#c3t The Command & Control of Twitter

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On a Socially Constructed Twitter & Applications of the Philosophy of Data

Brian Ballsun-Stanton
School of History and Philosophy The University of New South Wales Sydney, Australia brian@ballsun.com

Kate Carruthers
Headshift Australasia Pty Ltd Sydney, Australia katec@computer.org

Abstract—This paper explores the transformation of Twitter from the traditional developer based command and control into something strangely democratic: a social (re)construction of utility, a twisting of this once unique service to serve the needs and desires, ever evolving, of its users. We explore changes in the social constructions of Twitter and use recent research in the Philosophy of Data to suggest potential explanations. Keywords-Twitter; Social Construction; Philosophy of Data; #c3t

I.

COMMAND, CONTROL, AND COMMUNICATION OF TWITTER (#C3T)

To command is the exercise of authority; to control is to shape the correct responses of those commanded [1]. These military concepts have very little to do with software design. They provide, however, a useful metaphor for exploring the ideas of the democratization and social construction of media. The locus of #c3t in software traditionally lies with the software developers: they assign development goals as mission objectives, command software to be written to fulfill that mission, control the use and release of those computing resources, and communicate the potential mission to customers. Customers then use the software to accomplish the predefined mission. Versatile software can be configured for different, related, missions. This metaphor is the normal way of life [2]. Twitter is an example of an increasing democratization of media that the Internet enables. This shift in control should not be considered a phenomenon of Twitter alone, nor should it be generalized to any Internet based service. Facebook certainly demonstrates the viability of traditional developer C3 structures: they control the computers, the communications, and they alone command the missions of their platform [3]. Initially, the creators of Twitter thought they had created a micro-blogging platform [4]. Their initial offering was that users could post 140 character short statements on the Internet. However, this early concept was overturned by the actual usage of the platform by its early users. The users of the technology co-opted Twitter and its resources against the makers’ original stated intent. Here we see an example of appropriation of media by users where the shift was small, fast, and out of the creator's control: a guerrilla democratization of command.

Much of Twitter’s subsequent growth and evolution as a platform has been in response to user demands and usages rather than from following the creators’ original plan [5]. One of the more striking usages is in appearance. Twitter users are able to nominate an avatar to represent them on the site and to share a 160 character biography in their profile together with a link to another site. Many users change their avatar picture regularly to reflect changes in their personal appearance or to signify support for various causes. Users also customize their Twitter homepage background using various third-party tools. This personalization of their presence on Twitter enables users to construct personal narratives that they communicate by means of these customizations. This customization, however, is radically different from that offered by Facebook: the difference is in the direction of control. Facebook offers a “like” button, allowing users to express their “likes” (however the term is opaquely operationalized by Facebook) on their profile, without changing the layout or fundamental message provided. The locus of c3 resides solely with the developers. The opposite is true in Twitter. With Twitter’s API, clients, and many alternate and communally decided uses, c3 resides with the users: they command the mission, control the objectives, decide on their own communicative protocols (#tags and @replies), and own the computing machinery to a much larger degree than Facebook, because of APIs and local clients. For example, users change their Twitter homepage background and avatars to show their affiliation to particular groups, for example (as of 2 July 2010) a user called @gerdschenkel shows his affiliation with the German soccer team in the World Cup 2010, his work with a company called UBank, shares some pictures of Cambodia and Laos, and provides a link to an external website called Pearltrees. Through this customization, Gerd has been able to share some key narrative about his life and passions. This self-directed customization enables anyone who is thinking of following Gerd to have some idea about his interests and frames his timeline in a nuanced medium. Furthermore, the nature and content of his “public timeline” displays his “communicative mission” (in c3t terms) on his terms by allowing followers to see his present and historical communications.

II.

