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Brian J. McNely
Ball State University Department of English Muncie, IN 47306 1.765.285.8580
Digital backchannel communication has become an increasingly important area of study for researchers and practitioners in several fields. From the emergence of wifi-enabled Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to contemporary instances of microblogging and SMS messaging, the role of digital backchannels in enabling collaborative affordances has received much recent attention. As backchannel communication continues to become more prevalent at professional conferences, in educational curricula, and in organizational settings, robust frameworks for understanding the role of backchannel environments in collaborative meaningmaking are needed. Drawing upon cultural-historical activity theory and actor network theory, this paper explores the development of backchannel persistence through microblogging platforms, and suggests an approach to studying the collaborative affordances of backchannel communication by focusing on the related concepts of mobilization and recursive writing collaboration. use as a secondary or background complement to an existing frontchannel,” where the frontchannel discourse is driven by any number of potential actors, such as a speaker at a professional conference, 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 recent years with the proliferation of wireless networking and mobile hand-held devices which leverage the capabilities of cellular networks. Moreover, the increasing ubiquity of such technologies has 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 focused on MUD and MOO environments , and more recently, on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels that operated within the context of professional or academic conferences . Backchannel communication has often been characterized as informal, and in many cases it has been considered disruptive, ephemeral, and inconsequential [4, 2, 3]. On the other hand, studies of the backchannel have indicated the potential affordances of such environments, where invention can be fostered , common ground can be developed amongst participants , and learning can be enacted and transformed in significant ways . The growing acceptance of digital backchannels has led to research which explores these potentially positive collaborative affordances in more detail.
Categories and Subject Descriptors
H.5.3 [Information Interfaces and Presentation]: Group and Organizational Interfaces – computer-supported cooperative work, web-based interaction, theory and models. K.4.1 [Computers and Society]: General.
Human Factors, Theory.
1.1 Microblogging as Backchannel Activity
Microblogging involves the “posting of small pieces of digital content—which could be text, pictures, links, short videos or other media” to web-based sharing services [7, p. 1]. Scholarship and organizational study of backchannel communication has recently developed in concert with the growth of microblogging, primarily due to user-driven trends which have seen microblogging services privileged as platforms for backchannel activity. Consequently, some current research on backchannel communication 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 describing attributes which previous backchannel platforms lacked. For example, backchannel communications occurring in MUD environments or chat rooms were by nature ephemeral; they also lacked public visibility and were seen as discursive spaces available only to a very limited set of users . Moreover, a primary complaint of researchers was that such backchannels
Backchannel, persistence, mobilization, recursion, microblogging, Twitter.
1. AFFORDANCES OF DIGITAL BACKCHANNEL COMMUNICATION
While definitions of backchannel communication vary with context, generally “the central function of the backchannel is its
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were not persistent; in other words, conversations were difficult to catalogue or otherwise preserve for later study and analysis . Microblog services, by comparison, are both persistent and searchable—like blogs and databases—while simultaneously providing the lightweight and conversational architecture of IRC or SMS messaging. The leading microblogging service, Twitter, is markedly visible and public, and messages posted to the service are searchable within its proprietary search engine and also indexed by search engines such as Google or Bing. Consequently, the persistence 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 importantly for the purposes of this paper—at least in the case of Twitter— microblogging as backchannel technology carries the added affordance of mobility through SMS messaging capabilities .
freedom to direct the backchannel discussion in ways that are relevant, contextual, and instructional for their own learning purposes” [1, p. 854]. A recent report from Educause  claims that “microblogging is an increasingly important tool for communities of practice” within higher education, “enabling scholars to communicate informally on subjects of shared interest and to open windows into their own projects, sparking interest and discovery among peers,” a contention which echoes discussion of microblogging in workplace settings [p. 1]. The report similarly argues that when microblogs are used as a collaborative tool, the platform can allow “colleagues to share information while providing an easy means for them to stay connected through a project life cycle” [7, p. 2]. Finally, studies of Wikipedia that closely examine the talk pages and edit history for a given article are ostensibly exploring backchannel environments which display robust persistence. Shirky  discusses the spontaneous division of labor and power law distributions1 which can be traced in the edit history pages of a given Wikipedia article, and both Swarts  and Slattery  argue that these edits may constitute a form of backchannel communication 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 collaborative meaning-making, as the edit history pages allow for the “surfacing” of the “conditions of fact construction” [13, p. 4].
