“Can Twitter learn?”

“Can Twitter learn? Can a tweet learn?”

“Twitter Expert” by mkhmarketing https://flickr.com/photos/mkhmarketing/8540535352 is licensed under CC BY

Two questions one of my supervisors posed in the feedback on a recent draft thesis section I’d submitted. Despite knowing this was playfully provocative, I’m only too well aware that I need to be able to answer questions like this, whatever their intention. In response, I first need to clarify what learning is within the context of my study. Although there’s an imperative to lay that out within my thesis, I haven’t yet done so because I’ve been wrestling with how learning is conceived through a sociomaterial perspective. What better time to grasp that nettle?

What constitutes learning is often unproblematically taken for granted amongst most educators, however, during twenty years of teaching I can’t recall ever discussing it explicitly as an isolated concept. Read More »


What do I share with Olympic heroes?

“BBC Documentary Super Saturday 2012 Olympic Heroes” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/35577018174 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Michael Johnson met Jess Ennis-Hill in a recent BBC documentary about the London Olympics 2012 ‘Super Saturday,’ as we in the UK came to call it. Michael came up to Sheffield to speak with Jess, so there were a few shots from around the city. In the programme, Jess, Mo and Greg spoke about their experiences of the day, and their lives subsequently. From here I could of course take this in the direction of the grit and determination these three folks showed. How they overcame adversity, fought back and earned the rewards they so richly deserved … and then of course relate that to studying for a PhD … but no.Read More »

Learning … loosely?

“Sealion” flickr photo by wwarby https://flickr.com/photos/wwarby/16211398843 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I was catching up with episode three of Loose Learners whilst out running yesterday. Mariana and John were discussing the (mis?)use of social media for sharing, or what for some might be more accurately termed bragging, selling or self-promoting. It was suggested that people come to Twitter with different models of how they intend to use it. Some see it as a purely broadcasting medium, others amplify the content of others, whilst many see it as a place to interact. Perhaps it’s not quite so clear cut and many participants do some of each at different times? I tend to see the ‘fine line’ between bragging and sharing that Mariana and John were suggesting, as an awful lot wider … and fuzzier!. That fuzziness arises as a combination of the ‘intent’ of the user that Mariana described, and the expectations of the recipient. A particular user might have a specific purpose in mind when tweeting something out, but whether that’s perceived as sharing, bragging or self-promotion will also depend on the internal compass within the recipient and what they find acceptable.Read More »

Ghost of Christmas past …

“Working sheepdogs” flickr photo by gwyn_bard https://flickr.com/photos/gwynbard/232674743 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Whilst some hashtags are short-lived, perhaps responding to an event in the educational news (#onboardwithGonski), others are ongoing and in continuous use (#mfltwitterati). Hashtag chats like #ukedchat do the work of both marshalling regular events and serving as a point of contact for those wishing to provide resources or news targeted at a specific community of interest. In a previous post, I wrote briefly about #12daystwitter, a hashtag that appears intermittently, but which recently enjoyed its fourth birthday. This post by Mickie Mueller, the founder of #12daystwitter provides the background and history, but essentially those who join in are set a simple, daily challenge which they respond to through Twitter. The intention is that they learn about participating on Twitter and perhaps have some fun into the bargain. Here I want to delve a little more deeply into what the hashtag shepherding this apparently simple activity actually does.Read More »

Silent majority

When @MartinaEmke kindly retweeted my tweet promoting my last post, she followed it up with this provocation:

Although the people associated with the tweets was beyond the scope of that post, I must confess, it’s a topic to which I’ve already devoted some thought. How might we account for those who remain invisible because they don’t (inter)act? Approaching this with a sociomaterial sensibility, it would be too easy to claim that since there is no action, they cannot be deemed to be actors; they cannot be ‘followed’ and there is therefore little to say about them. Studies of this phenomenon, often called ‘lurking,’ have emerged which frame this behaviour in positive terms (Nonnecke & Preece, 2003; Walker et al, 2013). Crawford (2011) suggests using a metaphor of ‘listening’ as a way to conceptualise lurking. This then redefines the activity from being “vacant and empty figurations to being active and receptive processes.” However, Martina’s question seemed to require a more methodological framing; how does actor-network theory deal with something it can’t ‘see?’Read More »

