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Coming to Grips with Twitter: 2006/07 vs 2009

5. Oktober 2009

Remember you first moments on Twitter? I do: Nothing made sense. I wondered why or how I was supposed to find ‚friends‘ on a platform where I knew none; I browsed the public timeline, but decided I really had no reason to befriend these people and, being irritated by the experience, posted as my first update „Writing about Twatter“ (I no longer use this account;-)

Meanwhile, I have not only switched to a different Twitter account, I have also managed to turn this initial frustration around by turning it into a research paper I am going present at the Internet: Critical conference in Milwaukee;-) In this paper, I am applying Victor Turner’s model of the Rite of Passage and its related concepts – esp. liminality and communitas – to analyse both the symbols and elements that shape a user’s early experience on Twitter and the role of Twitter as a space of social innovation within society at large.

An extended draft version of the paper can be downloaded here:

Herwig, Jana. Liminality and Communitas in Social Media: The case of Twitter.“ Paper presented at the AoIR’s Internet Research 10.0. Internet: Critical Conference in Milwaukee, 8-10 October 2009 (Extended draft version, peer-review based on abstract). [PDF, 290 KB].
Short link to this blogpost: http://wp.me/peBnE-u4

There are a few minor differences, all of which are highlighted in red. What has been added in the annotations is on the one hand a brief discussion of boyd, Golder, and Lotan’s forthcoming paper „Tweet Tweet Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter,“ and on the other a brief discussion of the aspect of gender: My ‚early adopters‘ sample (users who joined between October 2006 and March 2007) was predominantly male (87.5% men, 12.5 % women in a total of 16 users), whereas my ‚mainstream phase‘ sample (users joined between March and July 2009) featured vs 91% women (10 out of 11). Please consider that my samples were small. Possible explanations are offered in the paper.

Thumb Gender

A first outcome of the analysis of activity patterns (using tweetstats.com) was that it was HARD in 2006/2007 to come to grips with Twitter – 15 out of 16 users stopped twittering at least once for at least 28 days, 9 stopped at least twice, and the duration of a hiatus ranged from 36 to 600 days (a total of 32 such hiatuses could be observed in 15 users).


Users in sample 2 were not struggling with this: Only 1 out of 11 stopped twittering. Of course they had also had much less time on Twitter, i.e less chance to stop twittering – at the same time, 75% of users in sample 1 went on a hiatus within their first two months already (I checked again yesterday, and sample 2 still only has one ‚Twitter quitter‚). (It’s debatable whether it makes sense to specify averages – or medians; or modes – for such a small sample at all – the extended draft paper contains an overview of all values on page 19).

Regarding methodology, I relied on the one hand on an interface analysis against the backdrop of Turner’s model. Probably not surprisingly, this model is applicable to many social media platforms:

Upon entering the time and space of the rite of passage, the subject is stripped of its previous social status – which is what happens if we enter Twitter and find that we have zero friends, zero followers, and generally find the experience rather confusing. „Dead to the social, but alive to the asocial world“ – like the initiand, the Twitter newbie has to learn the language of the social anew.

On the other hand, I applied a chronological, close reading of individual user’s time lines. This is not common in existing Twitter research: The majority of papers select tweets from the public timeline, or from members of a particular group, and then use content analysis or algorithmic methods to get to their observations (see this list of Twitter papers here). But as I was interested in the individual’s development over time, I needed to examine individual users‘ timelines, putting a special focus on early updates and on updates that ended a hiatus (e.g. “thinking about nextseason as a Happy Hammer – prompted by a fellow fan now following me”). I did not have the technical and financial resources anyway to set up a system that would extract tweets and store them in a database – at the same time, I think that a chronological reading (executed by human intelligence;-) is also better suited to capture the procedural aspects, the ‚coming to grips with Twitter‘ that occurs over time.

Thirdly, as mentioned above, I defined two samples: One consisted of 16 users who had signed up between October 2006 and March 2007, and who were still active in May 2009 (details how I was able to identify them are described in the paper), and one that consisted of 11 users who had signed up between March and July 2009. My samples were thus rather small, and excluded users who were inactive in May 2009 – this bias must be considered.

I compared these sample’s in particular with regard to their appropriation of social mechanisms on Twitter: the default ones which are built into the system, manifesting themselves in the form of a link or button or other interactive symbol (e.g. the @-response); and the emergent ones, such as retweet and hashtag (which may also become default ones; consider for instance project retweet). In short: the users in the ‚mainstream sample‘ are much faster in discovering Twitter’s social mechanisms than the early adopters; e.g. started using @-responses much sooner: within 1 to 25 days, compared to 21 to 745 days in sample 1. Details can be found in the paper)

first at response

Regarding Twitter’s role in society: Victor Turner conceives of Liminality – i.e. the special space and time in the middle of a rite of passage where the anti-strutural, anti-hierarchical relations typical of communitas become possible – as a place where social innovation can occur:

„I see [the liminal] as a kind of institutional capsule or pocket which contains the germ of future social developments, of societal change […]. Innovation […] most frequently occurs in interfaces and limina, then becomes legitimated in central sectors.“ Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre, 1982, p. 45

Some of the innovations introduced by Twitter have already been integrated into central sectors of society, e.g. when Twitter is used to usher in comments from Television viewers. Twitter can also be considered a vital step towards the Semantic Web a.k.a. Web of things in that individuals can be addressed publicly via a URI on the web.

