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Backchannel Persistence and Collaborative Meaning-Making

Backchannel Persistence and Collaborative Meaning-Making

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Published by Brian J. McNely
Pre-publication version of my article for the proceedings of the Special Interest Group for Design of Communication. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, October 5-7, 2009.
Pre-publication version of my article for the proceedings of the Special Interest Group for Design of Communication. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, October 5-7, 2009.

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Published by: Brian J. McNely on Oct 14, 2009
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Backchannel Persistenceand Collaborative Meaning-Making
Brian J. McNely
Ball State UniversityDepartment of EnglishMuncie, IN 473061.765.285.8580
 Digital backchannel communication has become an increasinglyimportant area of study for researchers and practitioners in severalfields. From the emergence of wifi-enabled Internet Relay Chat(IRC) to contemporary instances of microblogging and SMSmessaging, the role of digital backchannels in enablingcollaborative affordances has received much recent attention. As backchannel communication continues to become more prevalentat professional conferences, in educational curricula, and inorganizational settings, robust frameworks for understanding therole of backchannel environments in collaborative meaning-making are needed. Drawing upon cultural-historical activitytheory and actor network theory, this paper explores thedevelopment of backchannel
through microblogging platforms, and suggests an approach to studying the collaborativeaffordances of backchannel communication by focusing on therelated concepts of 
Categories and Subject Descriptors
 H.5.3 [
Information Interfaces and Presentation
]: Group andOrganizational Interfaces – 
computer-supported cooperativework, web-based interaction, theory and models.
Computers and Society
]: General.
General Terms
 Human Factors, Theory.
 Backchannel, persistence, mobilization, recursion, microblogging,Twitter.
While definitions of backchannel communication vary withcontext, generally “the central function of the backchannel is itsuse as a secondary or background complement to an existingfrontchannel,” where the frontchannel discourse is driven by anynumber of potential actors, such as a speaker at a professionalconference, a member or members of an organizational team, or an instructor in an educational environment [1, p. 852]. Digital backchannel communication has become more prevalent in recentyears with the proliferation of wireless networking and mobilehand-held devices which leverage the capabilities of cellular networks. Moreover, the increasing ubiquity of such technologieshas led to a concomitant acceptance of these tools in a variety of settings as a standard accompaniment to frontchannel discourse.Early studies of digital backchannel communication were focusedon MUD and MOO environments [2], and more recently, onInternet Relay Chat (IRC) channels that operated within thecontext of professional or academic conferences [3]. Backchannelcommunication has often been characterized as informal, and inmany cases it has been considered disruptive, ephemeral, andinconsequential [4, 2, 3]. On the other hand, studies of the backchannel have indicated the potential affordances of suchenvironments, where invention can be fostered [5], commonground can be developed amongst participants [6], and learningcan be enacted and transformed in significant ways [1]. Thegrowing acceptance of digital backchannels has led to researchwhich explores these potentially positive collaborativeaffordances in more detail.
Microblogging as Backchannel Activity
Microblogging involves the “posting of small pieces of digitalcontent—which could be text, pictures, links, short videos or other media” to web-based sharing services [7, p. 1]. Scholarshipand organizational study of backchannel communication hasrecently developed in concert with the growth of microblogging, primarily due to user-driven trends which have seenmicroblogging services privileged as platforms for backchannelactivity. Consequently, some current research on backchannelcommunication has simultaneously explored microblogging, or vice versa [8, 9, 10].Part of the reason for the success of microblogging as a means for mediating backchannel discourse can be explained by describingattributes which previous backchannel platforms lacked. For example, backchannel communications occurring in MUDenvironments or chat rooms were by nature ephemeral; they alsolacked public visibility and were seen as discursive spacesavailable only to a very limited set of users [2]. Moreover, a primary complaint of researchers was that such backchannels
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for  personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies arenot made or distributed for profit or 
commercial advantage and thatcopies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copyotherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists,requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.
October 5–7, 2009,
Bloomington, Indiana, USA.Copyright 2009 ACM 978-1-60558-559-8/09/10...$10.00.
were not
; in other words, conversations were difficult tocatalogue or otherwise preserve for later study and analysis [2].Microblog services, by comparison, are both
andsearchable—like blogs and databases—while simultaneously providing the lightweight and conversational architecture of IRCor SMS messaging. The leading microblogging service, Twitter,is markedly visible and public, and messages posted to the serviceare searchable within its proprietary search engine and alsoindexed by search engines such as Google or Bing.Consequently, the
of microblogging as a platform for  backchannel communication has led to increased affordances for collaboration, since the backchannel is no longer ephemeral or restricted by time and space to a particularized frontchannel event(such as a professional conference, for example). Most importantlyfor the purposes of this paper—at least in the case of Twitter— microblogging as backchannel technology carries the addedaffordance of 
through SMS messaging capabilities [8].