Deconstructing a tweet

“The Note!” flickr photo by Smitten with Kittens https://flickr.com/photos/annabanana74/3809670806 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Maybe it’s the brevity of being restricted to only 140 characters that causes us to take a tweet for granted. Or perhaps the rate at which we read and produce them has rendered them into little more than message carriers; digital versions of the scribbled notes we might once have passed under the desk in school. Of course they are message carriers, but I’d like to suggest that, thanks to the different components we include, and to Twitter’s algorithms, they actually do much more than that.Read More »

Untangling, then becoming entangled with #NAT5HRUAE

Hashtag. Hash … tag. A symbol and a few characters.

I was pretty sure when I wrote this post about hashtags and how they were used, that it was unfinished business. When the following tweet popped up in my timeline, I knew it was time to pay a return visit:

An initial inspection of Malcolm’s tweet reveals it to be a quote tweet (QT), in which the original tweet is embedded in full (although not shown above), together with Malcolm’s comments. (As a separate issue, perhaps the QT is one way of sidestepping the 140 character limit whilst performing interesting additional work, and is probably worthy of a post in its own right?) In the embedded tweet, we see the original hashtag to which Malcolm was referring, plus two additional hashtags that he used in his own tweet. Apart from their structural difference, are they also performing different work? Before I begin to unpick that, let me first say a little about the exchange which unfolded when I asked Malcolm whether he knew anything more about the hashtag. Now that Twitter threads an exchange of tweets, you’ll be able to follow the whole thing for yourself by clicking through to the above tweet, but let me summarise.Read More »

To do is to be?

flickr photo by benwerd https://flickr.com/photos/benwerd/224640792 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Next Saturday is the 2016 Sheffield Institute of Education Doctoral Conference; I’m both co-organiser and  presenting a seminar. With my pilot study completed, and following a successful Confirmation of PhD seminar, I had a lot of potential topics from which to choose. In a weaker moment, I thought I’d talk about my preliminary findings, as revealed by the sociomaterial sensibility that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is enabling me to bring. The tricky part is that I’ve been wrestling with conceptual approach all year. I guess that’s why I chose to use it to frame my talk; at some point I have to lay out my understanding to scrutiny so that any weaknesses are exposed and I can begin to do something about them. Unfortunately I only have 30 minutes in which to discuss my findings, AFTER having introduced a perhaps unfamiliar audience to ANT, using my only limited (current) understanding. Here then, with only the space afforded by a brief blog post, I’ll attempt to summarise what I intend to cover.

Read More »

Tootling along

When you approach your research with an actor-network sensibility, the one thing that you’re pretty much guaranteed to have absorbed through your reading, is to ‘follow the actors’. The principles in virtual or digital ethnographies similarly encourage you to follow connections and flows; an arguably much easier proposition in the online hyperlinked world than in the offline. It was these approaches that led me to #TootlingTuesday.

Using NVivo, I was working through my first coding pass of a corpus of tweets when a particular tweet caught my eye. A single click on the url of that tweet took me out of NVivo and into my browser so I had a better chance to see it in context. The tweeter’s bio suggested this might be someone I could benefit from following, so, following my usual algorithm, I did a quick check of their last few tweets to confirm that they tweeted interesting material. In their stream I spotted a reference to #TootlingTuesday which further piqued my interest. This was a hashtag I’d not come across before, so I clicked on it to initiate the Twitter search page. A scan through the returned tweets revealed them to mainly be celebrating or praising what others had done or said or shared. But I was keen to know more and see whether my interpretation was correct, so #TootlingTuesday next migrated into a Google search. Although the search results didn’t provide much background, one image which was returned helped a little:

(If you know the origin of this image, please let me know in the comments)

Different search engines were even less helpful, so unfortunately on the basis of the ten minutes I spent, somewhat ironicaIly, I’m therefore unable to credit the originator … or even the designer of the image. If I desperately needed to know, my next step would be to follow it up with some of the folks who’ve been using the hashtag.

