Movement of Ideas Project: Following trails

In ‘Reassembling the Social: an Introduction to Actor-Network Theory’, Bruno Latour (2005) described the acronym ANT as ‘perfectly fit for a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler’. Perhaps an apposite description for adopting a sociomaterial sensibility in the way I approach exploring how ideas move … although hopefully with a more perceptive sense of vision. I proposed in my thesis the notion of flânography which is conducted:

… at a casual leisurely pace involving strolling or wandering, though not aimlessly in the way of flâneurs of old, but with purpose. Careful scrolling through a timeline and following leads which arise, similar to the way a flâneur might turn down a side-street or into an arcade.

Adopting a sociomaterial sensibility conceives the field of study:

… as assemblage where the field becomes performed as I begin scrolling through my timeline, when I open Tweetdeck to monitor the search columns, when I join a #chat, follow a link to a blog site and ask a question, or capture a tweet exchange with Treeverse. Together they produce the field as a shifting, shimmering, expanding cloud in continual flux, where connections are continually made, broken and remade.

Although these observations give some sense of the underlying principles of this approach, they don’t help with the particulars. If I was unfamiliar with this strategy, what would I specifically do in following links or hashtags? Imagine first that, rather than exploring movement of ideas for practice in literacy teaching, I’m looking at how ideas for practice move in secondary science teaching. I come across the following tweet:

The above tweet (and it’s better viewed by clicking on the date) is sharing an article from Open Culture in which some of the human body’s biological systems are depicted with a steampunk aesthetic as mechanical. Rather than unpacking the idea itself, let’s explore how it is mobilised. We can begin to trace pathways in two directions – where did these ideas come from, where are they being passed on to and how is that mobilisation being achieved?

Firstly there is a url which links directly to a YouTube video which forms the subject of the tweet, but in addition, the source of the url is acknowledged – an Open Culture article – with a hat tip (HT). Twitter has hidden the second url (the link to the article) by replacing it with a Twitter Card – a small preview of the article. These sources which led to the tweet, both the YouTube and the Open Culture article, can be accessed and explored using the links. The preview might serve to recruit others who might be interested in these ideas, whilst the urls provide the pathways to access the information.

There are two threads to explore when looking outwards from the tweet, one implicit and the other explicit. The tweet author has just over three thousand followers, so potentially, the ideas in the tweet could drop into each of their timelines, however, it is difficult to know precisely what proportion they do reach. Of those whose timelines the tweet does drift through, for many it may not even register, and whilst some may indeed view it they have no interest in the topic. In neither of these two instances are the ideas in the tweet further mobilised. [Note: when viewing other people’s tweets you do not have access to their Tweet Analytics, however, as the tweet author, on this occasion I do. Twitter tells me the tweet had 1300 ‘Impressions’ (the number of times a user is served a Tweet in timeline or search results) – is it common that approximately a third of your followers will ‘see’ any tweet? Also within the analytics I am informed that four people clicked on the link or the card and four people expanded the tweet to read it fully. As stated, unfortunately these metrics are not available when researching the mobility of ideas in other people’s tweets.]

There are two hashtags included in the tweet so it is possible that anyone following either of these may also have seen the tweet. As a researcher, I might want to explore these hashtags two to gain a sense of the environments into which the above tweet was launched. What kinds of ideas are mobilised by these hashtags more generally, and where does that knowledge flow from and to?

A more explicit sense of the effect that a tweet might be having is provided by the ‘stats’ at its foot – the number of replies, retweets and likes. On the surface, these may appear to provide no more than a  rudimentary sense of the engagement with the tweet, however, clicking on them reveals further information and new avenues to explore.

Any replies will be threaded beneath the tweet when it is viewed in full and it may then become clear who has been affected by the tweet; the contents of their replies may reveal in what way. They may agree with, or wish to amend or extend the ideas in the tweet. Those replies may in turn attract further replies as discussion threads begin to unfold, perhaps extending or amending the ideas still further.

Every retweet of the tweet exposes it to the followers of the people who retweeted it – the potential audience for a well-retweeted tweet becomes huge! After clicking on the retweets stat a window opens revealing two lists: one which lists all those who merely retweeted, and a second listing any comments added to the tweet when it was retweeted. Again we’re given a sense of where the ideas in the tweet are travelling and what is happening to them along the way.

In summary, if I had come across this tweet as a researcher, the threads I would seek to follow:

  • The Open Culture article which provides several further links allowing me to trace back still further the knowledge which led to the article.
  • The YouTube video. In addition to forming part of the source material in the tweet, there may be comments below the video which extend or adapt the story still further. [In this instance, that became a more challenging task since many of the replies were not in English. If it appeared that there was interesting material there, I would need to turn to other web tools to help me with translation.]
  • The @openculture mention to see what other knowledge this account shares and the routes through which it does that.
  • The hashtags. Although not solely related to the tweet contents, I would nevertheless want to explore, if only briefly what kinds of knowledge these hashtags mobilised and marshalled, and therefore how this tweet sits alongside.
  • The Likes provide a sense of the constituency of people who are attracted to the ideas in the tweet. Maybe some of those people would be worth following for how and where they share ideas on science teaching practice.
  • Retweets do some of the same work as Likes, but where comments are added with the retweet, begin to open up how the ideas are received, adapted and moved on.
  • Replies begin to reveal the views that people express towards the ideas and open channels for discussion. I’d want to look through the whole thread for agreement with, contention with, or development of the ideas in the tweet.

It’s possible that such an approach was informed or even nurtured by the way I undertook my learning prior to making Twitter the focus of my academic study. Teachers may also find themselves bringing similar techniques to Twitter and in fact:

Perhaps there is something of the flâneuse or flâneur in the way that teachers approach their learning practices on and through Twitter, sometimes setting out with a particular intent, and sometimes wandering where links, hashtags, clicks and taps take them. They are at the one time purposeful and purpose-less, open to serendipity, engaged in what Lemke (2002; 2005) would call a traversal rather than a trajectory. The flâneur never gets a birds-eye view and has to piece their picture together bit by bit in an ongoing process of knowledge assemblage.


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