2. RESEARCH ON DIGITAL BACKCHANNELS
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 out the positive and negative features associated with these forms of discourse, while seeing potential in the rapid adoption and growth of backchannel communication in these settings. Several studies have focused on Twitter because of its publicly available and searchable data set. There are, however, a number of competing services 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 users develop and/or build from common ground in work environments. Zhao and Rosson  argue that informal communication in the workplace can potentially support the following activities: the “sharing of work-relevant information among employees; coordination of group activities; and social functions such as the transmission of office culture and maintenance of common ground and a feeling of connectedness between co-workers” [p. 243]. They also suggest that microblogging provides a communication channel for sharing information in the workplace which is not likely to be shared using existing channels such as telephone, IM, or email [9, p. 243]. Backchannel communication in educational environments has been studied in a variety of disciplines. In an exploration of a predigital backchannel, Brooke  argued that discourse which accompanies frontchannel instruction “necessarily involves standing outside the roles and beliefs offered by a social situation—it involves questioning them, searching for new connections, building ideas that may be in conflict with accepted ways of thinking and acting” [p. 141]. Yardi  argued that backchannel communication could foster a form of peer-to-peer learning and collaborative discussion, where students could be afforded the digital space to work out amongst one another the ideas being discussed by the instructor. Yardi suggests that “students are creating their own knowledge by having the
3. WRITING AND COLLABORATIVE MEANING-MAKING
Perhaps the most important characteristic common to each of the studies of backchannel communication discussed above is the practice of writing as essential mediator in the construction of meaning. Dautermann  argues that “writing can be thought of as mediation among the perspectives of those who generate, regulate, and use the discourse produced” in a given communication environment [p. 99]. Dautermann  studied workplace writers in a hospital setting and noted that informal communication between members of team helped build a sense of community and pave the way for more formal writing work. Following LeFevre , Bruffee , and several other researchers in writing studies, Dautermann  saw collaborative writing activity as a key driver of social meaning-making. Similarly, Swarts  notes that “knowledge is negotiated and negotiation requires a different kind of cognitive effort than simple sharing” [p. 2]. In forms of coordinative online activity mediated by writing production, such as the construction of a Wikipedia article or participation in a persistent backchannel like Twitter, 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 unaffiliated yet coordinative activity in complex online systems. According to Shirky, “power law distributions tend to describe systems of interacting elements, rather than just collections of variable elements” [11, p. 128]. “My use of Wikipedia is not independent 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 the development and ongoing configuration of provisional knowledge. Persistent digital backchannels, therefore, act as stable writing environments for the continual mediation of provisional knowledge, whether in workplaces, classrooms, or publics. Because Wikipedia, as Slattery  notes, is infinitely editable, knowledge and facts are theoretically provisional. Shirky  argues that contributions to a Wikipedia article can be incremental; “every edit is itself provisional,” he suggests [p. 118]. The often incremental, provisional nature of meaningmaking on Wikipedia is beneficial because it allows poor or disruptive changes to be negotiated and remedied; more importantly, however, the provisional and negotiated nature of knowledge construction on Wikipedia is important because, as Shirky contends, “human knowledge is provisional” [11, p. 119]. Meaning-making in this framework is collaborative, definitions can shift, and such activity is surfaced in writing work which is persistent and searchable. The kinds of negotiated meaning-making that take place in the development of Wikipedia articles are also prevalent in digital backchannels. In discussing weblogs, Shirky  suggests a continuum of audience size and communication pattern that varies from “broadcast” to “tight conversation,” with a nebulous construct of “loose conversation” that falls somewhere in between. Microblogging, for most users, tends toward loosely formed, potentially coordinative networks mediated in and through writing activity, where meaning-making can be negotiated collaboratively without many of the formal strictures which govern fact creation in Wikipedia. In organizational and educational settings, such loosely formed collaborative networks may be ideal, as they afford both tight conversation (with co-workers or classmates) and interaction with a public community through direct and informal addressivity [see 8]. Moving forward, researchers of digital backchannel communication will need strong frameworks and methods for investigating these complex writing environments. The remaining sections of this paper explore such frameworks, drawing from cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and actor network theory (ANT) to consider recursion and mobilization in the persistent digital backchannel of microblogging. There are inherent tensions in bringing together these different theoretical approaches, the exploration of which are beyond the scope of this paper. However, exploring the complexity of persistent digital backchannels requires the simultaneous consideration of multiple theoretical frames; this paper acknowledges the difficulties of doing so, and suggests approaches for further study.
