Looking back on Convergence Culture

Looking back on convergence culture

It’s weird and slightly tiring to realise that it’s now more than ten years since Henry Jenkin’s book Convergence Culture was published (also precipitating Henry’s entry into blogging, by the way). Back then, it highlighted the potential as well as the pragmatic and political challenges of a changing new media landscape in which content was spread across media forms and platforms, and in which fans and ordinary audiences were actively participating as co-creators, distributors and influencers. The book and its related concepts, (like participatory culture) came in for a real beating from critical scholars, but it also sold like hotcakes and made a significant scholarly impact.

It seems a little odd now to think about the extent of the optimism and the curious ferocity of the opposition that were provoked by Jenkins’ take on that moment in digital culture in the mid 2000s— a moment when YouTube was barely a twinkle in Google’s eye, when there was no such thing as a tweet or an iPhone, and Facebook was a website for social networking among college students rather than the enabling infrastructure for Mark Zuckerberg’s domination of the whole damn planet. The trends Henry’s book picked up have in some senses become so much more pronounced; in other ways the concerns around fandom and cultural politics seem almost quaint, overshadowed by issues around surveillance, big data, and online hate.

So it was quite challenging but also fun and sort of nostalgic to be asked to write a short entry on the topic for Laurie Ouellette and Jonathan Gray’s Keywords in Media Studies, out now with NYU Press. I thought it would be nice to share it more widely, so here it is (in final draft form, with academic referencing) below.

Keyword: Convergence

Convergence is a dynamic of change. In the most neutral and general sense, it describes the tendency for separate streams or pathways (whether of matter, of technologies, or of biological life) to come together. Its complement is divergence — the tendency for these same paths and streams to branch, fork, and drift apart.

In the context of media and communication, convergence is the tendency of separate media technologies, cultural forms, and/or social practices to come together to perform similar functions and make new hybrid media systems. In this sense, it is a key driver of economic, technological, and cultural change in the media environment. Convergence, then, is one of the constitutive dynamics of new media (Hartley, Burgess, & Bruns, 2013). To be able to describe and understand the different forms convergence takes is to begin to unravel one of the deepest and most longstanding issues in the history of media studies: the nature of the relationship between technological and sociocultural change.

From the late 1990s through the mid 2000s, the concept of media convergence was especially prominent. It featured in media scholarship, in popular reporting about the internet and digital media, and in media policy circles. There is even a well-respected academic journal that took its title from the concept and the dynamics of media change it represents: the title Convergence: The International Journal of New Media Technologies implicitly suggests that “convergence” is the primary dynamic of new media.

During this peak in the 2000s, the concept was strongly associated with a certain optimistic vision of participatory culture — springing especially from the fact that audiences and fans were now talking about, evaluating, curating, and remixing media content via the same digital networks that media producers were using to distribute and market it. Henry Jenkins is most famously associated with this model of media convergence, and he elaborated the concept in his influential and much-debated book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006).

Tracing the origin of the concept of media convergence to Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983), Jenkins begins with the most orthodox technological definition, which has two parts: on the one hand a single physical medium might perform a number of functions that were previously handled separately (in today’s terms, think of smartphones especially); while at the same time a single cultural function or service can be carried by several different technologies (think of “television” content, which we can now access in a dizzying variety of ways, including via “smart” television sets that run mobile operating systems and connect to app stores). Convergence Culture explores the changing relationships among cultural producers and consumers under these conditions, which are driven both by “top-down” and “bottom-up” logics (18), focusing particularly on the potential for these new relationships to lead to a more participatory culture — hence, the optimism. Jenkins does acknowledge the dangers of convergence, including concentrated media ownership, despite the lower barriers to cultural production afforded by new media technologies. He warns that the “cultural shifts, the legal battles, and the economic consolidations that are fueling media convergence are preceding shifts in the technological infrastructure,” and that “how those various transitions unfold will determine the balance of power in the next media era” (17).

