Thoughts on Twitter

Wed Sep 4, 2013

Ted Underwood made the following comment on Scott Weingart’s post about a recent controversy with the Journal of Digital Humanities:

I can also imagine framing the issue, for instance, as a question about the way power tends to be exercised in a one-to-many social medium. I don’t know many academic fields that rely on Twitter as heavily as DH does. It certainly has as much power in the field as JDH (which, frankly, is not a high-profile journal). Right now digital humanists seem to be dividing into camps of Beliebers and nonBeliebers, and I’m less inclined to blame any of the people involved — or any structure of ideas, or system of peer review — than I am to suspect that the logic of Twitter itself encourages the formation of “teams.”

I like twitter more than facebook, probably because I choose to interact with people there I share more intellectual interests with. The follower/following relation leads to all sorts of status-seeking and rank-anxiety behavior, however. While it doesn’t surprise me that PR workers and journalists would buy twitter followers (available for about \$1 per 1K fake accounts apparently), I’m reasonably sure that I’ve seen academics do so. Choosing not to reciprocate a follow request is reasonable for any number of reasons–attention economy, missing a notification, etc–but the spurned follower is not privy to any of this decision-making and may very well feel jilted and resentful. Next comes inevitable embarrassment for even noticing such a triviality, and this can cascade into what Wilhelm Fliess referred to as a “shame spiral.”

Not only does the logic of twitter compel its users to pay attention to their number of followers but also to the ratio of their followers to followings. Celebrity accounts–the standard of measure–are generally on the order of 1m to 1, so this is what the demotic tweeter aspires to. Influence algorithms, such as Klout, use this ratio as one way to assess the importance of an account; and I suspect that it also is used by automated discovery services such as (named with impeccable timing) Prismatic. Furthermore, links on twitter seem to have a clickthrough rate of about 1% (so I’ve observed personally), and I suspect this percentage decreases with the more followers an account has. In order for a link to efficiently spread, it has to be retweeted by many people. The more followers an account has, the more likely something posted from it will be retweeted. Underwood’s comment above references “Beliebers,” and anything that Justin Bieber (I’m not entirely sure who that is–perhaps a young soccer player or innovative badmintonist–but he has many followers on twitter) posts, no matter how trivial, will get many retweets.

What is to be done? Community formation on twitter seems like a fascinating area of research. The groupuscle of quasi-surrealists sometimes known as ‘weird twitter’ are apparently already the subject of a dissertation or two, and I could imagine very interesting work being done on the digital humanities community on twitter: network interactions, status effects, and the etiology and epidemiology of controversies…all sorts of wonders. I would be inclined to try some of this myself, but I find the twitter API somewhat cumbersome to use, and the amount of data involved is overwhelming.