When I reflected back, what was interesting was the way in which my actions had been influenced by the materiality within the environments. Initially a tweet appropriated my interests which took me to a person’s Twitter account, where I sought out the standard elements I always draw on; in this case the bio and the twitterstream. From a tweet within there, the #TootlingTuesday hashtag mobilised me into further action to seek its origins. I now needed to employ several search engines. Most of these acted only as intermediaries, briefly taking my inputs, but failing to transform them into anything more meaningful. Google images however became a mediator, serving up further information which transformed my knowledge and understanding of the hashtag – I was changed as a result of the output of the Google search. Are the #TootlingTuesday hashtag and I now part of each other’s actor-networks?

I find myself speculating on each of the transition points where that sequence of activity might have broken down after seeing the original tweet. If the person’s bio, or subsequently their twitterstream had not satisfied my criteria for sustaining interest (perhaps I ought to lay them out at some point?), or if I had not scrolled down sufficiently far, then I would not had seen the tweet containing the hashtag. If it had not been a Wednesday (i.e. just after Tuesday) then the tweet or one similar might have been too far back in the temporal flow of the stream. If the hashtag had not been of interest, or not a hyperlink through which I could immediately access Twitter’s search page and thereby instantly form an impression. If at least one search engine had been unable to provide a significant piece of the puzzle. Is it coincidence that these elements all lined up? Or serendipity? I wondered too about the ways in which other people are enrolled by the #TootlingTuesday hashtag and different paths they take and outcomes which result. Perhaps that’s all part of the richness and variety of learning experiences on Twitter … or anywhere else?

Finally in a more methodological reflection, one might assume that when dealing with a tweet corpus, you’ve left the field and are back in ‘the office’ analysing the data. In one sense that’s of course true, but in digital ethnography, you’re never more than a click away from being back in the field.

Why We Post – Facebooks?

An actor-network theory interpretation of Week 3’s activities on the FutureLearn ‘Why We Post’ course, prompted by a few brief comments from research participants in an all too short video.


Week 3 opened as preceding weeks have done by introducing new field sites; this week was the turn of Turkey and South India:

Here we hear the views of a small sample of the people who live there, edited together to illustrate some of the findings from the study. On this occasion, one of the major platforms is allowed to take centre stage as the participants briefly describe how they used social media. In the accompanying course discussion, several fellow members remarked how dismissive some of those appearing in the video had been of how other people used Facebook – ‘they don’t get it’ remarked a young Indian man. My peers observed how strange it was that someone might think there was a right or wrong way to use social media. Perhaps this reflects their wider experience, being aware that different people use it in different ways.

As the course has unfolded, it’s become increasingly clear how risky it is to draw from one’s own cultural hinterland when interpreting the actions or views of people from other cultures. Although there appears to be some common uses of social media across cultures, we also see heterogeneity too. Rather than imagine this Indian man having a naive(?) view of social media, I wondered whether his notion that there is a specific way in which Facebook is used might be right? Or rather, that there might actually be different Facebooks, each individual user’s practice bringing their own Facebook into being? An example of the multiple realities I discussed previously?

Here then I’ll attempt to interpret three examples from the videos, illustrating three different Facebooks – the Three C’s (because all models these days have to start with the same letter don’t they?). To do that, I’m going to explore different Facebooks, by adopting an after-actor-network theory (ANT) sensibility, tracing associations and revealing the sociomaterial. Providing a detailed description of ANT is beyond the scope of this article (and possibly beyond me!), however, the aspects on which I’ll draw here include generalized symmetry (the idea that human and non-human actors should be afforded equal status), associations (the means by which actors become entangled and continue as such), and mediators and intermediaries (the former being actors which ‘transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they carry’ and the latter which ‘transport meaning without transforming it’ (Latour, 2005)). I’m grateful to Leonardi et al (2012) for helping me begin to understand sociomateriality by first breaking it into materiality (‘those constituent features of a technology that are (in theory) available to all users in the same way’), then reforming it by reminding us that materiality and its effects are actively shaped by and shape social practices.