But people are already getting nervous – they are waiting for the next big thing. And it will certainly come: While liminality engenders communitas, communitas must sooner or later come to an end. Twitter is no longer the semi-secluded space where people judged each other by what they posted, with little regard to their positions outside of Twitter. The more connections are established with other, older, more powerful spheres, which reinject their specific values and hierachies into Twitter, the more unlikely it is that communitas is going to thrive.

It may seem to users as if they are ‚closer‘ now to @oprah than to the Oprah Winfrey on the TV screen, but in reality, this is just the new way of concealing the distance. Oprah doesn’t follow you, and Oprah (almost) doesn’t respond.


(And how did it feel when your boss (colleague, high school mate, mother…) started following you on Twitter? Leave a comment or send an email to jana.herwig @ univie.ac.at with your response!)

I also owe the people at BarCamp Klagenfurt, where I first sketched the idea and got feedback from early adopters, and the Web as Culture conference in Gießen where I could weave the idea into an academic discourse. Thank your for the opportunity and your comments!

Finally: I have uploaded a full version of the presentation to Slideshare – this presentation covers almost all aspects discussed in the paper. I still need to see which slides I am going to present in my 20 minutes at AoIR and which ones I am going to leave out. Feedback is much appreciated – please leave a comment on the blog.

Short link to this blogpost: http://wp.me/peBnE-u4

10 Kommentare leave one →
  1. 5. Oktober 2009 11:30 pm

    Thanks for linking me to this, great paper!

  2. 5. Oktober 2009 11:54 pm

    Jana, das ist das erste (digitale) Stück Papier seit langem, dass ich uneingeschränkt und aufrichtig als lesenswert bezeichnen kann. Leider hat das inmitten der inflationären ebooks zu viral dieses und social jenes wirklich schon seltenheitswert.

  3. Jakub permalink
    6. Oktober 2009 9:55 am

    Interesting. Sometimes you show average values, I think that mean values would be more interesting given the extremes you probably had in the samples.

  4. axkibe permalink
    6. Oktober 2009 3:04 pm

    Oh dein vor uns geheimgehaltener chinesisch/japanischer Twitteraccount ist digio*n*? Aha! 😉

    Saubere Arbeit! Mit Turner [1982/45] selbst bin ich mir nur noch nicht sicher, ob ich sein Innovationskonzept und damit auch seine Theorie vom viel theoretisierten sozialen Wandel so abkaufe. Muss ihn mal selbst lesen. Irgendwann einmal.

  5. 7. Oktober 2009 5:16 am

    @jakub got me – I am not an empirical scientist. even though, isn’t the mean the average? (not sure about English terminology) defining a median (if that’s what you meant, the value in the middle) might be an idea, though the samples are really really small, which is problematic anyway, if one wanted to make a quantitative statement. from the viewpoint of my discipline (theatre, film and media studies) I find the interface analysis and close readings described in the paper more yielding – but then, these are not easily summarized in a blog post.

    @axel ich glaube, man kann da auch weiterdenken. wobei ich sozialen wandel und soziale innovation nicht gleich setzen möchte – turner tut das m.e. auch nicht.

  6. 7. Oktober 2009 5:17 am

    @linzerschnitte danke sehr, das freut mich sehr:)

  7. Jakub permalink
    7. Oktober 2009 9:12 am

    oh, yes, sorry, I meant to say median… and I agree..after posting the comment I gave it more thought and I agree that it is problematic anyway if you have just a few values. It caught my attention because average is often quite misleading, especially in cases with a few extreme values and the most values being elsewhere. I agree with the rest of what you’re saying too.

  8. axkibe permalink
    7. Oktober 2009 11:07 am

    @jakub, I say there is no much use in arguing about elobarated statistical techniques with a sample size of aprox. 10. Otherwise the median value also has its ideological backgrounds (the creation in a personalization of a Mr./Mrs. Average). Also digiom did present the range of minimum and maximum value along with it. So its not the average value is not misleading.

    @digiom Stimmt, das würde mich interessieren, wie das weiterzudenken wäre. IMHO ist da eine breitere Sozialtheorie eingebettet, die über Twitterforschung hinausgeht, die ist mir noch nicht ganz klar, aber warscheinlich eben weil ich Turner nicht kenne. Zumindest in dem einem Turner-Zitat kommt Sozialer Wandel (social change) und Innovation bei ihm etwas undifferenziert herüber. Aber es ist eben nur ein Zitat. Wünsche dir jedenfalls viel Erfolg (und Spaß) bei deiner Präsentation. Es ist eine gute Abwechselung gegenüber den teilweise vielzitierten IMHO nicht guten Public-Timeline-Twitterpapers.

  9. 7. Oktober 2009 5:05 pm

    @jakub and @axkibe – forgot to mention: you can find all the data in the draft paper 20.

    @axkibe specifically: I am not sure in as far Turner was aiming for a theory of society – given the perspective of his approach, one might argue that he overemphasized the effects of liminal spaces, but then again, that is what approach as a whole is about. super bowl matches, conferences, lecture theatres – all of them are liminal spaces.


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