#TOEthno: is Twitter a “place”?

I’m currently forming research questions for an ethnography of Toronto-based technology and design workers. I am working through this question: is Twitter a “place”?

In her 2000 book Virtual Ethnography, Christine Hine argues that there are two analytic strategies to see “cyberspace.” First, one can view it as a “place,” where social norms emerge. Or second, one can view it as a cultural artifact. The second view allows us to see the designers behind the technology. Think of it as a hermeneutics of a technology, which allows us to see what assumptions its designers about their users (this is an approach that will make sense to interaction designers).

I believe Twitter to be a place, but one that is heavily influenced by its architects and its users. In other words, its design sets the stage for certain kinds of interactions, just as prisons, malls, and casinos do. The architecture of Twitter, which includes its dozens API-driven applications as well as its simple, Web-based interface, is constantly evolving by its network of users, API application designers, and the company of Twitter itself.

This approach suggests that Twitter has “interpretive flexibility,” which is how technology theorists argue that design is determinant; users decide how a technology will actually be used, within the confines of the material form of that technology.

Do you believe Twitter is a “place”? What kind of place? Or is Twitter a technology or technological artifact?

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3 responses to “#TOEthno: is Twitter a “place”?

  1. Iit seems to me to be like a cocktail party or an agora or a ‘local’ (pub). Lots of one-to-one; one-to-many; and one-to-many-disguised-as-one-to-one exchanges. Lots of unintentional and intentional ‘overhearing’ and shifts of focus. Primarily a means of communicating/meta-communicating with people you know and those you don’t.

    Is a party a place? An event? Don’t have the right word at hand. Prisons, malls and casinos all have ostensible functions or rules of entry/access. An empty prison would be identifiable as a place of incarceration. Access to Twitter is unrestricted (relatively) and its functions malleable. Whatever the API, Twitter relies on its (social) content.

    Great question.

  2. Intriguing question. To be sure, the architecture or the tool sets the stage for certain types of interactions, as you say: I have different sorts of conversations, if that is the term, on Twitter than I do on the phone, in a meeting, or in bed with my wife, for that matter.

    But on a first take I don’t think Twitter is a place; no more than the telephone or piece of parchment and a quill are places. Speaking just for myself, I certainly don’t have the feeling I am anywhere except at my desk when I’m “talking” to people on Twitter. And I don’t think anyone I’m talking to is anywhere but at their desk. Moreover, I don’t sense any of the people I’m following acting in any other way than what would be covered by rules of common courtesy and decency such as would be used in a face to face conversation.

    That must mean I believe Twitter is a technology. (I’m not even sure the virtual worlds of 2nd Life and so on could be called places.)

  3. yellowsubmarinequal

    It appears to be a place for me also. And as all places, it imposes on its inhabitants. A mouse cannot do anything else than go through the labirinth. If the architect puts a wheel in the maze, the mouse has the ability to use it or not or even to some extent to change its designed purpose (let’s say use it as food tray). But it cannot make that wheel fly does it? So it is a place that offeres some freedom but only to a limited extent essentialy stipulated by the architect. This is somewhat link to my post http://yellowsubmarinequal.wordpress.com/

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