THE CREATION OF SOCIAL PRACTICES

Twitter’s minimalistic interface allows it to present pliable affordances. Users interact with Twitter via a scrolling pane and a text field. While this field and pane can be embedded in many interfaces, their presence is ubiquitous. There is only one formal constraint to most users: the content they enter must be no longer than 140 characters. Users see this text area with its one constraint and overlay their own constraints onto the service. They can apply semiotic constraints like @replies or #tags. These constraints, originally unrecognized by the system, are an example of user-created signifiers. Users grant special privilege and affordance to these signs, using them to direct other users’ attention. Users created the personal signifier of @name as a way to delineate usernames in a service that lacked any syntax. The original use was in Twitter users co-opting the “text area to report status” affordance of the service into a “text area to respond to other peoples’ reports.” This change was a change in sign usage by users, without any technical enforcement [6]. #tags are a way to link a subject across multiple tweets. While simple text searches could turn up some of the tweets on a topic, the use of #tags was the establishment of a common jargon to promote discussion of a topic with relative strangers. In order to do this, the differentiator of subject had to be minimally invasive and unambiguous. The user creation of a #tag allowed people to hold threaded discussions on topics by referencing a common topical acronym or other jargon-filled shorthand (Gannes 2010). We can find a fantastic exploration of the creation of these practices in Mischaud’s dissertation, Twitter: Expressions of the Whole Self [5]. In this work, he uses content analysis to explore how 60 users have appropriated the question “What are you doing?” to serve their own needs. As he explains, “Empirically, this paper aims to determine the level of malleability of a technology that has several built-in guidelines – an overarching question in Twitter’s case.” Affordances should not be confused with instructions. Twitter’s question: “What’s happening?” is not an affordance. The box, character count, and tweet button, however, offer several. In the understood meta-language of the interface, the text box offers the standard affordance of “type in me.” The character count, after some experimentation, is not an affordance but a visible constraint of the text box. The tweet button offers the affordance of pushing. While there may be instructions to the effect of “type in the text box, type less than 140 characters. Push tweet to publish to your followers.” They serve as an explicit complement to the explicit but unvoiced affordances of the interface. These affordances express the embodied technique of the tool, and provide discoverable rulesets/technologies/methods of interaction. Combined with a timeline, and the follow button, the embodied techniques entice people to form communities, directing them to portions of the tool that will fulfill that designed-in rule. Memes are an important concept in this socially constructed technology. First introduced by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene they describe the means by which the social construction of Twitter has evolved. Dawkins used the term meme to describe the way that ideas and cultural practices replicate [7].

The term meme has come into common usage to describe the viral spread of ideas, sayings and other cultural artifacts via the internet. The memetic spread of ideas has even been commoditized as viral marketing [8]. Curiously, in the realm of social construction, very little care is given to whether a meme is intentionally created. Viral marketing techniques serve as sources of mutation in the idea “ecosystem” just as the normal, unpaid, creative output of people serves. It is this democratization of power that makes the social construction of these technologies possible: these networks do not respect money or position, only the merits of the idea itself. The spread of memes on the internet can be mapped by means of Social Network Analysis and Twitter easily lends itself to this kind of analysis due to the mostly public nature of its content [9]. However, despite the ability to track the spread of memes, they resist traditional command and control mechanisms. Companies must continually reevaluate their social network practices, as the traditional model that of only the PR person being the public face of the company, fails to hold [10]. The memetic basis of the network is indeed the sine qua non of real social constructions of these technologies. With Twitter, people implement an unusual filtering mechanic. Instead of filtering against "bad" things (defined by cultural norms, laws, or what have you), people filter against "boring" or “non relevant” memes. Information, online behavior or online material that, while novel, fails to meet the criteria of interesting or relevant for the user tends to produce extreme boredom, and so actions are appreciated for entertainment value, but seldom replicated. III. SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONS OF TWITTER

