Chronotope … sadly, not a Dr Who villain

Every tweet has a timestamp embedded within it. Posts on blogs are (usually) arranged chronologically. One quick click on any Wikipedia page provides access to the history of edits leading to the current version. Time seems to have a much greater significance on the Web than it does in print media. Sure, books and magazines have a publishing date, but that tends to be at the top level; a cut off time when the article went to print, rather than the time(s) when the text was authored. I knew that at some stage I would need to apply myself to the temporality of learning online and through Twitter, and when I came across the idea of the chronotope, it seemed like the right … time?

Unpicking the etymology of chronotope leads us to ‘time-space,’ so the link with Einstein’s concept of space-time drew me in. It was Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) who first proposed the chronotope as a way of describing and accounting for the interwoven temporal and spatial elements which are found in and construct literary narrative. As Compton-Lilly (2016) observed, chronotopes create and convey worlds by addressing the degree of change in characters, the degree to which events are bound within sequences, and the degree to which characters are connected to ‘real’ worlds. Unfortunately, chronotope seem to be another of those terms which is loosely defined (Bemong & Borghart, 2011) and for which there exist few descriptions of how to choose and deploy appropriate research methods and analyses.

Given where chronotopes originated, it’s clear why chronotopic analyses are largely performed within the context of literature studies. More recently however, attention has turned to other spheres. I was particularly attracted to Lemke’s (2005) study of the life simulation game, The Sims, in which he considers how we make meaning across space and time. In asking how “momentary actions come to be seen as situated activities and social practices,” Lemke prompted me to think about how Twitter might be considered as interwoven strings of momentary actions which work across time and (other) spaces to achieve particular ends. He also helped me see chronotopes as “typical movements from place to place with their associated times of passage and pacings of events” and consequently that we might view time in different ways – duration, tempo, cycle, rhythm and how events might be be reversible, repeatable or completable. This is useful, especially in the context of more recent work considering chronotopes within education and learning.

Unlike those in a carefully crafted novel, chronotopes in everyday social settings are far more likely to be messy, complicated, incomplete, multiple and competing (Bloome et al, 2009). For me, there are parallels here with the less structured, informal aspects of learning taking place in and through Twitter, especially when Bloome et al go on to describe time as “socially, linguistically and cognitively” constructed. I see similarities here with the way in which actor-networks or sociomaterial assemblages are enacted and have to be continually performed to maintain their associations. I wonder though about the way in which this and some of the other literature deal with time and space separately and perhaps lose some of the power of timespace as a unity, however, I’m not yet clear in my own mind how to deal with it in that singular, unified way. Perhaps I need to work at it in the same way that I’m trying to avoid discussing human and non-human actors separately when adopting a sociomaterial sensibility and instead, thinking of them as a unified sociomaterial assemblage.

The clearest articulation of chronotopes for me, is that provided by Kumpulainen et al (2014) who invite us to see them as “typical patterns of organization of and across activities in space and time.” In their study of students’ technology-mediated creative learning practices, chronotopes provide a way of viewing students’ participation in a learning activity. They also entertain the possibility of the school’s institutionally established chronotopes sitting comfortably alongside new emerging ones. Surely there is enough here to draw parallels with teacher learning on Twitter?

Twitter

Let me begin with baby steps and thinking about Twitter in isolation. Right up front in the vernacular is the “Twitter timeline,” a prime (and obvious?) example of timespace. As soon as you attempt to describe it, you move deeper into chronotopic elements – a list or sequence of tweets displayed in the chronological order they were authored.  The rate at which that list grows or unfolds depends on the number of people you have chosen to follow – the wider your network, the more frequently new tweets are likely to appear. For that reason and to keep their timeline ‘manageable,’ some people choose to limit the number of people they follow. There is a sense here in which they’re exercising a degree of control over the scope and nature of this chronotope – if they choose to follow people who tweet regularly, then their experience will be different from that if they’d chosen people who tweet rarely. Some people refer to their timeline as the twitterstream, which introduces a slightly different temporospatial notion; that of flow. Here tweets float by, some seen, most missed, and head off into … well, into the past I guess. Unless of course someone retweets them, and in so doing pulls them back into the present to be seen once more or seen afresh by new sets of eyes which weren’t there at the first time of passing. This repetition increases the audience and therefore the potential meaning space of a given tweet … or perhaps that should be meaning timespace?