General principles

Despite there being several Facebooks, there are nevertheless some universals which we’ll interrogate by starting our journey with an individual user who we’ll call Alex. For Alex to ‘get onto’ Facebook, a mediator is required; a device of some kind. That might be a laptop, desktop computer or tablet, or as is often the case, a smartphone. Alone and isolated however, our device (and Alex) remains unconnected. Some means through which the device can become part of the Internet is required – network connectivity. This may be through a fixed, hard-wired cable system; through a local wireless network or through a digital cellular (mobile) network. The device<->connection is significant in what it allows Alex to do and what behaviour it influences. A smartphone with 3g connection is (usually) always on and (usually) always connected. Alex doesn’t have to go to the device and switch it on; it’s ready and waiting … but it’s often impatient. This state of on-and-connectedness invites another actor onto the scene. Push notifications from Facebook (and elsewhere) change Alex’s behaviour over time; the insistent ‘bing’ causing an immediate Pavlovian response to check the phone. A different push notification, delivered whilst at a computer, also clamours for attention by popping up in front of Alex’s forefronted activity, but is rendered latent when you step away from the computer to brew a coffee.

Having leapt too far ahead, let’s retrace our steps to pre-Facebook. Until signing up for an account, Alex and Facebook were apart. Was it an intermediary that briefly came into Alex’s life, initiated the liaison, then moved on? Or a friend with whom Alex subsequently connected and who continues to influence and be influenced by her? The signup process itself might be viewed as an obligatory passage point through which all pre-Facebookers must pass, but as Light and McGrath (2010) observed, there is much to be learned from probing further. The information which is sought and the options offered present different alternatives and begin to set in train the potential for different Facebooks. What details did Alex share and how private did she choose to make them? Will others be able to find her and what she posts later? A few checkmarks (or absences) at this stage will determine the Facebook she starts out with, but also hints at a more fluid conception – a mutable Facebook.

Account created, Alex now has a profile to manage, a profile which might influence other actors in different ways. Also fluid, the profile can change as Alex’s attitudes change and consequently influence the way her network develops. Her profile is only one actor amongst the many now available to translate. The search tool can be used to find other actors, be they people or different forms of content; some will be mediators, some intermediaries. While Alex is reaching out to others, others will be reaching out to her through friend requests, likes, highlights, status updates and ads which arrive by email, push notifications or pop-ups. What will Alex choose to share? A simple textual status update, a YouTube video she found, a re-shared meme from a friend? And what will the outcome be? What fresh associations will those sharings forge and will they be fleeting or long lasting? Is a ‘like’ button an actor before it is pressed? There is much to consider and many traces to follow, even from vanilla Facebook, but let us now return to our Why We Post friends.

The first example I’ll be considering is Connecting Facebook which links you with friends and allows you to communicate with them; would the word ‘traditional’ be appropriate for something only a decade old? Next is Community Facebook where people gather around a shared interest and finally Commerical Facebook which supports business enterprise. I hope to show how different practices, in Mol’s (2002) terms, generates its own material reality; three separate actor-networks. Three Facebooks.

Connecting Facebook

But Facebook is more about connecting with your old friends.. after school your friends may be abroad or you aren’t able to meet or speak even if they are residing locally then you can chat with them on Facebook…that’s what Facebook is about

This Facebook is one where communicating and connecting with friends is paramount. Status updates, messaging and the video call assemble with friends to establish those connections, and continue to do so as network associations continue to evolve through new friend requests, both outgoing and incoming. The friend request as a feature is an important actor here, but perhaps one to be distinguished from individual friend requests (denoted by default colour), which once made and fulfilled, have played their part. It’s like the agency that sticky notes confer or the activity they encourage, versus the one-off outcome of a single sticky note. It’s the (never ending) sticky note pad, versus each note stripped off, used, then forgotten

It would be helpful here to have more data than the brief video sequence available, but instead let us imagine Ajay walking to work. A bing from his pocket signifies that a friend across the city updated his status. This status update prompted the Facebook app on Ajay’s phone (and those of other friends) to enlist the phone speaker to make a sound and provoke Ajay into an action. His entanglement with other actors like status updates, messages and video calls renews his associations. Each anticipates a particular input and encourages specific and different forms of communication; one can be conducted asynchronously and extends temporality, the others demand synchronous participation; a shorter, choppier form and existing of the moment. All are fleeting associations brought into being, then are gone or are relegated by the timeline, yet nevertheless act to maintain the networks. These are the individual status updates, as opposed the feature, status update; specific messages as opposed to messaging. Status updates are a permanent constituent of Connecting Facebook; status updates are transient. Both cause other actors to do things.