However , other scholars have raised concerns about Jenkins’ approach to convergence — so much so that an entire special issue of the journal Cultural Studies was given over to scholarly critiques of the “overuse” and conceptual limitations of the term, some of which are directed at Jenkins specifically but also at “participatory culture” approaches more generally (see Hay & Couldry, 2011, for an overview). Across the twelve contributions to the collection, the recurring themes concern a perceived lack of attention to history and power — in particular, because of its focus on the ‘newness’ of new media, the contributors suggest that work on convergence and participatory culture in digital media suffers in comparison to the power of a “conjunctural analysis” of the kind associated with (British) Cultural Studies; as well as exhibiting a lack of understanding of the socially and environmentally destructive impacts of technological and economic convergence.

Given the acuteness and intensity of this debate in the mid to late 2000s and its focus on Jenkins’s work, the concept of convergence might seem specific to the digital era. But media and communications have always been shaped by convergence, and new media scholars have long been attentive to both the creative possibilities and the social dangers associated with it. On the industrial side, James Carey was concerned about the centralization of power associated with the ‘electronic revolution’ that was connecting and reconfiguring public, commercial and personal communication in the mid twentieth century (Carey & Quirk, 1970). On the consumer side, technological inventions have generated surprising new combinations — convergences — of practical uses not intended by their inventors. The telephone is an excellent example — intended for broadcast and business but taken over for intimate, personal communication — thereby transforming both the telecommunications infrastructure and the practices of everyday, domestic life (Marvin, 1997).

Convergence is more significant and challenging than ever, both in economic and critical terms. Since the mid-2000s, social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have — each in their own distinctive ways — created new forms of cultural convergence among the modes of communication and self-expression formerly characterized as personal media (self-portraiture, daily journaling) or public communication (journalism, news distribution). Zizi Papacharissi and Emily Easton (2013: 171–82) have discussed how technologies of social convergence like Facebook and Twitter produce a new habitus — a new way of living in and through media that emphasizes authorship, “accelerated reflexivity,” and the blurring of boundaries between cultural production and the practice of everyday life, and that have normalized the very idea of living in a state of constant newness. The boundaries between public and private have always been both constructed and dynamic — think of the quasi-public sharing of holiday photographs via the humble slide projector and the vernacular form of the slideshow on the one hand; and the public exposure of private information through “gotcha” tabloid journalism on the other — both of which predate digital media by many decades. But social media combine public communication with interpersonal communication and self-expression in specific ways, not only across platforms but also single platforms like Facebook, leading scholars to talk about new concepts like a “private sphere” (Papacharissi, 2010) for the circulation of public communication via personal stories, or “context collapse” for the convergence of our public and private personae (Marwick & boyd, 2011), for example.

The logics of industrial convergence are having profound and concerning effects in the social media moment too; and the “platform paradigm” is a crucial and distinctively contemporary form of this (Burgess, 2015). Mega-platforms like Facebook and Google are seeking to provide more and more of the services that used to take place in other platforms. From scrappy start-up to search giant to global connectivity and digital services company, a single Google sign-on can connect your workplace (through Google Drive and Gmail) to your personal entertainment system (through Android TVs, tablets and mobile devices), and your most intimate relationships (through geolocative dating apps, for example). From being a place for college kids to meet up and hang out, as part of its Internet.org infrastructure project Facebook is planning to beam their own version of the internet from the sky to developing countries — indeed, Facebook arguably wants to supplant the open web in favor of its own operating system. For Uber and other “sharing” economy businesses, the convergence of personal transport coordination and workforce management within a mobile app is only the beginning of a historically significant disruption of our employment and civic infrastructures and how they are managed and governed.

Convergence, then, is a dynamic of new media that operates technologically, socially, and industrially. It is neither a revolutionary event that can be located in the mid-2000s, nor a state that can be permanently achieved — it’s a persistent tendency, but never a fact. As Papacharissi and Easton note, the dynamics of new media are “founded upon the premise and the promise of constant change and permanent evolution” (2013: 171). In the restless logics of the digital economy, there needs to be enough apparent stability to enable us to integrate new media into our everyday lives and for cultural entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley startups to build new cultural forms and viable business models around them, but there also needs to be enough change and disruption (which can come from media consumers as much as from tech companies) to enable new new media to emerge.

Works cited

Burgess, J. (2015). ‘From “Broadcast Yourself” to “Follow Your Interests”: Making Over Social Media.’ International Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(3), 281–285.

Carey, J. W., & Quirk, J. J. (1970). ‘The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution.’ The American Scholar, 395–424.

de Sola Pool, I. (1983). Technologies of Freedom: On Free Speech in an Electronic Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (2013). ‘Introducing Dynamics: A New Approach to “New Media”.’ In Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (Eds.), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (pp. 1–11), Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hay, J. & Couldry, N. (2011). ‘Rethinking Convergence/Culture.’ Cultural Studies, 25(4–5), 473–486.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Marvin, C. (1997). When old technologies were new. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marwick. A. & boyd, d. (2011). ‘I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.’ New Media & Society 13.1 (2011): 114–133.

Papacharissi, Z. (2010). A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Papacharissi, Z. & Easton, E. (2013). ‘In the Habitus of the New: Structure, Agency and the Social Media Habitus.’ In Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (Eds.), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (pp. 171–84), Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Upcoming talks and workshops

Next week I’m heading off for an intense month of research travel to the UK, Germany, and Brazil. Here’s the list of presentations, conferences and workshops I’m involved in.

First up is the YouTube conference at Middlesex University, where I’m doing the opening keynote:

YouTube’s Platform Biography

The contemporary media environment is in part shaped by a relatively small number of proprietary platforms, several of which are the lead characters in stock narratives about the journey from scrappy Web 2.0 startup to media megacorp – and YouTube is a paradigmatic example. In this presentation, I outline the challenges of empirically studying these platforms – these new media institutions – especially as they change over time. I illustrate the problem by revisiting my early empirical work on the popular cultural forms and practices that were emerging via the platform as it was in 2007; and the practical impossibility of repeating the exercise now. I then propose a solution to this problem of studying change over time: the Platform Biography approach. Building on this model, I revisit the story of YouTube’s evolution from informal videosharing service to major media player. I argue that the competing uses and ideologies that have structured YouTube from the beginning provide a compelling narrative of change, and an explanatory framework for both YouTube’s cultural generativity and the ongoing challenges that it faces – as a business, a digital media platform, and a cultural institution.

I’m stopping by Oxford on the27th and 28th, to catch up with all my wonderful colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute. Meetings, but no talks!

On 29th September, I’m stopping by the University of Sheffield to deliver the Digital Society Network annual lecture:

Doing digital media research over time and across platforms: Lessons from studies of YouTube, Twitter and games culture

Contemporary digital media and communication scholars use methods that both critically interrogate the digital media technologies or platforms that mediate cultural participation and public communication and are grounded in the digital traces that such activities leave behind. Because of this dual focus on sociotechnical critique and digital methods, the sociocultural aspects and technologies of both media and methods have significantly and productively transformed each other. But there remain significant challenges, not least among which are the difficulties of studying public communication and cultural participation across platforms and the challenges of engaging with the ways that ephemeral and proprietary digital media platforms change over time. In this talk, Professor Jean Burgess discusses these challenges and illustrates them through three recent and ongoing projects.

First, Jean provides a narrative of YouTube’s transformation from relatively underdetermined video-sharing service to major, multilevel media platform. In doing so, she reflects on her early empirical study of YouTube’s most popular videos and the impossibility of repeating it now. Second, Jean outlines the ‘platform biography’ approach (jointly developed with Nancy Baym) as a way to study platforms as they change over time. In this case Jean tells the story of Twitter’s oldest key features: the @reply, the #hashtag, and the Retweet, showing how they act as mediators between multiple media ideologies, individual human desires, and business logics, as they co-evolve throughout the history of the platform. Third, Jean draws on a recent case study of the controversy around an episode of Law and Order: SVU around violence in videogame culture to demonstrate the necessity and challenges of tracking public controversies across digital media platforms, especially in the context of ‘born digital’ controversies bound up with the cultural politics of the internet itself.

It’s off to Berlin that evening, to gear up for the Association of Internet Research Conference (program here) where I’m doing a whole lot of things:

  • A full-day pre-conference called Digital Methods in Internet Research: A Sampling Menu jointly organised by QUT Digital Media Research Centre and the University of Amsterdam’s Digital Methods Initiative. Last I looked there were 88 people signed up for this! I’ll be presenting with Ariadna Matamoros Fernandez on our Multiplatform Issue Mapping work, based around the version we’ve delivered previously at our DMRC Digital Methods workshops and the Digital Methods Summer School.
  • A panel jointly organised with Nancy Baym called Platform Studies: The Rules of Engagement, featuring Anne Helmond and Taina Bucher, Nicholas John, Stuart Cunningham and David Craig, as well as our own paper “@RT#: Towards a platform Biography of Twitter”. It’s based on work we’ve been doing together for a couple of years now, and which we’re turning into a monograph for NYU Press.
  • The Sharing Economy and Its Discontents – a panel featuring Mary Gray, Jack Qiu, Ben Light and others, including a DMRC paper on Uber’s discursive legitimation and social media traces of material participation in that process, by me, Nic Suzor, Patrik Wikstrom, and Ariadna Matamoros Fernandez.
  • A roundtable on Feminist Data Visualisation put together by Helen Kennedy and featuring such an all-star line-up of international speakers that it had to be split into two sessions (here’s the other one).

After that, Axel Bruns and I are off to Brazil for the second visit of our funded research exchange with colleagues a the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, or PUC-SP for short. The project focuses on the development of shared methodologies for researching networked political practices, and on this visit we’ll be crunching, visualising and analysing huge volumes of data relating to the local elections that are about to kick off there–and using this process to reflect on the challenges and next steps in truly cross-national political communication research based in social media data analysis.

Then, finally, home.

Twitter’s Changing Device Ecology

I wanted to briefly pick up on Tama Leaver’s comments on Tim Highfield’s excellent bit of speculative forensics* on Twitter’s hashflags — namely that the the use of these hashtag emoji for major events might have the side effect of further degrading the experience of using alternative clients like Tweetdeck.

Just for fun**, for a while now I have been playing around with the ‘source’ field in the metadata attached to the just over 1.1bn indexed tweets posted by accounts that we have identified as Australian since 2006. I’ve been doing this to get a sense of how the Twitter device ecology has changed over time. It’s also a small part of the book project I’m working on with Nancy Baym.

Please consider this a very informal sharing of early findings rather than proper science. There are many caveats with this dataset (basically, it covers the full period of Twitter’s existence, but it is incomplete in various ways due to deleted accounts and the need to comply with Twitter’s API rules, but this is improving over time). Rather than repeating the disclaimers here, though, I’ll refer you back to this earlier piece of mine which also links back to theoriginal blog post by Axel Bruns for some of the information about it. Despite these caveats, there are some very clear patterns which I would expect to broadly hold up at the more dramatic end of the scale regardless of some lumpiness in the data.

To set the scene, here is the chart just showing the total tweets in the dataset for each year:

Total tweets indexed for each year posted by accounts identified as Australian (partial years in 2006 and 2016)

And here’s the pretty one showing the proportion of tweets that we have indexed for each year that were sent using each client (or ‘source’):

Twitter clients (the “source” field in the dataset) by percentage of total tweets indexed for each year posted by accounts identified as Australian (partial years in 2006 and 2016).