Twitter is an excellent example of a socially constructed technology. Inspired by the ideas of Social Construction of Reality [11] and the Social Construction of Technology [12], we define a socially constructed technology as: A tool that has its uses determined and evolved by its users, rather than traditional controlling entities. While all technologies are socially constructed to some degree, the mediating influence of their designers pervades all use. The designer's fiat declares that the intended use shall be the use. Countervailing uses are rare once the technology has been widely adopted and the designers' vision accepted. In the socially constructed case, users assume both the command and control roles. The traditional construction modality stands in stark contrast to these social constructions unwittingly utilized by social media. Twitter's initial intent as a microblogging service clearly demonstrates the designers' intent to have it compete as a one-to-many blogging service in direct competition with the traditional blog engines. However, as usage techniques are user-discovered instead of designer-fiat there is a continuing blithe disregard for the original concept. Instead of drawing usage cues from designers, users draw them from each other, and the others' experiments. We therefore see this tool used for private status updates, public dialogue, fictional novels, hyper-public advertising, and others. As someone invents a new usage method, those who like it

adopt it. By being available for all these uses, the universal tool of twitter can be socially constructed by many communities for their own uses. Until web 2.0 users were given technology by the makers and were unable to change the nature of the application except by usage. Typically, if there was an API it was private and there was cost associated with access to it. Now with public APIs for many web 2.0 applications users can create their own external applications that add to the functionality of the original application. Twitter is good example of this phenomenon. Third party applications using the Twitter public API have been created to meet user needs, wants and desires, vastly expanding the influence of Twitter. By having its uses determined and evolved by its users, Twitter demonstrates a shift in control. They no longer determine the uses to which their services are put, rather, they provide the raw material for users to construct their own understandings. IV. TWITTER AS TOOL VERSUS TWITTER AS TECHNOLOGY

Given a simple enough set of rules-as-tool, the only true constraints on the use of a technology are the techniques we employ to use it. With social computing, the techniques spread as people play with the tools to discover unknown limitations, uses, and revelations. This leap in knowledge transfer parallels the leap introduced by Gutenberg's printing press. As the press allowed authors to encode knowledge outside themselves and distribute it to untold numbers of people, social computing not only allows everyone to do this, but provides inherently democratic means of filtering the wheat from the chaff. Simply, good ideas are repeated and adopted as people see the repetition. Technique transference began as a one-to-one relationship. A mentor would teach their apprentice through the oral tradition. Hand copied books continued this one-to-one relationship, but allowed for the mentor to be dead. The extreme rarity and value of a book meant that only the very rich had access to the necessary leisure to study. Gutenberg's press allowed far more people to use books, and thus changed the technique relationship to a one-to-many. One author, carefully typeset, could disseminate his techniques to many people. Thus, people did not have to reinvent new, novel to them, techniques for their tools. The internet allowed many authors to publish very quickly. The social web, however, by creating a mesh of interactions, allows many people to experiment at one time and to pass the results of that play onto many people. With the above understanding of technology, it is possible to say that the tools combined with the techniques do indeed have ontological values built-in. The tool, bittorrent, is neutral. The technique of sharing Linux ISOs is considered by many to be very beneficial. The technique of sharing music is considered by some to be negative. The important understanding is that social media simply accelerates technique development by making everyone's play available to everyone else. B. Tools, Technologies, and Twitter A tool is a real thing. It is something that exists in the world. A tool allows agents to interact with it and thereby interact with the world [14]. A tool is the product of a science that understands the possibilities of the world and an engineering process that selects a useful possibility. It is a designed thing for a purpose. A technology is a rule-system. It is a series of rules, the execution of which will bring change to the environment [15]. It cares little for specific tools, save that they can do the jobs specified by the rules. We find the “embodied technique” between tool and technology: a tool, informed by technology, which in turn actualizes the technology via its physical body [16]. Twitter is all three things. Embodied technique emerges from where designers base Twitter’s user experience in the updated forms and affordances of past interfaces. As software, it is a tool. It executes code that allows agents to interact. As a social network, it is a technology. The people on the network create their own rule-systems, breed, clone, and mutate them with other observed rule-systems, and disregard all but the fittest.

