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.

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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awesome animations, the history of the world, science and religion and everything

Via YouTube’s new recommended for you feature and also via Twitter, I found this really excellent re-imagining of the Star Wars title sequence as if created by the great designer and filmmaker Saul Bass:

Via the ‘related videos’ feature, I came across Bass’s wonderful short film Why Man Creates, which won an Academy Award in 1968. Only the first 5 minutes is available online–long enough to deliver the grand narrative of creativity and innovation in Western civilization in animated form.

Watch it for the amazing drawings and the (gently barbed) jokes if nothing else.

Since for some of us it’s Easter today and many of my readers will be muttering ‘there is no God’ through chocolate-covered gritted teeth and grumbling about the failure of the Englightenment project, I highly recommended reading The Atheist Delusion afterward. As I prepare to encounter the pointy end of science as a fly on the wall next week, I found this to be the kicker:

In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs. One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning.

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world’s pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.

[thanks, anne]

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Slides from my MIT5 paper ‘Vernacular Photography 2.0’

Jill posted slides of her presentation just now – which is such a good idea that I thought I’d steal it 😉

I worked from a script, but the full paper still has to be written into existence. When it’s done I’ll upload it to the MIT5 website. In the meantime, please enjoy the Flickr-ness of the slides that went with the talk.

be still my retro heart

Steampunk Keyboard

This steampunk keyboard does all kinds of unspeakably pleasurable things to me. Steampunk, by the way, is defined by the maker as the practice “wherein the craftsman demonstrates the construction of artifacts from an age of steam and brass”, and also refers to a genre of speculative fiction:

The term denotes works set in an era when steam power was still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.

via boing boing and MAKE.

I’ve workshopped the affective and/or visceral dimensions of our engagement with ‘obsolete’ technologies before, thinking about the example of majestic theatre organs, in a post called love and the mechanical sublime, andanother one about typewriters. There’s much more thinking to be done though, and there’s definitely a kind of steampunk vibe behind the widespread recent scholarly enthusiasm for the more curious objects from the history of new media, especially in early modernity and the Victorian era, as well as popular histories like Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet. Which reminds me, anne mentioned this new book to me the other day, must check it out too:

Residual Media, Ed. Charles R. Ackland, U of Minnesota Press.

In a society that breathlessly awaits “the new” in every medium, what happens to last year’s new? Ample critical energy has gone into the study of new media, genres, and communities. But what becomes of discarded media? In what manner do the products of technological change reappear as environmental problems, as “the new” in another part of the world, as collectibles, as memories, and as art?

Residual Media grapples with these questions and more in a wide-ranging and eclectic collection of essays. Beginning with how cultural change bumps along unevenly, dragging the familiar into novel contexts, the contributors examine how leftover artifacts can be rediscovered occupying space in storage sheds, traveling the globe, converting to alternative uses, and accumulating in landfills. By exploring reconfigured, renewed, recycled, neglected, abandoned, and trashed media, the essays here combine theoretical challenges to media history with ideas, technology, and uses that have been left behind. From player pianos to vinyl records, and from the typewriter to the telephone, Residual Media is an innovative approach to the aging of culture and reveals that, ultimately, new cultural phenomena rely on encounters with the old.

Or am I just fetishising the means? And if so, and more importantly, how can something that feels so good really be wrong? 😉

new book: ham radio’s technical culture

Ham Radio’s Technical Culture, by Kristen Haring, is a new book out on MIT Press, found via Anne’s del.icio.us links.
From the blurb/summary:

Ham radio required solitary tinkering with sophisticated electronics equipment, often isolated from domestic activities in a “radio shack,” yet the hobby thrived on fraternal interaction. Conversations on the air grew into friendships, and hams gathered in clubs or met informally for “eyeball contacts.” Within this community, hobbyists developed distinct values and practices with regard to radio, creating a particular “technical culture.”

Sounds familiar in the light of hacker culture, open source, social software, and so on ad infinitum, no?

Without wanting to just impose patterns derived from contemporary culture onto history, I’ve been very interested lately in the way that emergent amateur cultures of (cultural) production have been articulated with technological change in a whole heap of contexts. I’m also increasingly interested in the articulation of the hacker ethic (or, the ‘tinkering’ discussed by Haring in the book) with masculinity. Looking through the gender+tech lens, it’s interesting to compare the history of ham radio and the personal computer with the domestication of, say, the gramophone or my old favourite, the camera. So this is one for next year – oops, I mean post-phd this year. It’s started already and slowly grinding into gear.

Happy New Year, by the way!

‘more than a mere assemblage of moviemaking information’


Thank you Glen for sending me this little treasure which I found in my in-tray this morning – for that you are a prince among men.

I’ve also uploaded the first two pages of one of the many fabulous example storyboards that the book includes in glossy colour. It’s called ‘Laura’s Seventh Birthday’, and it’s all about making the cake with Mother, playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and having girlish chit-chat. In a very pretty frock.

Going beyond the frocks – Kodak teaches us that in home movies the ‘in-between’ quotidian spaces and practices of everyday life are interesting and camera-worthy. But at the same time, the aesthetics of home movies are to be distinguished from professional movie-and television production; and the home-movie maker is not to aspire to those.

There’s a lot here I can use in my ‘history’ chapter on amateur creativity, new technology and the construction/teaching of new media literacy.


Current thesis word count: 20,724