First, the migration (back) to the official mobile apps from the browser (and apps for PC or Mac) is unmistakeable. So too is the evidence that Twitter’s strategy to streamline its brand identity and user experience by channeling users into the ‘official’ clients (whether for the PC browser, iOS, or Android) is clearly working. You’ll recall that, foreshadowed by stern messages to developers and changes to the API rules in 2011, in mid-2012 Twitter made quite significant changes to the API which impacted quite severely and quite deliberately on third party development, particularly the development of apps that provide viable alternatives to the official clients.

As you can see from the pretty rainbow stripes, there are literally thousands of ostensibly distinct tweet sources in the dataset (more than 52,000 by my count), most with less than half a percent of the total tweets for a given year. But many of these are simply the widgets that individual websites use to allow you to tweet directly from their pages. The brief heyday of the alternative third party client was in 2010–2011 and was over by the end of 2012, the year of that infamous crackdown.

So we may have real evidence that the early proliferation and significant take-up of ‘unofficial’ clients like Tweetbot and Echofon, especially for mobile, has become very muted from 2013 on — the API restrictions and the changes to the display rules that were wrapped around them had a real chilling effect, as we’d expect.

And you might be as interested as I was to note that Tweetdeck, the power user’s client of choice, was only ever a niche experience, and while it is a significant niche, it seems to be shrinking in the past couple of years — and it will be interesting to see what happens now that Twitter has reportedly killed off support for the Windows version.

*I think ‘speculative forensics’ should be thing, don’t you?

**Concept of ‘fun’ may be somewhat loosely deployed.

Our collective response to Bowie’s death is as real as it gets

[Cross-posted to Medium]

On social media, the scale of the response to Bowie’s death has been astonishing. It also seems to have been as emotionally intense and widespread across countries and demographics as it was high in volume.

We threatened to break Spotify’s servers when the whole planet went straight to the Bowie back catalogue and kept it streaming all night long, as did radio stations and cafes all over the world.

Chart by David Yanowsky via Quartz

My Facebook feed is a continuous stream of fan-curated Bowie videos; for a day or so it seemed like everyone was living inside YouTube; and even the Twitter community’s interests were so closely aligned for once that nobody needed bother with hashtags or even direct references to get their point across.

Inevitably, there are those who are discomfited by or (rightly) suspicious of highly emotional crowds. There are those who see participation in public expressions of grief for popular celebrities as superficial to the point of pathology, and cultural snobs who want to apply some kind of fandom threshold test before we’re allowed to participate. And there are those who see our interest in celebrities like Bowie as symptomatic of a broader tabloid culture that has blurred the boundaries between entertainment and information, between media spectacle and what in commonsense understandings is called the ‘real world’: which means the world of politics and business.

But there is nothing more real than this massively emotional media event. Bowie’s death is about the story of art, culture and music in the twentieth century and beyond — in that history, Bowie is a significant figure in his own right; but in his passing he stands in for a bunch of other things as well. He’s a metonym, a lightning rod — or even a reliquary, if you prefer. The cultural practices of this moment are about telling the stories of the bodies and identities of real people who grew up with Bowie’s fierce and astonishing presence in their media world and his music in their heads, just as much as they’re about recalling and remaking the story of Bowie himself.

Not only do we humans use art, culture and music to work through our own identities, connect to one another and tell our own stories, and not only are art, culture and music forever and always deeply, inextricably entangled with our everyday lives: art, culture and music (and, yes, even religion, Richard Dawkins) are how our entire species — as beautiful and strange and hopelessly tragic as we are — makes sense of the whole damn mess of our existence.

Politics and business don’t have any special claim to the ‘real world’; in fact, maybe they’re just the management layer…man.

Twitter (probably) isn’t dying, but is it becoming less sociable?