research from both actor network theory and cultural-historical activity theory to posit an approach to the study of backchannel persistence and collaborative meaning making that considers the complex notions of mobilization and recursion, suggesting but two components of a framework for further research on backchannel communication. Consequently, this paper draws primarily from actor network theory, but calls upon culturalhistorical activity theory to posit a broader understanding of recursion in distributed, networked writing.
While the term mobilization may connote the notion of “mobile” or “mobile technologies” for many audiences, in actor network theory, mobilization is meant to evoke a sense of “mobilizing,” of bringing about action. Yet in this section, both connotations should be considered simultaneously, for persistent backchannel communication as practiced in microblogging carries the potential for a broader, multivalent sense of mobile technology, mobility, and mobilization. Potts  argues that “Latour's ANT is a relatively simple yet enormously effective means of pinpointing instances of sharing and cross-referencing information across the social software ecosystem” [p. 285]. Potts contends that ANT can allow researchers to “look across the mediascape of technologies and people to identify and understand the traces of movements” which constitute online work [17, p. 285]. Significantly, ANT traces such movement through actors in a given network, who may be human or non-human, and who have “equal agency to affect any given situation” [17, p. 286]. In this framework, the microblogging service, the mobile devices and computers which are used to post messages to that service, and the individuals writing those posts are all actors who comprise “an entire landscape of active participants [. . .] that come together to create, share, and validate information” [17, p. 286]. As Potts notes, Latour  and Callon  refer to these participants as translators who translate “data into information through an extended process of problematization, interessement, enrollment, and mobilization” [17, p. 286]. Drawing from Callon's  four-stage schema for the translation of information, Potts  describes the fourth and final movement, mobilization, as the collaborative effort to “mobilize [...] peers to action” [p. 290]. Interestingly, the notion of mobilization is especially multivalent when viewed within the context of Latour's  formulation, and when applied to persistent and mobile backchannels such as the microblogging service Twitter. Latour  sees mobilization as displaying characteristics of “mobility, stability or combinability” [p. 223]. Latour, it should be noted, sees these factors as potentially contributing to power inequities and domination—factors which should always be considered in explorations of collaborative work. Perhaps most importantly, the notion of mobilization in Callon’s  work may also refer to a unifying agent or spokesperson who helps organize and prompt the involvement of other actors. In Potts’  study, an individual named “Storey” acted as a moderator (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
4. ACTIVITY THEORY: MOBILIZATION AND RECURSION
Recently, several scholars in rhetoric and technical communication have drawn from cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and actor network theory (ANT) in an effort to explore distributed writing work in online environments [12, 13, 17, 18]. While there are similarities and affinities in both theoretical frameworks, the relationship between CHAT and ANT is contested. This paper does not suggest a seamless connection between the two theories; instead, this section calls upon related
backchannel platforms such as IRC or Twitter, hashtags (usergenerated text-based signifiers) can serve to mobilize actors, as in the recent and widely publicized use of Twitter as a source of information following the contested elections in Iran. In this instance, the hashtag “#iranelection” arguably served as a spokesperson, and at the least, as a significant unifying agent for both users around the world and those searching Twitter for updates originating in Iran. In instances where Twitter is deployed as a backchannel for a specific event or ongoing project, its inherent persistence and searchability can help provide intermediary stability for mobilization among actors. The growing use of Twitter for backchannel communication is significant for its ability to help mobilize peers in collaborative meaning-making, for its persistence as a stable and searchable online environment, and for its mobility when associated with a hand-held mobile device such as cellular telephone. This last characteristic is especially noteworthy, as it has the potential to foster recursive writing activity that extends beyond the confines of work and classroom.
