific thing.
Both “push their own agenda” and “publish their own articles” are tied to this idea of pushing ideas to the community in order to accomplish some object/motive. Additionally, because Katherine views Twitter as “more professional than Facebook,” she is less likely to simply share personal information and thus more likely to “push” her professional or academic ideas. Twitter encourages Katherine to engage on a higher intellectual level than is likely necessary for social communication among friends, and it is important to her that other Twitter users are pushing their agendas or articles rather than the non-professional Facebook users.
Katherine also seems to value the ability to spread and gather information. She indicated that information moves through Twitter in a sort of “word of mouth via Twitter” where an article or link might be “pushed” by a user which is then “pushed” by another user until the information is spread to a considerably wide circle. These kinds of information spreading or gathering tweets are what Katherine looks for:
I like to read...not necessarily the tweet itself, but it’s what the Tweet’s attached to, whether it be another news article that is attached to it or whether it be…an opinion piece or something like that…[It’s] not necessarily the words [of the tweet that are the focus] but it’s the links that are associated with the tweet.
The relatively limited space of the tweet, as pointed out by Alfred, limits the amount of information within the tweet itself. However, if users like Katherine are the norm, the tweet, unless a direct response, is less important than what the tweet is linked to. Twitter directs Katherine to articles, websites, etc. that are directly related to—and promoted by—individuals or organizations within activity systems in which she is interested. Through participatory culture, she could then speak to the genre by tweeting at the individual or organization, retweeting the information, or using a hashtag they used to add her voice to the communal conversation. In this sense, Twitter acts as a mediator between user and information on the web. It allows highly engaged internet users to cull information from the world wide web and post a link to it. In the way that Katherine uses Twitter, both spreading and gathering information is definitively interactive, and it is perhaps not difficult to conceive the potential link between academia and the wider culture. Students who used Twitter to gather and spread information might follow Twitter users who are professionals, professors, or other students in their field of study and thus benefit from the sort of collective intelligence that Web 2.0 and Twitter allow for while at the same time encountering some of the “commodified tools” (Russell, 1997, pp. 540) and genres they will eventually encounter in their chosen discipline.
These two ideas do not work independently according to Katherine. It is, in fact, the combination of the two ideas that Katherine finds one of the most valuable qualities of Twitter:
I think Twitter has such a good formula to it where it’s literally you have X amount of characters and you can really hone in on what your specific viewpoint is on it, and then you can attach a link to whatever may support what you’re saying and then it can really, like, fuel the fire if it’s something that you’re trying to push whether it be a political agenda whether it be a, like, an opinion or something like that.
The way that Katherine uses Twitter, and potentially the way many other students use Twitter, allows her to push her ideas to the world and/or pull ideas from the world about a specific topic or range of topics. Additionally, Katherine’s statement also echo’s Alfred’s belief in the benefit of brevity. Katherine sees the simple, limited space as an environment where information is quickly gathered or shared among users in a more professional atmosphere.
The four themes that Alfred and Katherine bring to light are the following benefits of Twitter: the expansion of a professional network, efficiency as a result of brevity, the ability to “push” information, and the ability to crowd source information. To fully understand this I will discuss the connection between each benefit and its relationship to Activity Theory. First, Alfred and Katherine are encountering and engaging with the written genres of the professional activity system in which they would like to be involved. This helps them accomplish one of the object(ive)s of school, working in a discipline, and helps them become a part of the professional community. Additionally, they may form the beginnings of “personal” relationships with professionals in their field of study, or at least be able to initiate contact with working professionals. Second, the brevity of Twitter underscores its effectiveness as a tool within participatory culture to carry out interactions between boundary activity systems. Brevity also facilitates the comprehension of the object/motive of any one given tweet since participants must limit the number of characters they use. Third, by “pushing” their ideas to Twitter, they are (or, at the least, believe they are) affecting the activity system of Twitter and thus the activity systems to which it is connected, which helps them increase their identity and agency within the relevant systems. Fourth, through crowd sourcing information, they are harnessing the collective, collaborative, and intersubjective network of people involved in the activity (Russell, 1995, p. 55). This helps them to better understand the systems in which they are currently involved in or would like to eventually be involved in. When all these are combined, the advantages Twitter brings to college students begins to take shape. Alfred and Katherine, who use Twitter to efficiently “push” their ideas to, and gather ideas from, an expanding professional network, will likely enter the world beyond academia more capable of entering their chosen discipline than a student who has not begun this process.