Community Facebook

I created a group there … It is called Dağıskal Network Photography. There, I post the photos I have taken and the ones I edited. Or interesting things in nature… I don’t actually have a purpose, I just want to share in order to get likes.

The usual Facebook actor suspects are to be found acting here, but other actors gain significance. A group has been and is being formed (and reformed), enrolled by another (non-Facebook) actor we’ll call ‘shared interest’ (photography). While other human actors continue to be associated with shared interest, they also remain associated with group. However people may have shared interest, but not yet be members of group. A friend request, a photograph, a status update may translate them into Community Facebook, or search may have helped them seek out group.

Photographs are actors perhaps brought into being by the smartphones which are likely also significant in enacting Community Facebook. The metadata baked into digital photos may have used GIS to imprint the location of the subject of the photograph, each perhaps acting in a different way on members of group. “Where is that temple, so that I can go there and produce my own photos?” “What setting was used to produce such an interesting effect?” The subject of the photo ‘out there’ is brought into Community Facebook, present only in this artefact, but able to act through it.

Commercial Facebook

You cannot have your make up done or your hair done and not have your nails done because this is the number one thing people look at, your nails. The kind of nails people upload is well, you have Instagram now, the ones who have me on Instagram or Facebook once I do the nails they’ll say ‘can you take a pic please’ and they will upload and they will say done by Giselle …

Commercial Facebook may be one of multiple Facebooks, but itself is also multiple. We have learned that some users use Facebook pages to construct storefronts which sell their wares or promote their business. Here however, the photos others post, their status updates, enacting their own Facebooks bring into being Giselle’s widely dispersed and diverse Commercial Facebook. The materials and design Giselle uses to adorn a client’s nails are enrolled by the same client’s smartphone into photographic form and through Facebook have greater reach. The Trinidadian need (as we learned from the findings) to cultivate one’s appearance and be seen to be doing so also contribute to Commercial Facebook. The photo of the nails may translate others to become new clients for Giselle, and who will then further enact and extend this particular actor-network.


Another helpful actor-network term is black-boxing where associations between actors become stabilised to such an extent, they no longer needed to be considered as individuals. They are now black boxed as a single actor within the wider actor-network. I wondered whether to black box the device<->connection, but thought better of it. Change the device or interrupt the connection (highly likely with any form of wireless connection) and the associated elements within the actor-network are invoked differently. So no black-boxing here.

As my first ANT interpretation, I have to confess how much I struggled choosing words. This stemmed from three sources:

  • My inexperience with ANT
  • That there have been different phases of ANT. Undertaking a largely after-ANT view here, is it legitimate to use vocabulary and concepts associated with earlier versions?
  • I’m not sure yet how explicit it is necessary to be when describing the actions of actors. Do they have to be names as such?
    My worry now however is that I’m beginning to see multiplicity in everything.

Writing this has been a tortuous process for me, but one I needed to undertake to continue my journey of becoming more familiar with ANT. I felt clumsy and know this carried through into the writing, so if I have blundered do please point out my errors by adding a comment. Many thanks.


LATOUR, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the social. London: Oxford, .
LEONARDI, Paul M., NARDI, Bonnie A., and KALLININKOS, Jannis (2012) . Materiality and organizing: Social interaction in a technological world. Oxford University Press on Demand.
LIGHT, Ben and MCGRATH, Kathy (2010). Ethics and social networking sites: a disclosive analysis of Facebook. [online]. Information technology & people, 23 (4), 290-311.