In order to understand the impact of a socially constructed technology, a lengthy philosophical discussion into the nature of technology is in order. What, exactly, is being constructed? Twitter is a tool and a technology. Like all online systems, it is at its heart a set of rules. The rules are encoded in a programming language. The rules are also encoded in its users' uses. A technology is a combination of a tool and the techniques to use that tool. A wrench without knowledge of leverage is useful only as an object d'art. Knowledge of leverage without a wrench is someone in search of a spanner. A. Tools versus Technologies Before computing, the tools of a technology were epistemologically different from its techniques. Tools were stuff; physical artifacts which one could touch and play with. Tools were made with a technique in mind. While play could discover new techniques, the tools could still perform only one main activity, despite being put to new uses. Designers informed these artifacts, designing them to cheat reality in very specific ways. A spanner provides leverage, despite the different uses to which that leverage can be put. A clock, a tool for measuring time, has far fewer uses, and the corresponding technique is more focused. However, Turing's universal machines changed this method of use [13]. Now, instead of tools being physical things and orthogonal to the sets of rules/guidelines of techniques, the tools were merely strictly encoded rules. The changing nature of the tool was the first major revolution of computing. In this phase of technology, a technique was imagined and from that the rules that the tool embodies were created. Then, as designers studied the tool, they could modify it to accommodate new techniques. The social computing realm changed the locus of control. By providing a forum where users could share techniques with each other, the playdiscoveries of new techniques of one user could be adopted without any intermediaries by others.

The ontological trick is that all three of these things are socially constructed and mutable to appropriate pressures. For purposes of applying pressure, the figurative metaphor of thought capital is useful. It is a social/political and network/knowledge capital [17], held by each of those you follow and those following you. It is subjective, assessed for each social graph. It is an assessment of ideological impact. How important (to your followers) are your thoughts? How important are the thoughts of those you follow? Capital, on Twitter, is the representation of the number of people who will listen to your ideas, and the smaller subset of people who will do something about them. In this social/software milieu, capital is the vector and agent of change [18]. Change in Twitter’s technology is relatively easy: the system the rules govern is flexible enough to allow changes in technology to be changes in behavior. Communities, strongly connected social graphs, evolve their own technologies on top of the tool provided. A community assesses capital, explores possible changes to the rules, and then members decide to adopt or not adopt the new rules based on a number of social factors: value of the rule change, capital of the ones advocating for and against the rule change, and group identification. Changes in tools require far more effort. A tool of Twitter is the Twitter software or things that access its API. API enabled software tools can be created by anyone, for any purpose. These tools serve both local communities of Twitter users and the entire service. As isolated tools, these external services are mostly without worth. It is when a Twitter community “picks up” one of these tools and invests it with thought capital by discussing it that its adoption follows standard trends. A democratic ecosystem of use springs up from local tools serving local communities. Each user chooses to use a tool, or not. Each community discusses a tool, or not. When a tool is sufficiently general, it is then implemented or acquired by Twitter. We cannot so easily explain embodied technique. While technologies are the product of thought capital, and tools the product of the needs of communities, embodied techniques are not a product. They exist as part of the tablua rasa of the unused service and the unjoined community. Embodied techniques are the User Experience concept of affordances [19]. They exist as the insubstantial part of the tool that tells the user about the tool. They are lines of suggested control and communication from the tool to the user, in contrast with the normal computationally enabled communication to other users. V. THE PHILOSOPHY OF DATA AND TWITTER Twitter is founded on exchanges of messages. “Producers produce messages, which are queued, and then are distributed to consumers. Twitter's main functionality is to act as a messaging bridge between different formats [20]. This raises an interesting ontological question in the philosophy of data: where, in Twitter, does the data occur? How, exactly, are the users expressing #c3t? In “Asking about Data” presented in this same conference [21], we can see evidence for three philosophies of data. As a gedankenexperiment, it may be useful to see how these three