Each tweet is intimately bound to time through the timestamp baked within the metadata. Information is fused within a moment in time, captured at a particular instant which resolutely remains fixed, even if the tweet is repeated through retweeting. If the tweet is shifted elsewhere, into an archiving system like Storify for example, it’s time of birth remains logged. Interestingly however, if people in different geographical locations, separated by different time zones view the same tweet, the tweet’s timestamp will be different. The metadata which underpins the timestamp offers a time to be displayed which is determined by local time on the viewing computer. A tweet I view at the same universal time as someone in Melbourne, Australia, might to me be stamped 15:00 on 25th April, but the same tweet to my friend in Melbourne will be stamped 08:00 on the 26th. So does the tweet connect us within the same chronotope, or is it shared between and across each of our individual chronotopes? Bloome et al (2009) talk about individual, shared and publicly held chronotopes; this tweet might arguably pass across all three … or does it help create them?

One more way in which time is manifest is in the way people sometimes refer to the ephemerality of tweets. They’re authored, are briefly seen, perhaps acted upon, then disappear into the past … at least unless they’re retweeted or archived in some way. And here’s the contradiction. When discussing the ways we should behave on the web, we’re often reminded of how persistent and durable anything posted can be. So too with tweets, as a quick scroll back through someone’s timeline quickly shows. Even their very first tweet can be accessed with no more than a couple of clicks. Having mentioned an individual’s timeline, I’m now minded to consider whether that in itself constitutes a chronotope, different and distinct from the general timeline they see when viewing all the tweets from those they follow.

In the preceding paragraphs, I’ve been in danger of forefronting time over space, so let me now shift the other way. Here the situation becomes much more blurred than it would if considering the offline world alone; we’re confronted with people located in the ‘real’ world whilst simultaneously engaged in activity across online spaces. Let us for the moment at least, restrict ourselves to the online world of Twitter which can manifest itself in different ways. Users may be viewing their Twitter timeline through a browser displaying twitter.com, or indeed other Twitter clients like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite. In each case, the space is configured differently and potentially offers windows into different chronotopes; Tweetdeck enables tweets containing specific search terms to be viewed, a topic-based chronotope perhaps? Hootsuite brings together different social media channels under a single umbrella – a chronotopic cornucopia? And if we’re viewing Twitter through an app on a mobile device, though the tweets we should see might be the same as those viewed through our browser, the space within which they’re presented is configured differently once more.

With its 140 character limit, the space within a single tweet ought to be more bounded, and yet the ingenuity of Twitter users coupled with developments in the platform, even that continues to be stretched. Including a hyperlink, connects the tweet with other locations and expands the available learning space. Images, animated gifs and videos can all be embedded within a tweet and immediately expand what is offered, increasing the semiotic potential, which is delivered through those different modes. Hashtags also extend the available space by offering a directly clickable link to Twitter’s search page, automatically populated with a timeline of those tweets containing that hashtag. These examples are not mere extensions of space however, but are true chronotopes. They extend timespace. Our hashtag search spans timespace to pull together a timeline reaching back into the past and from different users than those we’re intentionally following. Hyperlinks may connect current or historical news articles, web pages or blog posts. Quote tweets bind together two tweets originally occupying different timespaces. Within Twitter, it actually becomes difficult to identify time and space as separate entities.

One activity in Twitter, particularly associated with professional learning, merits a closer look. I’ve discussed or mentioned hashtag chats in many previous posts, but they distinctly lend themselves to a chronotopic consideration. With hundreds of educational Twitter chats taking place weekly, finding targets for study is not difficult, but perhaps a good place to start is with the hashtag through which they’re convened and organised. Timespace often becomes apparent in the name itself: #edchatie locates the chat as being convened in an Irish context; the #BFC530 chat is in the morning (BreakFast Club); #satchat is on a Saturday; #BFC630NZ is another breakfast club in New Zealand; and #satchatwc is the US west coast saturday chat. Moving beyond the name itself, other temporospatial factors become apparent. The duration of chats vary; an hour is most common, but there are also half hour and 15 minute chats too.

As the chat calendar shows, chats take place across the span of the day, though with the majority being convened during the evening within the US. The presence of, or need for a calendar indicates that chats are indeed scheduled, rather than ad hoc; another sense in which time operates. We can also see through this the cyclical nature of most chats; daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Initially it might appear ridiculous that some chats take place in the early hours of the morning, but of course the calendar can only display the time-date for a single time zone, which happens to be the time zone of the curator of the calendar. I feel obliged to wonder though that if I click the link to shift the calendar from EST to PST, am I swapping to a different chronotope? And of course do people participating in the same chat, but who are in different time zones (and are therefore also geographically distant) occupy (produce?) different chronotopes? Or might each person being learning within their own individual chronotope, whilst simultaneously be learning within a publicly shared one?

Much of this is what Bloome et al (2009) term quantitative processes, but there’s also the qualitative features of chats. People often talk about the pace at which chats proceed as being frenetic, or (without using the term) how chaotic the timespace is, with tweets and replies becoming separated making it difficult to follow threads. Some have even devised #slowchats as an antidote to being overwhelmed by the rather frenzied activity. Slowchats proceed in a similar way to other chats, but the questions are posed over the course of a week and participants can respond at any time, rather than being confined within the scheduled time slot. Different types of chats consequently appear to configure timespace differently.

