Visualising assemblage

Having decided to attempt to describe certain phenomena on Twitter as learning assemblage, I now find myself in somewhat of a quandary. Earlier yesterday, whilst teaching a group of undergrad BEd with Science QTS students about circular motion, we were discussing the importance of sketching free-body diagrams to aid understanding and problem solving. So perhaps it’s the scientist in me that generates the proclivity to want to summarise situations by using visualisations of one sort or another. A quick scan through the back catalogue of this blog will reveal many examples, however I now find myself struggling and somewhat dissatisfied.

I’ve recently been drafting vignettes in which I describe groups and activity on Twitter as assemblage, but I feel the need to produce a visualisation which captures a sense of what that is. The problem of course is that I’m trying to render assemblage, a dynamic process, as a static representation. But why should that be a problem? That’s precisely what I’ve been doing when producing physics free-body diagrams isn’t it? Representing a dynamic situation through a static diagram?

“Marble loop” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Well yes … and no. This diagram models a situation which is (largely) predictable and governed by principles in which we invariably specify ‘ideal’ conditions. If we change the marble, we can predict and calculate what the new result will be. A learning assemblage couldn’t be further from that as it unfolds and emerges in complex and chaotic ways. There’s no predicting what the outcome of certain perturbations might be. If someone retweets or likes a particular tweet, what on the surface might appear a brief and apparently inconsequential action might produce profound consequences.

Recently I’ve been thinking and writing more about the @EduTweetOz RoCur account and wondered how to represent what it does. What I came up with was, perhaps of necessity, rather simplistic.

“EduTweetOz Assemblage” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

The @EduTweetOz Twitter account is at the centre simply because that was the actor I chose to follow and provided my point of entry. Behind and blending with @EduTweetOz are the changing weekly hosts, who influence what the account does and are influenced by it. The tweets that @EduTweetOz produces might (or might not) be seen by different people who follow the account, who might then (or might not) produce their own tweets as a result. @EduTweetOz might respond to these tweets, might follow the accounts behind them, or might not even see them.

The activity which is generated, whether new tweets or retweets, new relationships established or old ones refreshed, constitutes the assemblage. Maintenance, reconfiguration and extension happen at multiple sites and times, and are ongoing processes which contribute to the learning of all participants. However, in this static visualisation, none of that is visible. It’s partly a snapshot in time, and partly the accumulation of several minutes (hours?) of activity. It’s important to also acknowledge what is missing, what didn’t make the (agential) cut: the @EduTweetOz ‘admins’ who (mostly) invisibly work behind the account; the sister EduTweetOz blog site and the posts which precede each host’s stint at the helm; the retweets, Likes and replies; the devices and infrastructure which enable, or sometimes impair, participation; the offline activity which results or informs what is visible within the diagram. What I offer here then is merely one possible manifestation of EduTweetOz, a condensed one at that.

Dissatisfied with the rather structured and much too tidy offering above, I was keen to explore different ways of visualising assemblage. When I began to explore the #mfltwitterati “community”, I wanted to offer a different summarising visualisation.

“mfltwitterati assemblage” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Although the actor from which my exploration began is once more at the centre, there’s less sense of flow or progression here. The pathways are less clear and all the different elements within the visualisation are interconnected and interwoven. And as I write that, I’m conscious that intraconnection and intrawoven (following Karen Barad) might be more apt terms. ‘Inter’ suggest relationships between separate and distinct entities; it serves to keep them apart. ‘Intra’ as a stem might be more appropriate within the process of assemblage, since entities are inextricably intrawoven and indeed their actions serve to produce one another.  What is completely missing from this visualisation however, is any sense of dynamism. The activity which forms the assemblage is absent and what we see might be considered little more than a catalogue of (some of) the actors. Perhaps an animated view might make a difference?

Here’s an example of how animating an unfolding series of events can help to provide new insights. If you follow this link, then click on Joe’s node (when you have the chance!), then the ‘Replay Tweets’ button as indicated, you’ll see an animated visualisation of tweets containing the #mfltwitterati hashtag by @JoeDale over a period of ten days. The animation suggests a sequential, linear unfolding which might focus attention on some things, whilst obscuring others. It doesn’t produce a better sense of what transpired, but does reveal different things which might not be visible in the finished, static product.

What I have offered here is two different ways of visualising assemblage from many, and what each produces will be different. What might be important is what they do to me as I become folded into the production of them. As I almost completed the second, ‘mesh’ version above, I realised I hadn’t included Joe, a crucial constituent and participant within #mfltwitterati. The act of adding that single Twitter account associated with a person then caused me to review the whole thing and recognise how this rendering is heavily weighted towards the nonhumans. Given that I’ve chosen a sociomaterial approach, that might be a desirable step, and yet, have I allow the pendulum to swing too far? Assemblage may indeed be a process and therefore difficult to represent in a static diagram, but here we begin to see how one assemblage (#mfltwitterati) intersected with and influenced another – the research assemblage in which I’m involved.


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