types of users would visualize Twitter, both as consumers and as developers. A. User Understandings of Data The three categories of philosophy of data found so far are “Data as bits”, “Data as stored observations” and “Data as hard numbers.” With the data as bits ontological basis, it is clear that the “messages” referred to above are Data. They are stored electronic representations of messages that require format shifting to be applicable. In this purely technological perception of data, the content of the messages has very little to do with the format shifting. It is set aside as the “realm of human interaction” and not something that computers should spend useful time on. Meta-data, as in time stamp, user, and location, are important components of the message stored as data, useful for its delivery. With the data as observations basis, it is clear that messages are merely answers to “What’s Happening?” or however the user’s social network frames the question. While the program encodes these answers as messages, the fact that they are encoded does not make them data. To a data as bits person, a blank message is just as valid as a message containing a marriage proposal, news of a new job, or sympathy for a death in the family. To a data as observations person, the encoding of the data is mostly irrelevant. Meta-data, here, are merely different observations that may or may not become interesting depending on the question. With the data as hard numbers, neither the message nor its content is data. They are certainly technological artifacts, but the data surrounding them is in the “meta-data” of timestamp and location. To the data as hard numbers people, only objective and quantifiable measurements of reality are data. The meta-data of time and location are certainly valid there. Semantic content is mostly invalid outside of coded statistical analysis. The gedankenexperiment of understanding Twitter through the eyes of three schools of thought produces outcomes for both the philosophy of data and the understanding of the social construction of Twitter. If we look at the social construction of Twitter, people understand and create the use of the technology through their interactions with other people in their social networks. As these networks grow and mature, new ideas must come from somewhere. One of the most fruitful places of new ideas is through error [22]. When two people of different philosophies of data are discussing and retweeting new ideas for Twitter, the brain can usually translate if someone has established a local evaluative accent [23] for the content of a particular person. Lacking a perfect evaluative accent, errors can occur. We can see that in the social construction of Twitter, errors are not always an undesirable thing. By changing the meaning behind ideas and reflecting them back to the community, a kind of viral mutation occurs. With this warped replication due to differencing philosophies, new ideas for tool-use, new perceptions of the embodied techniques of the service, and new technological rule-sets come into being. Less usefully, if a user has an imprecise evaluative accent when translating an interface, errors will occur, and will

continue to occur until the user changes their mental model or gives up in frustration. These errors are purely the fault of the designer, as the designer did not successfully understand the constructed reality of the user. The designer, unfortunately, cannot simply give up in frustration when their interface produces too many errors. B. Developer Understandings of Data From a client-side point of view, the differences in the philosophy of data produce interesting interactions in social networks, providing a means for to construct new ideas about the appropriate use of Twitter. However, it is also interesting to explore philosophical difficulties of the developer-side questions of scaling. The developer, however, faces a different task: that of creating a database that will scale to meet the needs of the users. There are two, separate, objectives in that sentence: a database that will scale; and a database that meets users’ needs. There are many discussions, academic and technical, on the nature of scaling [20]. In this, the philosophy of data serves an important role. Technical communication and the philosophy of data intersect in the knowledge of social construction. As protocols are formed ab novo, they are, by definition, entirely socially constructed. The definition and use of certain algorithms or hardware designs over others forms the basis of the social construction of the understanding of the term. As more people adopt, a stronger democratic force is brought to bear. However, as these socially constructed terms are created, the purely artificial (but in no way bad) environment becomes increasingly divorced from the “normal” socially constructed reality. As understanding is deepened in ways that increase functionality, jargon is created. This jargon reflects a specific understanding of the world, unique to the culture that produced it. Consider this dilemma of the designer. As the understanding and use of jargon increases, the users’ needs are filtered through this new understanding of the world and the gulf between the two understandings of reality widens. Realizing that this gulf exists and compensating for it is the primary goal of the designer and the information technologist. VI. CONCLUSION

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The change in the locus of #c3t from developer to user represents a new socially constructed technology. Through the social construction of technology, users influence their computing environment and shape it around their own needs, wants, and missions. Through different philosophies of data, error sparks creativity which in turn generates new affordances, new perceptions of embodied technique.

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