Every tweet that flows past a user in their twitterstream has a number of action buttons appended to it. One of those icons took the form of star; this was the Favourite button. If you were so inclined, clicking on the star icon would indicate that you had favourited something; the star turned from grey to gold and the tweet you favourited would be stored in a list called, unsurprisingly, your Favourites. At any time in the future, clicking on your Favourites would allow you (and anyone else following you) to see a list of all the tweets you favourited. In addition, the person who’s tweet you favourited would receive some form of notification that one of their tweets had been favourited (how the notification occurred depended on their chosen settings).
The same all still applies now that favourites have become ‘likes.’ The functionality is all still the same; the only change is to the icon – from a star to a heart. Some feel the change is little more than cosmetic, although acknowledge that people might use the heart with a greater variety of intent, seeing it as providing greater flexibility than the star. Others see the heart as somewhat restrictive, constraining one’s actions to merely positive affirmation.
Introducing actor-network theory (ANT)
Wanting to test what I’ve been learning on ANT recently, this Twitter change provided an opportunity. A small step on the road to a better understanding. So I’m not looking here to produce a Grand Theory of how Twitter works from an ANT perspective, but to focus on one small aspect and see whether my interpretations are valid.
For a detailed explication of what ANT is, you need to look elsewhere; this post will be long enough! In short (if that’s even possible!), ANT encourages us to look beyond society composed of people, their culture(s) and interactions. The social is instead, associations enacted between humans and non-humans; where non-humans (objects, technology, texts, language, organisations) have parity of agency and should be discussed in the same terms – the principle of generalised symmetry (Callon, 1986). These sociomaterial associations constitute actor-networks; neither actors connected through networks, nor networks composed of connected actors. A melding, rather than a mixing; reminding me of lower school science where we discuss mixtures (easily formed, easily separated) as distinct from compounds where the components are inextricably linked. The analogy is far from perfect however, as actor-networks are in a constant state of formation and re-formation as they are continually performed.
There are many principles within ANT, but the one I want to bring to bear on our Twitter development is the distinction between two types of actors; mediators and intermediaries.
Intermediaries play a more passive role in actor-networks, maintaining the associations without being transformed, or transforming others. Mediators on the other hand “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry.” (Latour, 2005, p72). They actively engage others, recruit them, influence them, and seek to bring about change. Through mediators the actor-network is reinvigorated and regenerates.
ANT is often discussed in the abstract … and I don’t mean the bit at the front of an academic paper! Let me attempt a more concrete example situated in an educational context. Consider the actor-network formed when teachers are charged with delivering a new qualification; since I’m in England, let’s say a GCSE. For simplicity, we’ll leave out of our actor-network the governmental bodies, the documents they produce, the examinations boards which translate government policy into assessable curriculum and focus just on the teacher and what they work with. Originating from the National Curriculum Framework, a teacher is most likely to use a examination board ‘specification’ which sets out the curriculum to be covered and what and how that will be assessed. The specification document initially will be a mediator, charging the teacher to devise an appropriate teaching strategy for her students. This is often done by creating a scheme of work (SoW) – a document which maps out teaching approaches, resources, assessments, a timeline for delivery and so on. This becomes the working document; a mediator in it’s own right which continually influences the teacher’s actions and activities. In return however, she will also amend the SoW based on the way the activities work with her students; a little more time needed here, a different resource there. The teacher and SoW are mediators, but the specification is now relegated to the background and becomes an intermediary; neither capable of being altered, nor no longer influencing the teacher and the SoW, other than to provide the touchstone to which both will occasionally refer.
A ‘Like’ly Story
Twitter has an expectation of how people should use the ‘like’/favourite feature:
‘Likes’ are represented by a small heart. They are commonly used to show appreciation for a Tweet. You can see someone’s ‘likes’ by visiting their profile, and your ‘likes’ are also visible on your profile.
Favorites, represented by a small star icon next to a Tweet, are most commonly used when users like a Tweet. Favoriting a Tweet can let the original poster know that you liked their Tweet, or you can save the Tweet for later.
So Twitter has in one sense attempted to refocus the purpose of the ‘like’. The different semiotic associations of a star versus a heart perhaps go some way towards supporting that. More importantly, will people’s behaviour change as a result? Will the heart change the behaviour of those who have always used the favourite feature or will it be business as usual for them? Might the heart enrol some who never used favourites in the past to start doing so?
The beating heart
To begin to unpick some of what was mentioned in the previous section, it is worth mentioning that what Twitter intends for the ‘like’, and what users enact, might be very different. That was certainly true for favourites. Chris Lake and those who replied to his post have provided a number of different ways in which they use favourites:
- To like something; an upvote.
- To dislike something; sarcastic use.
- To bookmark something.
- As a note to self.
- To read later.
- To read something somewhere else; on a different device.
- To trigger something (IFTTT)
- As a read receipt; an acknowledgement that you’ve seen something.
- As a conversation stopper; to indicate that an exchange has run its course.
- To doff one’s cap; well-played sir.
- To flirt.
- To show support.
- To spread the word.
- To attract more followers.
- To build a personal brand; where tweets on a particular topic are curated to indicate something to others.
- To reflect one’s personality or interests.
- As a polling tool: favourite for this, retweet for that.
Rather than viewing the favourite (or ‘like’) button as an intermediary or mediator with only a single function – an indication that you like the tweet – the community of Twitter users have co-opted the button to serve their own needs. In some cases the button becomes a mediator, itself calling others to action (spreading the word, polling opinion, influencing others to follow or interact with the originator). In other cases it is an intermediary, simply holding information for future reference (as a bookmark), or in making a temporary connection (showing support).
With ANT however, we’re not yet finished. Although some people write in their bio profile that ‘favouriting (or RTing) is not necessarily an endorsement,’ thereby providing some small indication of their intent, that does not tell the whole story. We have only considered the button from the favouriter’s perspective, how is the action perceived by the originator of the tweet? What might mean something to the favouriter, might be interpreted completely differently by the recipient. Having different conceptions means that the notification one person receives may initiate one form of behaviour – “This person favourited my tweet. I’ll check them out and see if they’re worth following.” Which may mean they go on to follow the other person and thus reform their actor-networks as a result of the mediating effect of the favouriting. Alternately the recipient of the favourite may be perplexed by the favourite – “Why did they favourite that tweet?” Which may be either intriguing and lead to further action (favourite as mediator) or nothing more than a distraction and the actor-network of favourited tweet and favouriter extends no further. The favourite button in this instance acts only as an intermediary.
Can the ‘like’ button be interpreted in a similar way? That will depend on how people react to the change of icon. If one simply wanted to indicate ‘well done’ or ‘well said,’ does a heart symbol align with that sentiment? How will recipients of a heart view it? Might their action be different than if they had received a star and will that change the nature as either intermediary or mediator? What is clear is that people are currently seeking to reduce the likelihood of ambiguity or misinterpretation by ‘liking’ then following up with a clarifying tweet – ‘Hearted that because …’ Perhaps there’s an opportunity here while people are making their actions explicit, to better understand liking behaviour … at least until the dust settles.
So what did bringing an ANT perspective to the Twitter changes add? I suspect in this instance, not a great deal, and there are a couple of possible reasons. Firstly there’s my currently underdeveloped understanding and inexperience in using ANT. Hey! Everyone has to start somewhere! However, and perhaps more importantly, this situation might have had the ANT lens focused rather too narrowly on a single, tiny button. This post lacked the scope to go beyond that self-imposed limitation and consider the wider actor-networks within which the favourite/’like’ button acts. As an exercise in ANT-like thinking though, at least it got me off the start line.
Callon, M. (1986). Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay. Power, action, and belief: A new sociology of knowledge, 32, 196-223.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social. London: Oxford.