certain powerful learning strategies” [24, p. 122]. This work leads Emig to suggest that “writing involves the fullest possible functioning of the brain, which entails the active participation of both the left and the right hemispheres” [24, p. 125]. Writing is therefore a bispheral cognitive activity that relies on complex patterns of recursion to mediate meaning-making. Later research in writing studies has continued to explore cognitive recursion in the reception and production of discourse to varying degrees. For example, Sommers  saw recursion as a key component of the relationship between thought and language—the act of translating cognition into discourse (and back). Other empirical studies, such as those by Eklundh  and Reynolds and Bonk  used keystroke analysis to study recursion in computer-mediated writing production. Researchers in writing studies have long viewed writing as placing unique cognitive demands on individuals, seeing writing in particular as an inherently epistemological activity. The act of internally contextualizing and reformulating knowledge through writing leads to the development and dissemination of new knowledge. These cognitive demands are negotiated recursively, leading to writing (and reading) practices that are similarly recursive. Cognitive recursion, therefore, can be seen as necessary to rhetorical invention and creativity, and to the acquisition of new knowledge, activity which is always already social and culturally contingent.
Cultural-historical activity theory has documented recursive writing work in ways which have added to our understanding of knowledge acquisition and retention. Bazerman and Russell  note that writing “powerfully and persuasively mediate[s] and remediate[s] human activities” [p. 1]. An activity theory approach to language and the role of writing in negotiating knowledge “locates rhetorical action within the complex and differentiated activity systems of the contemporary world, and opens up for analysis the many influences written language may have beyond persuasion” [21, p. 4]. Similarly, Prior and Shipka  are concerned with applying CHAT to the tools which mediate writing work, which alter “the flow of behavior” and thus contribute to meaning-making [p. 1]. Prior and Shipka trace “the dispersed and fluid chains of places, people, and artifacts that come to be tied together in trajectories of literate activity” [22, p. 2]; among the factors that they explore is the notion of cognitive recursion which is often prompted by material, spatial, and social cues in a continual process of negotiating new knowledge within the context of prior knowledge through writing activity. Their work is significant for its application of CHAT as a methodology for tracing the actors— both human and technological—which interact recursively in the formation of meaning. Their study builds upon prior research in writing studies, and is corroborated by contemporary research in cognitive science which confirms the role of recursion in epistemological development.
4.2.2 Recursion in Cognitive Science
While there are many excellent studies in several disciplines which explore cognitive recursion to varying degrees (e.g., Nagel and Newman ; Sterelny , ; Lienhard ; Small and Vorgan ), the primary focus of this section is recent research in the cognitive sciences. Research on intelligence, metacognition, and subject formation suggests that recursion constitutes a fundamental mechanism of perception. For example, Hawkins  argues that the brain constructs a model of the world. He contends that “everything you know and have learned is stored in this model”, and that the brain “uses this memory-based model to make continuous predictions of future events” [35, p. 4]. For Hawkins, the brain's ability to recognize complex patterns and make predictions is the “crux of intelligence” [35, p. 4]. His work is concerned with developing a theoretical, neurophysiologically hierarchical model of the neocortex which consists of columns that enable prediction through continuous bottom-up/top-down feedback loops within the cortical structure. He suggests that “every moment in your waking life, each region of your neocortex is comparing a set of expected columns driven from above with the set of observed columns driven from below. Where the two sets intersect is what we perceive” [35, p. 156]. Meaning-making in Hawkins' theory, therefore, is a product of continuous cognitive recursion. He argues that “if you study a particular set of objects over and over, your cortex re-forms memory representations for those objects further down the hierarchy” [35, p. 167]. As representations are embedded further down the cortical hierarchy, the uppermost layers of the neocortex are enacted for “learning more subtle, more complex relationships” between old knowledge and new [35, p. 167].
