Mother Superior Jumped the Gun

Nobody likes change (re: all those Facebook changes and those Twitter changes).

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But I imagine change is most annoying to researchers.  I mean, seriously, put yourself in danah boyd‘s shoes, for example.  Two years ago, you’re all, “Aw, yeah, Retweeting! Unclaimed territory, I call dibs!” You do your study, you spend all that time gathering data and sorting through it, only to come to a sort of realization that by the time you finish your study and by the time it’s published, your study is old news.  No one cares all that much anymore.  Or maybe they do care, but not as much as they would have cared two years ago when you came up with the big plan.

Ouch!  Your ego!  But have no fear, you hypothetical boyd, you.  Not all you’ve done is for naught.

The real danah boyd’s Tweet, Tweet, Retweet article describes a study she conducted in 2010 with Scott Golder and Gilad Lotan.  The study sought to find an answer to what and why people retweet certain things over others—or, in their words, to “describe and map out…conventions of retweeting” and to examine “retweeting practices” (boyd 1).

To navigate this seemingly enormously intimidating pool of reasons, boyd and co. used case studies and empirical data (gathered by things like getting random samples of tweets from public profiles over a designated span of time and asking their own followers for reasons they retweet).  It may not have been a foolproof way of doing things, sure, but it’s a start.

Bottom line, boyd lists ten reasons as to why people retweet; things like “to amplify or spread tweets to new audiences,” “to comment on someone’s tweet,” to “publicly agree” with or “validate” someone else’s thought, for self-gain, etc. (boyd 5).  Things that, to you or me today, may seem like common sense.  (To me, a retweet is the equivalent of a fist bump. Or a high five.)

In terms of what’s being retweeted, again, boyd and co. state that “what people retweet is also varied” (boyd 5).

Pardon me here, but duh.

I can’t help but believe that these broad results point to boyd jumping the gun in analyzing retweeting practices. The ways of retweeting are still in flux.  Twitter is still responding to how users are retweeting by creating more innovative ways to make it easier (re: retweet button).  Retweeting might be getting a whole new meaning soon, which would make much of boyd’s study seem irrelevant.

See, rumor has it that Twitter might be getting rid of their (unreliable) follow count. Twitter co-founder and former CEO, Evan Williams, suggested “that tallying the number of times a tweet has been viewed and reweeted would be the ultimate measurement” as far as counting active users goes.  If that goes through, it would mean there’s a new game in town for counting Twitter-popularity, which in turn, means you’ll see more people doing things like this.  Ask “Why and what do people retweet?” in a few years and the answers may lean heavily towards wanting to be seen and heard for the hell of it instead of how, as of 2010, it was seemingly balanced between attention seekers and informational do-gooders.

So what did boyd and co. do right?  What’s still valuable about this study?  Look back at that first page of boyd, where she lays out her goals.

“As more scholars begin examining Twitter, it is important to have a grounded understanding of the core practices” (boyd 1) (emphasis is all mine).

Lay groundwork for inner workings of tweeterers motivations? Check.  That doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.  People are still suggesting that you should retweet for self-gain, to create connections, to converse with the Twitter-verse, etc.  It may seem like a well rounded crowd, but that can change with one little site update.

It goes without saying that the practices surrounding retweeting will have to be revisited as Twitter itself changes.  Am I saying that four years into Twitter’s existence is too soon for an in depth analysis?  Maybe.  On the one hand, four years is a long time in the world of technology.  But on the other, in a world that changes so rapidly, can you spot a steady enough trend or practice to follow and analyze?

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One comment

  1. Danna,
    I totally see where you’re coming from (even the fact that you spell your name with a capital ‘D’) but – as far as I’ve been able to tell in my relatively short but amazing experience with social media – here’s the thing: this is the point. This is it. We (yes, we) are exploring new territories, and making new discoveries about the internet, about culture, about society, about people. We are the astronauts of media and society (hence, “social media”), and that’s why research is important – even if it means research has to be redone and reanalyzed and re-everythinged all the freaking time.
    Yes it’s annoying to have to deal with new Facebook updates and changes every year – especially when they mean having to look through our privacy settings and delete wall posts from 2007. Yes, it’s probably even more frustrating for researchers to have their papers made obsolete within a year of publication. But if I was them, I would value it even more; having this record of the research that was done before twitter updates were made may be even more useful than it would have been to wait for the changes to be made before doing the research.
    In short, change online is awesome and we should embrace it!

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