[cross-posted at Medium]

Twitter’s demise has been announced so many times over its lifetime that it’s hard to keep track of all the premature eulogies (and this one from a year ago is actually pretty insightful), but there seems to be a new intensity in the circulation of decline narratives at the moment. A couple of weeks ago there was quite a bit of heat on umair haque’s Medium story, in which he proclaimed:

Twitter’s a cemetery. Populated by ghosts. I call them the “ists”. Journalists retweeting journalists…activists retweeting activists…economists retweeting economists…once in a while a great war breaks out between this group of “ists” and that…but the thing is: no one’s listening…because everyone else seems to have left in a hurry.

Haque went on to offer his theory of the source of the trouble — abuse, incivility, and a lack of care on the platform’s part:

Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit. And while there are people who love to dive into mosh pits, they’re probably not the audience you want to try to build a billion dollar publicly listed company that changes the world upon.

Leaving aside the problem that “we” is unspecified there’s a strange contradiction here (hint: when ‘we’ is offered unreflexively it usually means ‘people like me’ — and who said we wanted it to be a town square anyway? Why not a cosy corner of the pub?) Haque’s image of death seems to involve a ghost ship populated only by blind, mutually retweeting ‘-ists’, while ‘everybody else’ has left the building; and at the same time a writhing mosh pit populated by a seething mass of too many of the wrong kind of users. I don’t want to diminish the feeling being expressed, but there is also a certain amount of early adopter angst here — it’s a structural imperative that self-defined cultural avant-gardes throw their hands up in disgust when their scenes go mainstream.

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Do Communication Technologies Define a ‘Generation’?

I’m privileged to have been invited to speak in the opening plenary at this year’s International Communication Association conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The panelists were asked to speak to the question ‘Do Communication Technologies Define a ‘Generation’?’ – this is how I tackled it! Speakers’ notes and key images from the slides in-line below.

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#creativecitizens keynote: slides and speaking notes

I’ve had a wonderful time in an unseasonably sunny London this week, which has included a keynote presentation at the Creative Citizens conference at the Royal College of Art. As promised, below are the slides and speaker notes from my presentation, which covers the relationship between everyday creativity, citizenship, and digital media platforms over the past ten years or so.

Speakers’ notes after the fold:

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#asmc14 paper: Hashtag as hybrid forum: the case of #agchatoz

I’m posting this from the University of Amsterdam, where we are now well into the final day of a fantastic three-day conference called Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space. We have quite a gang of participants here from the QUT Social Media Research Group, and we’ll collect all our papers up and post them over at that website soon, but in the meantime here are the slides and notes from my paper (co-authored with Theresa Sauter). It’s the first public outing of new work I’ve been doing in collaboration with Theresa and also Anne Galloway, which will come out in due course as part of a book project that Nathan Rambukkana is putting together for Peter Lang (the book has the working title ‘Hashtag Publics’).

Speaker Notes after the fold.

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Twitter set to release all tweets to scientists? Not exactly.

This Scientific American article with the headline Twitter to Release All Tweets to Scientists has been circulating around our favourite microblogging platform recently, creating a mixture of “could it be true?”-style excitement and alarm. The article picks up on a discussion of the ethics of using ‘big data’ from Twitter for research prompted by this ethical framework for Twitter research [pdf] published by a couple of epidemiologists, hinting that these issues (which are already very much alive in the internet research community, by the way) are about to explode as Twitter opens up access to its full archive of tweets to scientists everywhere. If this news were true, it certainly would be a game-changer.

Unfortunately, not only isn’t it true, but it isn’t news either. Twitter has made no such announcement recently. And as you can clearly see at the bottom of the piece, it was originally published under the title “Twitter opens its cage”; in added weirdness it was forward dated to 1 June although re-published in May. I don’t know what’s going on at Scientific American, but my interpretation (along with others) is that the original article was published in February as a secondary response to the announcement of the Twitter Data Grants program. The original announcement and call was in February, resulting in thousands of submissions, with the 6 winners announced in April. The data grants scheme – small-scale at least for now – may represent a trial for future scientific access, but it is also nice PR for Twitter’s recent acquisition of data retail company Gnip, which, like competitor DataSift profits from the commercially legitimated trade in access to ‘big social data’ from a range of social media platforms, but especially Twitter.