So what?

Having briefly introduced the concept of chronotopes and then reflected on how they might be manifest within Twitter, what matters for my research is how those ideas might relate to teachers learning through Twitter. I think the first thing this does is require you to look at what is emerging in your research and attend to different things. Wearing a different set of specs provides an alternative view, which might yield fresh insights.

As Kumpulainen et al (2014) found in their study of Finnish elementary school pupils, the dominant chronotope in schooling sees timespace as strictly controlled and circumscribed with little opportunity for diversion or personalisation. The same could be said for teacher professional learning in which school-directed development is more structured, target-driven and is obliged to attend more closely to institutional imperatives than that through Twitter. Timespace is contoured and flows differently in the two sets of circumstances; one could be said to be lumpy and characterised by specific periods of intense activity on a specific issue, interspersed with fallow periods where less happens. The other might be slightly smoother, more regular, less intense and driven less by identified goals – a personalised chronotope? I’m obliged to consider here whether the an individual teacher forms the substrate on which a chronotope is built and therefore if her personal learning, whether through school or social media, simply forms different sub-regions within that chronotope. Alternately she might move in and with timespaces which prexist, so therefore can occupy and shift between several which overlap or intersect. In which case, perhaps chronotopes with different timespace temporo-topographies (my new word!) might suit different learners, depending on their preferences? This could be articulated using Lemke’s (2000) notion of heterochrony, which depicts how various timescales in a learning journey can intersect and generate learning, although this does appear to forefront the temporal at the expense of the spatial. Instead, we might turn to Timmis and William’s (2014) observation that chronotopes act as resources for mobilising human agency and assisting managing the tensions between offline:online, physical:virtual or individual:community. The capacity to reconfigure timespace offers opportunities for more effective sense-making … for the learner, and perhaps the researcher?

 

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics”. Mikhail M. Bakhtin. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. 1981. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990d. 84-258.
Bemong, N., Borghart, P., De Dobbeleer, M., Demoen, K., De Temmerman, K., & Keunen, B. (2011). Bakhtin’s theory of the literary chronotope: Reflections, applications, perspectives (p. 213). Academia Press.
Bloome, D., Beierle, M., Grigorenko, M., & Goldman, S. (2009). Learning over time: Uses of intercontextuality, collective memories, and classroom chronotopes in the construction of learning opportunities in a ninth-grade language arts classroom. Language and Education, 23(4), 313-334.
Compton-Lilly, C. (2016). Reading Students’ Lives: Literacy Learning across Time. Routledge.
Kumpulainen, K., Mikkola, A., & Jaatinen, A. M. (2014). The chronotopes of technology-mediated creative learning practices in an elementary school community. Learning, Media and Technology, 39(1), 53-74.
Lemke, J. L. (2000). Across the scales of time: Artifacts, activities, and meanings in ecosocial systems. Mind, culture, and activity, 7(4), 273-290.
Lemke, J. (2005). 11 Place, pace, and meaning: Multimedia chronotopes.
Timmis, S., & Williams, J. (2014). Lost in transition? Making sense of space: time configurations across workplace and educational boundaries. In Networked Learning Conference, Edinburgh.

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3 thoughts on “Chronotope … sadly, not a Dr Who villain

  1. Really enjoyed reading this. I have been thinking about chronotopes and their possible relationships to figured worlds (both Bakhtin derived/influenced ideas). I find it relatively easy to think about multiple figured worlds co-existing in socio-cultural spaces. So if a figured world has a chronotope that suggests that there may be multiple chronotopes simultaneously existing. My questions is ‘is there a single twitter chronotope?’

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    • Thanks Mark.
      I have to confess to only a limited understanding of figured worlds, but I can certainly see elements of them within the activities that I’m seeing … but that’s not what you asked.
      A ‘single Twitter chronotope?’ In my conception of it, no. If you start at the top level and visit https://twitter.com without logging in, there’s nothing there, unless you choose a topic, or you input a search term. At that point you’ve begun to assemble a chronotope in a similar way that a logged in user will see their timeline. So whether it’s by topic choice, or as a result of the people you’ve chosen to follow, the chronotope you become immersed in is one of your own making. However, I am minded to think that that a chronotope is to some extent a mosaic(?) or maybe similar to a semi-amorphous polymeric molecular structure with tangles and loose connections (https://goo.gl/images/Rdy4a4). I like the idea that there are regions in which molecules (chronotopes) have a degree of alignment, yet are separate. At the same time, there are other regions which seem to have little relation to others, other than one or two points of intersection. However, I’m definitely still playing around with these ideas at the moment … but now wondering whether figured worlds might also have something to add!

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