4.2.1 Writing Research on Recursion
In researching the writing practices of twelfth-graders, Emig  appropriated the notion of recursion from applied mathematics in order to explain the seemingly haphazard cognitive activity that accompanied discursive production. The writers she studied continually shifted among various activities while writing, including brainstorming, reading, note-taking, composing, reflection, and revision, without a clearly identifiable order or rationale. Later research by Emig  draws upon Vygotsky  and Bruner  to argue that “writing represents a unique mode of learning,” primarily because “writing as process-and-product possesses a cluster of attributes that correspond uniquely to
“According to the theory,” he explains, “this is what makes an expert” [35, p. 167]. Hawkins defines prediction as “the application of invariant memory sequences to new situations” [35, p. 184]. These invariant representations and memory sequences are often triggered by “novel situations,” and this leads Hawkins to speculate on the nature of recursion and invention: “creativity is mixing and matching patterns of everything you've ever experienced or come to know in your lifetime. It's saying ‘this is kinda like that.’ The neural mechanism for doing this is everywhere in the cortex” [35, p. 187]. Hawkins' theory of intelligence, based upon a hierarchical model of the neocortex, suggests that pattern recognition and cognitive recursion are at the very heart of meaning-making and knowledge acquisition. Like Hawkins, Hofstadter  frames perception and knowing in terms of the recursive negotiation between remembered constructs and new inputs. He contends that “symbols in a brain are the neurological entities that correspond to concepts” [36, p. 76]. Hofstadter suggests that “every symbol in our brain's repertoire is potentially triggerable at any time” [36, p. 76], echoing Hawkins' claims about reservoirs of accumulated memory representations. He notes that “there takes place a kind of negotiation between inward-bound and outward-bound signals”, the mixture of which “makes perception a truly complex process” [36, p. 77]. Hofstadter  calls upon symbolic analogies in much the same way that Hawkins  articulates frameworks of meaningmaking based upon a memory-prediction model. In large measure, recursion is the mechanism by which meaning is made, and tools and technologies which prompt recursion through collaborative writing activity (such as directed writing in persistent and mobile digital backchannels) can therefore promote significant opportunities for meaning-making. Hofstadter explains that “analogies and mappings give rise to secondary meanings that ride on the backs of primary meanings. We have seen that even primary meanings depend on unspoken mappings, and so in the end, we have seen that all meaning is mapping-mediated, which is to say, all meaning comes from analogies” [36, p. 158]. This is similar to Hawkins' assertion that meaning-making is found in the negotiated recursion of saying “this is kinda like that” [35, p. 187]. Hofstadter sees such analogous meaning-making as structured in “strange loops” [36, p. 102], and argues that recursion is central not only to epistemology, but to consciousness. In both writing studies and cognitive science, and particularly within the rich framework of cultural historical activity theory, recursion is seen as key to creating new understanding and disseminating new knowledge through discourse, and especially through writing. Technologies that are both mobile and social can help foster this rich cognitive activity beyond the environments where learning and research are often situated—in the classroom and in professional workplace environments.
connectivity) creates greater affordances for collaborative activity that is both mobile and mobilizing. Honeycutt and Herring's  study indicates that Twitter users who explicitly engaged in collaborative activity posted updates which were “more likely to provide information for others, and more likely to exhort others to do something” [p. 6]. That these forms of mobilization may be enacted through mobile devices only increases the opportunities for fostering cognitive recursion which tests and shapes provisional knowledge. Zhao and Rosson's  study of Twitter suggests that mobilization of the backchannel can extend the social graph, allowing users in a professional setting to easily follow the work and ideas of others in the field beyond the immediate organization, allowing for the coordination of loose, but related conversations, exchanges, and aggregations of knowledge in a given professional domain. Twitter's web and SMS-based architecture provides workplace users with a backchannel that is both mobile and pervasive, where professionals can share information with co-workers when ideas arise, theoretically prompting cognitive recursion . Yardi  notes that “the more shared context participants [in a digital backchannel] have, the easier it is for them to negotiate their sense of interpersonal trust and reputation and therefore facilitate discussion and conversation online” [p. 856]. Most importantly, a persistent backchannel comprised of a “fostered community of learners will result in greater levels of metacognition, reflection, discourse, deep content knowledge, [and] distributed expertise” [1, p. 856]. Ultimately, the persistent backchannels of microblogging services can promote cognitive recursion and mobilization in obvious, yet important ways: by remaining aggregable and searchable so that discussions can continue beyond finite events, allowing collaborative writing activity to mediate provisional knowledge.
5.1 Twitter and Mobilization
The growth of Twitter as a persistent backchannel and as an important actor in professional and educational activity systems is predicated finally upon several attributes which may explicitly foster cognitive recursion and enable mobilization through collaborative meaning making. They include:
5.1.1 Low Barriers to Participation
Twitter's web-based user interface is extremely simple; new users can establish a free account in minutes, and can begin connecting with other users immediately. While hand-held computing devices and latest generation mobile phones can yield rich user experiences through dedicated Twitter clients (such as TweetDeck and Twhirl), such devices and applications are not necessary for mobile participation in the Twitter network.