So while Twitter data is incredibly useful to a wide range of academic disciplines, it has become really hard to get access to it at scale without a lot of money or specialist infrastructure. As Twitter data has become monetizable, open API access to it has been choked, not only for marketers but for scientists and not-for-profits (e.g crisis mapping organisations) as well. I’ve previously written about this with my German colleague Cornelius Puschmann in our paper The Politics of Twitter Data.

So a more accurate title for the Scientific American piece would be: “In news that was new half a year ago, Twitter has selected a tiny number of scientific research teams to gain access on a limited basis to historical tweets via the recently acquired data reseller Gnip”. Not so exciting after all.

Web history and popular memory

I’m posting this from the ICA conference in Seattle, where this morning we had what felt like a very successful panel on Web History and Popular Memory (following on from an awesome Memes panel that I was privileged to be discussant for). Our panel featured work on the history of personal media practices from Civil War Diaries to tweets (Lee Humphreys), the aesthetics and design logics of the early web in the context of the dot.com boom and bust (Megan Ankerson), and the continuities of mass media monitoring with contemporary personal metrics (Alice Marwick).

I’ve had a number of requests for the paper Nancy Baym and I presented on our Twitter Over Time study. The written paper is still in draft and will hopefully see the light of day as a journal article very soon, but in the meantime I’m sharing our powerpoint slides and the original abstract.

Twitter Over Time: Approaches to the dynamics of change in social media

Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology

Nancy Baym, Microsoft Research New England

The dynamic, ephemeral and proprietary characteristics of social media platforms present particular challenges to researchers. In this paper, we address the general methodological problem of how to study processes of change in social media, with a specific focus on Twitter’s affordances, user practices and cultural norms. The paper provides a proof of concept for multi-method, user-centred approaches to this problem, drawing on the methods and findings of the Twitter Over Time project.  In the project, participants were asked to download their own Twitter archives, and to use them to reflect in interviews on how their uses of the platform had changed. Alongside the interview data, we drew on web and news media sources to reconstruct a timeline of Twitter’s emergence and the co-evolution of its business model, technical features and media representations. The paper highlights how these two ways of constructing a ‘history of Twitter’ can be read alongside and in counterpoint with each other, and how mixed-methods approaches allow us to account for the changing materiality of social media platforms while taking user perspectives seriously.

I’m also posting Gerard Goggin’s very kind remarks as discussant which I think sum up the session very well overall – and I am personally very appreciative of the care Gerard took with this task.

Gerard Goggin respondent comments on panel Web history, social media and popular memory

Congratulations to Jean Burgess for organizing this rich and timely panel.

In the present conjuncture, these papers open up a panorama of ways to document, represent, conjure with, quantify, and qualify the past. And also, of course, suggest important ways and techniques to activate the longue durée, interpret the cultural dynamics, social relations, and politics of the present, de- reify the facti-ness of the future.

Lee Humphreys has traced for us the connections between a formative period and mode of self-fashioning, the 18th century diary, and contemporary practices we find in Twitter. The diary turns out to be an enduring form, not just relevant to blogs – which diaries are explicitly reference – but to a wider range of digital media forms. In a very interesting shift, Lee moves to another set of historical parallels — 1860s Civil War military diaries compared to more temporal proximate Iraq War blog of an American soldier in our lifetime. Lee vividly illustrates the need to reconstruct and engage with the ‘long histories of new media’ (as Dave Park, Nicholas Jankowski and Steve Jone’s recent collection put it). Lee’s work reminds us also of the importance of thinking about the question of which history, and which duration.