Studies exploring digital backchannels and microblogging have been undertaken in organizational settings [6, 8], in education [1,2, 5], and within the broader public [9, 10]. Most studies point outthe positive and negative features associated with these forms of discourse, while seeing potential in the rapid adoption and growthof backchannel communication in these settings. Several studieshave focused on Twitter because of its publicly available andsearchable data set. There are, however, a number of competingservices which offer microblogging capabilities, such as Jaiku,Facebook, FriendFeed, and Yammer.A study by Kellogg, et al, contends that “in professional and work settings research consistently shows a high degree of appropriateness in use of chat and backchannel tools” [6, p. 452].They also suggest that backchannel communication can help usersdevelop and/or build from common ground in work environments.Zhao and Rosson [9] argue that informal communication in theworkplace can potentially support the following activities: the“sharing of work-relevant information among employees;coordination of group activities; and social functions such as thetransmission of office culture and maintenance of commonground and a feeling of connectedness between co-workers” [p.243]. They also suggest that microblogging provides acommunication channel for sharing information in the workplacewhich is not likely to be shared using existing channels such astelephone, IM, or email [9, p. 243].Backchannel communication in educational environments has been studied in a variety of disciplines. In an exploration of a pre-digital backchannel, Brooke [4] argued that discourse whichaccompanies frontchannel instruction “necessarily involvesstanding outside the roles and beliefs offered by a socialsituation—it involves questioning them, searching for newconnections, building ideas that may be in conflict with acceptedways of thinking and acting” [p. 141]. Yardi [1] argued that backchannel communication could foster a form of peer-to-peer learning and collaborative discussion, where students could beafforded the digital space to work out amongst one another theideas being discussed by the instructor. Yardi suggests that“students are creating their own knowledge by having thefreedom to direct the backchannel discussion in ways that arerelevant, contextual, and instructional for their own learning purposes” [1, p. 854].A recent report from Educause [7] claims that “microblogging isan increasingly important tool for communities of practice”within higher education, “enabling scholars to communicateinformally on subjects of shared interest and to open windowsinto their own projects, sparking interest and discovery among peers,” a contention which echoes discussion of microblogging inworkplace settings [p. 1]. The report similarly argues that whenmicroblogs are used as a collaborative tool, the platform canallow “colleagues to share information while providing an easymeans for them to stay connected through a project life cycle” [7, p. 2].Finally, studies of Wikipedia that closely examine the talk pagesand edit history for a given article are ostensibly exploring backchannel environments which display robust persistence.Shirky [11] discusses the spontaneous division of labor and power law distributions
which can be traced in the edit history pages of a given Wikipedia article, and both Swarts [12] and Slattery [13]argue that these edits may constitute a form of backchannelcommunication which results in the negotiated construction of “fact” within Wikipedia's “extra-organizational hub of distributed,ad-hoc activity” [13, p. 2]. In these instances, the preservation of the backchannel is crucial to the exploration of collaborativemeaning-making, as the edit history pages allow for the“surfacing” of the “conditions of fact construction” [13, p. 4].
Perhaps the most important characteristic common to each of thestudies of backchannel communication discussed above is the practice of 
as essential mediator in the construction of meaning. Dautermann [14] argues that “writing can be thought of as mediation among the perspectives of those who generate,regulate, and use the discourse produced” in a givencommunication environment [p. 99]. Dautermann [14] studiedworkplace writers in a hospital setting and noted that informalcommunication between members of team helped build a sense of community and pave the way for more formal writing work.Following LeFevre [15], Bruffee [16], and several other researchers in writing studies, Dautermann [14] saw collaborativewriting activity as a key driver of social meaning-making.Similarly, Swarts [12] notes that “knowledge is negotiated andnegotiation requires a different kind of cognitive effort thansimple sharing” [p. 2]. In forms of coordinative online activitymediated by writing production, such as the construction of aWikipedia article or participation in a persistent backchannel likeTwitter, meaning-making is built “through back and forth writing,editing, and revising, through periods of negotiation” [12, p. 2].
Exploring power law distributions helps explain unaffiliatedyet coordinative activity in complex online systems. Accordingto Shirky, “power law distributions tend to describe systems of interacting elements, rather than just collections of variableelements” [11, p. 128]. “My use of Wikipedia is notindependent of yours,” he says, “as changes I make show up for you, and vice versa” [12, p. 128].