5.1.2 SMS Functionality
Twitter allows users in many areas of the world to send and receive updates via SMS, giving users who own traditional mobile phones the opportunity interact with their Twitter network via text-messaging. This is a key factor in enabling ambient research practices, as users needn't be online or in possession of an expensive hand-held or mobile device in order to follow and engage conversations about a given content area.
5. TWITTER AS PERSISTENT AND MOBILE/MOBILIZING BACKCHANNEL
Returning to the concept of mobilization, the use of Twitter as a digital backchannel (or other microblogging services which enable the linking of SMS or other lightweight mobile
5.1.3 Simple Syntax
Users who have device updates enabled for SMS-ready mobile phones can engage their Twitter network anywhere through a simple syntax. For example, user-defined hashtags (e.g., #mobile) create pivots for conversation and research that are aggregable and searchable. SMS users can also exchange direct messages (i.e., messages which are not publicly viewable) by way of a simple syntax: “d bmcnely Can you elaborate on your last tweet?” Mobile users can store important messages for later, by way of a “favorite” function which stores the last update of a given user: “fav bmcnely.”
for negotiating frontchannel discourse socially and rhetorically. With the development of microblogging services such as Twitter and Yammer, and the subsequent user-driven adoption of such services as a platform for backchannel communication, the affordances for collaboration have been enhanced still further, primarily due to the reality of backchannel persistence. By leveraging persistent backchannel environments in the form of microblogs, users and researchers alike have come to see digital backchannel communication as a viable tool for knowledge work in professional organizations and educational environments. The contemporary persistence of backchannel communication has likewise fostered a more robust and stable platform for recursive thinking and writing. This paper posits actor network theory as an appropriate framework for further study of backchannel communication and its role in enabling (or possibly constraining) collaborative meaning making. While the limitations of space unfortunately prohibit an in-depth study of backchannel communication within the framework of actor network theory, this paper is meant to be suggestive of future research. This analysis has taken the notions of mobilization and recursion from actor network theory and cultural historical activity theory and examined them within the context of the persistent digital backchannel, exploring how mobile writing work can mobilize actors and foster knowledge acquisition by triggering cognitive recursion and enabling collaboration. Yet these arguments are by no means complete or definitive. Future study is needed to trace mobile consumption and production in the persistent backchannel, and to trace both recursion and mobilization within organizational and educational contexts. Enacting these studies is complex work which may yield new insights into actors collaborating and negotiating knowledge in burgeoning social networks.
5.1.4 Asymmetric Social Relationships
Whereas several social networks are built upon one-to-one social ties, the premise of Twitter's network is asymmetry: not every person that a user chooses to follow is obligated to reciprocate in order to receive the benefits of reading public updates. For example, an undergraduate computer science student researching software development might choose to follow the updates of a highly respected (and heavily followed) Twitter user, who may not reciprocate. This does not diminish the potential collaborative value of receiving updates from the influential user, nor does it obviate occasional conversation that can occur through the exchange of “@replies,” responses among users which are conveniently indexed by Twitter.
Because Twitter aggregates updates in much the same way that blog software aggregates posts, and because these updates remain searchable, recursion is built into the network's architecture. In other words, public conversations remain publicly available, indefinitely, providing researchers with an archive of information on a given topic. The “favorites” function mentioned above also allows users to collect a subset of important insights or links for later use.
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Distribution is tied to the architecture of simple aggregation. The computer science student mentioned above can easily share information gleaned from an influential user with others in his network. A research leader in a professional organization can easily provide updates to members of her distributed network, no matter where they are.
5.1.7 Real-Time Delivery
For users receiving updates on SMS-enabled mobile phones, new posts from others in the network may populate in real-time, allowing users to engage in collaborative research anytime and anywhere. Real-time delivery to mobile devices can trigger consistent recursion in a given research area or professional domain, bringing individuals collaborative discussion opportunities ambiently, allowing them to accumulate and discuss new knowledge beyond the traditional spaces of research and knowledge work.
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