The nineteen century is also generative for Alice Marwick in her genealogy of personal media metrics. Alice retraces the development of audience measurement, from a plurality of ways of gauging media’s success, influence, or connection to the emergence of measurable information in the early 20th century, and audience measurement science, through advertising especially, in the 1930s, leading to the dominant of ratings by mid-20th century. Much of this is familar to us from accounts of media audience, but Alice provides the surprising missing link for us to make the conceptual leap to grasp the striking yet pluzzling features of today’s personal media.

This lies, Alice shows us, in the little noticed and researched histories of media monitoring – the clipping services that provide channel and industrialize the democratic scrapbooks of the nineteen century. The forms and affordances of the clip service, media monitoring, and database logics of Lexis-Nexis are reconfigured into Google Alerts and Social Media mentions and metrics. Broadcast and measure yourself. Alice convincingly and suggestively offers us a way to understand these complex shifts at the intersection of audiences and notions of the self. And it would be very interesting to hear about what kinds of governmentality, if I can set the Foucault alert off another time, the personal mobilisation of media measurement in our social lives entails.

Duration and historiography are things Megan Ankerson also takes up in her paper, with her genealogy of financial discourses, with key, determinative moments also in the eighteen century and nineteenth century. The discourses she deftly analyses in the 1998-2003 period of the dot.com have their prefiguring in much earlier cultural formations, just as they have their afterlives and mutations in the key moments afterwards. We might wonder about how far back we go, into the early modern, for instance, or, after the spirit of Innes and others, especially to grasp the international range of internet histories to the ancient underpinning of empires.

Megan provides the evidence for the deceptively simple proposition that we always need to challenge the will-to-linearity in the emplotment and chronologies of web and other internet histories. How we figure and figure out the different key moments when the network is up for grabs, and grasp and decipher the different visions in play – the potential social imaginaries and different worlds and trajectories they embody – takes some doing, and Megan has showed us how to do it.

She cuts to the chase to make the point that financial crisis discourse – with its weird, displaced yet all too real relationship to economic hardship – does important work, in the case of disciplining and ordering. We see this in the extraordinary gendering that recurs in the fundamental imagination of culture and economy in the web’s dog (rather than cat) days, feminized exuberance needing to be bridled by rational market calculus. Megan also provides a new way for us to situate the important intermediate zone of our time where different orders of things get worked on things, bodies, technologies, and money, namely design.

Jean Burgess and Nancy Baym set the clocking ticking on twitter. Like the other papers, they use a creative range of methods to understand the history of the practices and platform they are studying, and to decipher its evolving social function. In a different way from Lee’s paper, the figure and biography of particular users appear. The personal interviews give us rich life histories, images, tropes, and fragments of discourses that show us Twitter is animated through the lived experiences and projections of its users. Which, of course, involves dealing with the fact that ‘personal’ histories have public, narrative shapes and plots – not least, when it comes to technology, the plots of one’s career as a user.

A different kind of history comes into sharp relief with the wonderful analysis of the sociotechnical evolution of Twitter as a platform, not least via the careful attention to the biographies of its (software) objects. Much of the necessary material for the historical reconstruction of – for instance, the hash tag, or the taken-for-grantedness of the retweet – is lost. But the evanescent nature of history is axiomatic, and nothing new for historians; it’s just tough to find nuggets of information, hence we often turn to the press (off and online) or the fragments of digital information in internet archives for documentation and representation of these events, as Jean and Nancy, and other panellists do. On the side of the historians of internet and digital cultures, as we have seen today, is the new textualism. At the whim of the social media titans, like the capricious gifting that shapes all archives, we are afforded the ability to download all our tweets — Jorge Luis Borges would have wept! So at the intersection of personal and collective use, text and platform, oral history and public history, we gain a sense of the terms and conditions of new media transformations.

All the papers in this panel show the fundamental importance of the heritage of cultural, social, and media concepts, theories and analysis for understanding these technologies — but especially for the histories of Internet and social media we so sorely require, to use and abuse in understanding communication today and into the future.

Gerard Goggin