These periods of negotiation may be seen as tests in thedevelopment and ongoing configuration of provisionalknowledge. Persistent digital backchannels, therefore, act asstable writing environments for the continual mediation of  provisional knowledge, whether in workplaces, classrooms, or  publics.Because Wikipedia, as Slattery [13] notes, is infinitely editable,knowledge and facts are theoretically provisional. Shirky [11]argues that contributions to a Wikipedia article can beincremental; “every edit is itself provisional,” he suggests [p.118]. The often incremental, provisional nature of meaning-making on Wikipedia is beneficial because it allows poor or disruptive changes to be negotiated and remedied; moreimportantly, however, the provisional and negotiated nature of knowledge construction on Wikipedia is important because, asShirky contends, “human knowledge is provisional” [11, p. 119].Meaning-making in this framework is collaborative, definitionscan shift, and such activity is surfaced in writing work which is persistent and searchable.The kinds of negotiated meaning-making that take place in thedevelopment of Wikipedia articles are also prevalent in digital backchannels. In discussing weblogs, Shirky [11] suggests acontinuum of audience size and communication pattern that variesfrom “broadcast” to “tight conversation,” with a nebulousconstruct of “loose conversation” that falls somewhere in between. Microblogging, for most users, tends toward looselyformed, potentially coordinative networks mediated in andthrough writing activity, where meaning-making can benegotiated collaboratively without many of the formal strictureswhich govern fact creation in Wikipedia.In organizational and educational settings, such loosely formedcollaborative networks may be ideal, as they afford both tightconversation (with co-workers or classmates) and interaction witha public community through direct and informal addressivity [see8]. Moving forward, researchers of digital backchannelcommunication will need strong frameworks and methods for investigating these complex writing environments. The remainingsections of this paper explore such frameworks, drawing fromcultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and actor network theory (ANT) to consider 
in the persistent digital backchannel of microblogging. There areinherent tensions in bringing together these different theoreticalapproaches, the exploration of which are beyond the scope of this paper. However, exploring the complexity of persistent digital backchannels requires the simultaneous consideration of multipletheoretical frames; this paper acknowledges the difficulties of doing so, and suggests approaches for further study.
Recently, several scholars in rhetoric and technicalcommunication have drawn from cultural-historical activitytheory (CHAT) and actor network theory (ANT) in an effort toexplore distributed writing work in online environments [12, 13,17, 18]. While there are similarities and affinities in boththeoretical frameworks, the relationship between CHAT and ANTis contested. This paper does not suggest a seamless connection between the two theories; instead, this section calls upon relatedresearch from
actor network theory and cultural-historicalactivity theory to posit an approach to the study of backchannel persistence and collaborative meaning making that considers thecomplex notions of mobilization and recursion, suggesting buttwo components of a framework for further research on backchannel communication. Consequently, this paper draws primarily from actor network theory, but calls upon cultural-historical activity theory to posit a broader understanding of recursion in distributed, networked writing.
While the term
may connote the notion of “mobile”or “mobile technologies” for many audiences, in actor network theory,
is meant to evoke a sense of “mobilizing,” of  bringing about action. Yet in this section, both connotationsshould be considered simultaneously, for persistent backchannelcommunication as practiced in microblogging carries the potentialfor a broader, multivalent sense of mobile technology, mobility,and mobilization.Potts [17] argues that “Latour's ANT is a relatively simple yetenormously effective means of pinpointing instances of sharingand cross-referencing information across the social softwareecosystem” [p. 285]. Potts contends that ANT can allowresearchers to “look across the mediascape of technologies and people to identify and understand the traces of movements” whichconstitute online work [17, p. 285]. Significantly, ANT tracessuch movement through actors in a given network, who may behuman or non-human, and who have “equal agency to affect anygiven situation” [17, p. 286]. In this framework, themicroblogging service, the mobile devices and computers whichare used to post messages to that service, and the individualswriting those posts are all actors who comprise “an entirelandscape of active participants [. . .] that come together to create,share, and validate information” [17, p. 286]. As Potts notes,Latour [19] and Callon [20] refer to these participants as
who translate “data into information through anextended process of 
 problematization, interessement, enrollment,
” [17, p. 286].Drawing from Callon's [20] four-stage schema for the translationof information, Potts [17] describes the fourth and finalmovement,
, as the collaborative effort to “mobilize[...] peers to action” [p. 290]. Interestingly, the notion of mobilization is especially multivalent when viewed within thecontext of Latour's [19] formulation, and when applied to persistent and mobile backchannels such as the microbloggingservice Twitter. Latour [19] sees mobilization as displayingcharacteristics of “mobility, stability or combinability” [p. 223].Latour, it should be noted, sees these factors as potentiallycontributing to power inequities and domination—factors whichshould always be considered in explorations of collaborativework.Perhaps most importantly, the notion of 
in Callon’s[20] work may also refer to a unifying agent or spokesperson whohelps organize and prompt the involvement of other actors. InPotts’ [17] study, an individual named “Storey” acted as amoderator (and thus spokesperson) for the most active Flickr group tracking the London bombings of July 7, 2005. Similarly,the user-generated tag “bomb” also acted as a unifying agent for actors uploading or searching photos about the event. In

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