As I was writing the preceding post in which I introduced chronotopes and the notion of timespace, as a former physics teacher, I couldn’t help but reflect on Bakhtin’s inspiration, Einstein’s spacetime. I suspect that after poaching the idea of time and space being interwoven and co-constitutive, Bakhtin took the physics no further. I wondered therefore whether there might be other aspects of the physics concept that might be usefully ported across to the sociolinguistic.
When spacetime is mentioned, those who may already have heard of it will often conjure up the above image to conceptualise it. This is a particular example in which mass distorts spacetime in a specific way. This distortion in spacetime by one mass will have an effect on another mass in the proximity, manifest as an acceleration towards the larger mass1. We conceptualise the force that causes that acceleration as gravity.
We can now turn turn to the chronotope and ask if there might be a similar concept – might there be something which distorts timespace in a similar way? To answer that, we need to think of an equivalent to mass; the greater the mass, the greater the distortion (in physics and spacetime, the greater the gravity). Restricting myself to the focus of my study and the Twitter chronotope, what might serve as a mass equivalent? One contender might be followership; do people with more followers (celebducators) have a greater effect on timespace than those with fewer? Well, the more followers you have, the greater your reach and the more likely each tweet you produce will touch more people. If that tweet contains a hyperlink for example, then more people following that link results in a greater expansion of timespace. If on the other hand, the tweet contains a provocative or contemplative statement, the greater reach that a greater followership provides might extend timespace by increasing the longevity of the tweet through retweets.
Having just suggested that tweets may contain different content and/or be composed differently, perhaps tweet content might also distort timespace in different ways? Research that Twitter undertook, if it is to be believed, showed that different content produces different levels of engagement, with images generating the greatest bump. Including these supplements in tweets distorts timespace by attracting more people’s attention or inviting their activity; a photo for example will quite literally take up more space in a timeline.
One supplement in particular which I’ve discussed many times before is worthy of consideration in its own right for the way in which it can impose itself on the Twitter timespace. Twitter’s algorithms maintain a record of the number of tweets which contain particular hashtags. The most frequently used tweets during a particular period are said to be ‘trending’ and influence timespace by appearing alongside the timeline in a ‘trending’ list. Perhaps the uppermost hashtag in this trending list (13:00 on 27th April 2017) generates or constitutes its own chronotope?
On the Twitter homepage, or within an app, there is a wealth of interactive, clickable buttons; following, liking, retweeting, replying. All of these influence timespace, although in different ways. A ‘Like’ may influence a tweet’s author to behave in a different way in the future, whereas a reply might have an immediate effect by opening a dialogue (or multilogue) between people and thereby changing the composition of the timeline. The ease with which these buttons can be activated means they have a greater timespace distortion potential than say, including an image in a tweet which requires an additional layer of action and therefore takes longer to implement.
Anyone wishing to be more strategic, or simply more knowledgeable, about their Twitter activity can follow a link through to their analytics page. One might almost call this a visualisation of your Twitter timespace where activity during specific time intervals is presented. Having access to a visible and interactive representation of your timespace provides the opportunity to jump back to significant moments and reflect on their consequences or impacts.
One effect which might be considered to cause the biggest timespace distortion of all is the frequency with which you tweet. The more times you tweet per day, the more often your tweets will appear in other people’s timelines. If each tweet is of sufficient quality (as perceived by your audience), then that may invoke similar effects to those we saw with celebducators. However, if those tweets are cause irritation, then that might cause people to ‘unfollow,’ ‘block’ or mute your tweets. Unlike gravity in the spacetime model, in timespace we have the possibility of a repulsive force.
In the Twitter chronotope, there are certain properties which have different effects on timespace. As timespace is distorted, the impact it it has on other people will change. If they’re there to learn, then the consequence is an effect on their learning, one way or the other. Those people who are metaphorically ‘massive’ have the greatest effect of all, so perhaps the timespace equivalent of mass is power? Those who tweet more or have more followers generate bigger effects and either influence more people, or influence people more. The influence they exert can be positive, but equally might not, as recent examples described by some as ‘bullying’ attest. No different of course to the learning environment of the school classroom, where there are those who exert disproportionate influence on that timespace, either positively or negatively.
Although I’ve made at least a partial case for the ways in which the timescape on Twitter can be distorted, it’s perhaps useful to consider what effect this has on the learning of those who are there for that reason. A distorted timescape might result in learning changing direction as new views are assimilated. It could mean that the time needed to traverse a particular learning pathway is extended as a result of distractions, or shortened through new insights.
The ripples which extend from the brief disturbances of individual tweets appearing in the timespace might attract the attention of others and encourage them to forge connections through following. The networks which form from people connecting (Tribes? Communities?) are like stars aggregating into clusters – bigger overall mass, bigger overall effect.
I wonder how much of this is a flight of fancy, or theoretical playfulness and whether there’s any value in pushing it further? Revisiting the data I’ve collected so far might give me some clues …
1Yes, I am aware the two masses accelerate towards one another.
For those who are less familiar with the notion of spacetime, this might provide a gentle introduction: