creativity/machine Wed, 07 Sep 2016 23:12:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Upcoming talks and workshops Wed, 07 Sep 2016 21:52:42 +0000 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.

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Twitter’s Changing Device Ecology Thu, 11 Aug 2016 00:33:46 +0000

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.

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Our collective response to Bowie’s death is as real as it gets Wed, 13 Jan 2016 00:17:59 +0000 [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.

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Twitter (probably) isn’t dying, but is it becoming less sociable? Wed, 11 Nov 2015 02:31:43 +0000 [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.

Haque’s primary issue with Twitter, however, is a loss of civility — and the platform definitely has a problem with online hate, bullying and mob justice, as anyone involved in discussions around race and gender online knows. And people at the receiving end of online hate and who are committed to — and good at — using Twitter as a political platform in the face of it are becoming increasingly frustrated at the platform’s primarily identity-blind, libertarian, free speech-dominated approach to behavioural regulation and governance, despite the recent revamping of the platform’s ‘safety’ policies and procedures.

But more broadly too, the narratives of decline around the place at the moment that have to do with a certain loss of sociability. And to those of us for whom Twitter’s pleasures were as much to do with ambient intimacy,personal connections and play as they were to do with professional success theatre, celebrity and breaking news, this is a real, felt loss: sociability matters.

There have been a number of halting attempts to get at what has gone on here. The other day there was another flurry of agitation around the Atlantic piece on The Decay of Twitter by Robinson Meyer who draws on some ofWalter Ong’s ideas about orality and literacy as well as of Bonnie Stewart’swork to suggest that by losing its ‘orality’ and reverting to the codes and conventions of print culture, Twitter is losing its soul.

And then, earlier this week: #heartsontwitter exploded. After umpteen platform changes designed to make the platform more media-friendly and less SNS-like, Twitter suddenly replaces ‘favorites’ (represented by a star) with ‘likes’ (represented by a red, Instagram-esque heart that explodes when you click it like you’re playing Candy Crush or something). The move, which came with loads of self-congratulation and saccharine PSAs, was apparently done to appeal to new and especially youthful users who might be confused by Twitter’s quirky native conventions, many of which draw on older web culture practices like bookmarking (remember, and that more importantly aren’t actually the same as Facebook’s or Instagram’s. While there was plenty of cheerful optimism, a large and vocal chunk of Twitter’s core userbase protested with a mixture of passion, comedy and despondency, for various good reasons. Not least of which is that Twitter really does matter to people, and such acts of apparently casual violence to how it works are seen as serious business. Osman Faruqi’s cri de coeur in The Guardian (if you’ll pardon the pun) is a great example:

It’s infrastructure for basic communication, which is why people are so upset over the change to hearts: imagine if, instead of saying “OK” on the phone to a relative stranger, you were forced to say “I love you”. It’s that basic.

Despite spinning the heart to existing users as a more “expressive” and “universal” symbol, Twitter has admitted the change is really about making the platform easier for new users.

But how many times can the company change what works in pursuit of more users before its base packs up and moves on? It’s not the relatively recent new features — sharing images, videos and Vines — that catapulted Twitter into the mainstream. It was the idea that your 140 character message, no matter how inane, could be read and shared across the world, sparking conversation, debate, new ideas and friendships.

I admit it, from my own perspective Twitter in 2015 feels very different to Twitter in 2013, let alone 2006. I have a sense that where once there was mundane intimacy and listening there is deafness and noise, and I know I’m not alone in the feeling. Where once it felt like there was a special convergence of personal and public communication, it seems as though the personal has been crowded out, which may indeed bring with it a degradation of the personal connections that both animated Twitter’s ad hoc publics and kept them accountable. Twitter’s structure of feeling has definitely shifted.

And, you know what, I pretty much blame the “We don’t care about your lunch! Twitter is for news!” brigade for this, and so part of me wants to say, “Well, I hope you’re happy, tech-biz/journo/public-sphere people. I hope you’ve got the Twitter you always wanted.” *mic drop here*

But I would be a terrible, terrible researcher if I didn’t wonder how much of this perception of Twitter’s decay of sociability is true beyond my own individual perceptions, or even my own ego network. Since we’re doing some work together on a book about Twitter, over the past few days Nancy Baym and I have been listening to other people’s thoughts on the question:

While posing the question in this way and in this context isn’t very scientifically robust, the answers have already been revealing. For a start, most of the responses have come from early adopters — only one person who joined after 2011 has so far felt moved to respond, with the majority being very old hands who joined between 2006 and 2009 — the early years of growth, experimentation, and third-party innovation. The responses seem to suggest an awareness of change and a knowledge that these changes have much to do with Twitter’s perpetual search for a business model and the challenge of retaining newer users. Few have said it was ‘dying’ as such, but that’s not surprising given we used Twitter to ask the question. We’d be happy to hear more thoughts on this!

I wanted to have at least a first go at addressing the problem with some Twitter data too. I’ve generated a few quick charts showing patterns in Australian Twitter activity from 2006 through to now, based on a dataset developed by a consortium of Australian universities led by the Social Media Research Group in the QUT Digital Media Research Centre.

The data collection as of today contains information on close to 1 billion tweets posted between 2006–2015 (to August) from the 2.8 million Australian accounts that had been created by September 2013, and identified as ‘Australian’ on the basis of their profile information (further information at Axel Bruns’s blog post at Mapping Online Publics). For each account, we have only the last 3200 tweets posted before we started continuous forward tracking (as per Twitter’s API rules) in 2013. This means that we don’t have a complete history for either defunct accounts or currently active early adopters; and we don’t have tweets from any users who have joined since 2013. We hope to provide a major update to all of this later this year.

So, with all that in mind:

First, is Twitter really ‘dying’ — are people leaving, slowing down, or going quiet?

Even accounting for the fact that tweets by users who joined after 2013 aren’t included, the number of tweets per day coming from Australian accounts was definitely still increasing in August this year:

But what if Twitter’s decline is more about a certain diminishing of its social life, its sense of community? If Twitter used to be buzzing and sociable (whether town square or living room), and now it’s really just the ‘-ists’ retweeting each other with nobody really listening, there should be traces of this in the accumulated data on our practices of use, right? I think we can learn a lot from running some simple metrics over a decent chunk of time.

So I’ve used Tableau to divide the tweets into four categories that try to get at the extent to which they are primarily expressive, conversational, or ‘pass-along’ in their function:

  • Reply — where the text of the tweet begins with “@user”
  • Retweet — where the text of the tweet begins with “RT”
  • Mention & modified RT — where the text of the tweet contains but does not begin with other usernames and is not a retweet.
  • Plain tweet — where none of the above conditions are true

Of course in reality lots of retweets contain @replies and @mentions, but in this case I wanted to get at the primary communicative act of posting the tweet — to just say something (plain tweets), to say something about someone or riff off something they said (mentions & modified RTs), to say something to someone (@replies) or to pass along something someone else said already (Retweets). This tells us precisely nothing about affect, though — lots of @replies might as easily indicate abuse as they do conversation; and RTs, as we all know, are not endorsements.

Tweet types over time

Like I said, this is very preliminary. But based on this (Australia-specific) data it does appear that there is good reason to think Twitter is becoming less conversational and more like a news platform. Not only are retweets increasing, but both direct replies and tweets that mention other users (including old-school modified retweet practices like via, H/T and MT) are in relative decline. The plain tweet category, which once accounted for 100% of tweets in answer to the question “what are you doing?”, is in relative decline as well. (But it’s important to consider that the new and misnamed ‘quote’ feature embeds the tweet you’re commenting on as a URL, so they’d show up as plain tweets, when they’re actually pretty conversational in comparison to retweets).

Of course, a lot has happened to the platform’s features and affordances in this time, as well as new cohorts of users joining or falling away. Twitter’s die-hard users are sharply aware that not only are their practices of use shaped by what the platform allows or invites, but that most of the platform’s distinctive features were originally user innovations — and that is what much of the outrage over #twitterhearts is all about. Platform changes like these are far from trivial; and the core features at the centre of them have consistently revealed themselves through controversy to be objects of intense feeling, to draw on work by digital media scholar Taina Bucher.

Back to that last chart, look for example at the change in retweeting after ‘new Twitter’ introduces the button retweet in late 2009 (and starting with the web version in April this year, removing all other means of copying the text from, and hence quoting or riffing off, other users’ tweets, instead treating the original tweet as an inviolable, embeddable media object that you can attach your own commentary on, a change widely applauded as a ‘feature’ but one that to my mind screams copyright, not conversation).

To take a closer look, I’ve gone ahead and run a similar set of metrics on my own archives of tweets.

I have two personal Twitter accounts (plus a bunch of other work-related ones, and a couple of parody ones too). My private one, @jeangenie, dates from 2007 (and which I switched back and forth between being public and private a number of times before setting up the public one). I opened my public account, @jeanburgess, in 2008 — I remember there was a sense already that Twitter was going to be important for public personae as much as interpersonal connections — but I didn’t want to give up the intimacy and connection I associated with my private account, which felt more like a chatroom.

Here’s what these two accounts look like visualised as patterns of activity over time — I note here especially the unmistakeable dying off of activity in the past three years to almost nothing in 2015, and the extremely low proportions of tweets that do anything other than say something or respond directly to someone else.

My public account is something of a contrast to this, with periodic peaks of especially high activity but a reasonably steady baseline hum of presence; on the other hand from the beginning in late 2008, this account was always pretty interactive (with lots of replies, mentions and retweets in comparison to my private account). Note the sharp shift in my usage style from 2008 to 2009 though , shifting rapidly from an expressive to a conversational (or probably sometimes argumentative) mode with lots of replies and far fewer plain tweets — arguably the height of ‘interpretative flexibility’ as Twitter was mainstreaming, the journalists were arriving, and there were lots of struggles over what it was for. And there is a sharp uptick in retweets from 2013 to now, while it does look like the conversation is dying down (look at the steady fall of the red @replies line).

Tweets and tweet types for @jeanburgess

But across both accounts’ timelines, I am way more conversational than the Australian Twittersphere as we have captured it above.

Another way to get at the question of whether Twitter is becoming less about personal connections and more about media sharing and newsiness is to look at another pair of simple metrics: the prevalence of URLs and hashtags.

Hashtags and Links for @jeangenie
Hashtags and links for @jeanburgess

Here there is a big contrast between my two accounts — in the intimate world of my private account there is less use for hashtags or URLs; but in the quasi-professional, out-there performance space of my public account, participating in hashtag publics is more important, and linking to media (or images, or other people’s tweets given the new ‘quote’ feature) is increasing inexorably.

On the one hand, as it turns out, I seem to be a bit of an outlier as a Twitter user — in particular, I’m unusually conversational in my Twitter use in both public and private. Of course, like most people, when I look at the patterns in my activity on the platform I can attribute most of the weird spikes and dips to what was going on in my life at the time.

But overall, especially against the backdrop of the Australian twitter data above, the trends over time are unmistakeable. My own usage has changed in ways that map onto broader patterns of change in both the platform and its culture of use. And somewhat poignantly my use of the private account as a chatroom has declined as fewer of my friends have a small enough stream that we can maintain the intimacy we used to share. 🙁

If you’re so inclined, it might be interesting to download your own Twitter archive and take a look at whether you think there are significant patterns of change in how you use it, and whether they seem to map onto shifts from social networking to news sharing, from personal connection to publicity, or something else entirely (the archive comes with a nice HTML interface for exploring your data, so you don’t necessarily need to be able to replicate what I’ve done in Tableau here).

Of course there are likely to have been major life events, job changes and other circumstances affecting how you’ve used the platform, too. Or maybe you’ve been totally consistent in your patterns of use? And I’d be more than happy to have a long, rambling @reply conversation about what you’ve found, if you have the heart for it. (♥)

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Do Communication Technologies Define a ‘Generation’? Thu, 21 May 2015 14:31:34 +0000 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.

The problem with ‘generations’

I’m very pleased to note that in the title of this opening plenary, the word ‘generation’ is enclosed in inverted commas – or, as I like to call them, ‘scary bunnies’.

While I’m always more than willing to claim underdog status as a member of the perpetually overlooked and tragically misunderstood Generation X, I don’t really do demographics, let alone generations, as objects of study.


What I do know a bit about is how ideas about new communication technologies get tangled up with ideas about young people.


There is a repeated pattern here: the articulation of some novel technological formation – let’s call it ‘Technology X’ – to a generation (of ‘young people’). This group of young people is constructed as ‘the X Generation’ by the very process of that articulation; reinforcing the idea of a unified demographic that is somehow defined by the technology.

Even in my own lifetime we have seen (among others) the MTV generation, something called the Video generation;


the App generation;

the app generation

and latterly, the ‘selfie generation’.

And in each case Dick Hebdige’s beautifully elegant formulation of the convergent and conflicting representations of youth culture from the 1950s onward still applies: “youth as trouble; youth as fun”. (1988, p.30).

girl on roof

In public and popular discourse, both new digital media technologies and their assumedly youthful users are represented as novel, creative and fun on the one hand; and risky, lawless, even downright savage on the other. You can see this pattern even in positive arguments about young people’s ‘natural’ technological prowess, such as in the early 2000s notion of the ‘digital native’ (Prensky 2001).

I’m reminded again here of Kirsten Drotner’s (1999) idea of the ‘media panic’ as an ‘intrinsic and recurrent’ feature of modernity – and while sometimes we panic about the things young people do with new media, other times we worry about what new media are doing to them. But usually, these worries say more about adult anxieties than they do about young people’s experiences, practices and understandings.

At least the ‘X Generation’ du jour, the ‘selfie generation’, is identified on the basis of cultures and practices that involve digital media technologies, rather than being entirely determined by the technology – perhaps we are getting somewhere?

On the other hand, with a phenomenon as intimate, as affective, as feminised as the selfie, moral pathology can’t be far away.

me me me generation

By the way, for a high-potency dose of scholarly knowledge about the selfie as cultural practice, see the new special section of the International Journal of Communication on the subject, edited by Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym (Senft & Baym 2015).


Of course, the ‘X generation’ is a trope—a cultural tic or reflex—that tidies up a messy empirical reality, as work by communication scholars has already shown (thinking here particularly of Eszter Hargittai’s empirical work (Hargittai & Hinnant 2008; Hargittai & Litt 2012) and Kate Crawford & Penelope Robinson’s (2013) critique of digital media generations, among many others).

For example: one of the effects of ‘generational’ thinking is that anxious middle class adults can assume the experiences and practices they observe in their own kids can be extrapolated to the rest of the population. But while young people may be comparatively more involved with digital media technologies than older people, there are significant differences among younger people – differences in uses, skills and modes of participation – that can be explained by social factors. This is true even in the United States, and of course in other geographical contexts the mix of ICTs and the ways they figure in everyday life vary considerably.

From digital media generations to generations of digital media?
Having said all that, I’d like to leave the construct of demographic ‘generations’ to one side for now, and to think a bit more about the ‘communication technologies’ part of the question at hand.
In my own work, I’m interested in really trying to understand how digital media technologies and sociocultural practices co-evolve. Within that, I’m interested in whether it is possible to identify discrete historical moments marked by digital transformations with distinctive sociocultural characteristics of continuity and change.


In other words, is it useful to think about generations of digital media?

Of course, any move to periodise new media history maps dangerously well on to the endless ‘versioning’ associated with industry hype cycles (Allen 2008), but I think it’s also a necessary move. Here I draw on the recent provocations Yang & Clark (2015) make in the inaugural issue of the Social Media + Society journal, where they argue compellingly for the need to study how social media are changing over time, and in fact call for the ‘periodisation’ of even very recent digital media history.
We have to get beyond the idea of change in the digital media environment either as a seamless flow of progressive innovation – history as just ‘one thing after another’, and towards something approaching a conjunctural analysis (to invoke the late Stuart Hall, also the subject of a pre-conference earlier today).

From generations to paradigms


I want to propose we think about how digital media ‘generations’ can be mapped onto social, cultural and economic paradigms – that is, the way they work to organise our thinking and practices around, for example, ‘information’, or ‘cyberspace’, or ‘social networks’.

We might think about the ‘Web 2.0’ moment from the early to mid 2000s in these terms. Consider the academic debates that occupied us then–debates around participation and labour, and internal critiques concerning optimism and pessimism about the extent to which new media opened up control over culture and political communication to a more democratic model. These debates have since shifted somewhat as the looming figures of Facebook and the ‘filter bubble’ (Parisier 2012), big data and NSA surveillance have overshadowed such folksy ideas as ‘participatory culture’; and issues like labour conditions in the factories that produce the iPhone have cast rather a different light on arguably first-world problems like creative labour in video game fandom.

Elsewhere I have already proposed the idea of a ‘platform paradigm’ (Burgess 2014) to describe the broader structures and the ideas underpinning the current ‘social media moment’, the features of which are:

  • the convergence of user created content, media consumption and social networking around a small constellation of major platforms in each market;
  • more seamless usable and persistent, and therefore less open and hackable technologies from a user perspective;
  • increased convergence of content, advertising and social networking functions from the platform owners’ perspective; and lately
  • the ‘appification’ of social media sites and services (related to a migration to mobile).

The platform paradigm manifests in distinctive scholarly configurations as well, with the rise of Twitter hashtag studies and SNA on the one hand, and the increased need to combine ANT and software studies with cultural analysis and political economy on the other (Gillespie 2014) in order to properly account for the many levels at which “platforms”are shaping and being shaped by communication practices.
But returning to the idea of digital media generations, how might we observe the life stages of digital media platforms themselves?

In other words, what happens when platforms grow up?

Platforms grow up
To give us some clues as to what changes and how, we might observe how each new digital media phenomenon, originally associated with youth culture, fun or trouble, became legitimised as ‘real media businesses’ and mainstream consumer technologies – mundane and seemingly ubiquitous on the one hand, and widely available as platforms for global public communication on the other.

This was the case with YouTube, arguably Facebook and now with Twitter. In each case, the platform itself was cast as youthful, as disruptive, as a ‘new generation’ of media technologies; in each case, discourses of maturity emerge alongside their embedding into the grown-up worlds of big tech, big media, and big data.

Early Twitter
Early Twitter
Twitter as grown-up news medium
Twitter as grown-up news medium

How can this kind of transformation be studied? Well, through the tools and techniques of web history like media archives and the Internet Archive’s wayback machine; through oral history interviews with users on their ‘careers’; through ‘object biographies’ of key sociotechnical features – the Like button, the newsfeed on Facebook; the hashtag and ‘@reply’ function on Twitter.


Of course, new new media technologies are coming down the line, bringing the acceleration of personalisation; the shift to mobile and wearable technology; and the shift to interpersonal, image-based modes of communication.

The mobile and visual turn (and its increased entanglement with app stores and handset manufacturers) will make the platforms and apps that mediate our social lives, cultural expression and public communication, and the ways that these are changing, even more difficult to study than they already are in the context of proprietary platforms and social data market. One of the primary challenges in front of us—as a ‘generation’ of communication scholars—is a methodological one: the challenge of grappling with both continuity and change in the media technologies we use to connect with the world and each other.

Thank you from Taylor Swift

Allen, Matthew (2012) ‘What was Web 2.0? Versions as the dominant mode of internet history.’ New Media & Society 15(2): 260-275.
Burgess, Jean (2014) ‘From ‘Broadcast yourself’ to ‘Follow your interests’: making over social media.’ International journal of cultural studies, [online first].
Crawford, Kate & Penelope Robinson (2013) ‘Beyond Generations and New Media.’ In Hartley, John, Jean Burgess & Axel Bruns (Eds.) A Companion to New Media Dynamics. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Drotner, Kirsten (1999) ‘Dangerous media? Panic discourses and dilemmas of modernity.’ Paedagogica Historica 35(3): 593–619.
Gillespie, Tarleton (2014) ‘The relevance of algorithms.’ In Gillespie, T., Boczkowski, P.J. & Foot, K.A. (Eds.) Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hargittai, Eszter & Amanada Hinnant (2008) ‘Digital Inequality: Differences in Young Adults’ Use of the Internet’, Communication Research 35(5): 602-21.
Hebdige, Dick (1988) Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things. London: Routledge.
Parisier, Eli (2013) The Filter Bubble: How the Personalised New Web is Changing Who We Are and How We Think. London: Penguin.
Prensky, Marc (2001) ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’. On The Horizon – The Strategic Planning Resource for Education Professionals, 9 (5), 1-6.
Senft, Theresa M. & Nancy K. Baym (2015) ‘What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon.’ International Journal of Communication 9(2015), Feature 1588–1606.
Yang, Guobin & Rosemary Clark (2015) ‘Social media and time.’ Social Media + Society 1(1):

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#creativecitizens keynote: slides and speaking notes Fri, 19 Sep 2014 10:50:04 +0000 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:


From the beginning of my academic career up to now I have been investigating the way digital media is changing the face of cultural participation and public communication.

A decade ago when I started, in that early heyday of the ‘web 2.0’ and ‘participatory culture’, we looked to blogs, to image-sharing, to community-based digital storytelling workshops as ways that everyday creativity might find its audiences, and that ordinary people might find each other in ways that had not been possible on such a widespread and visible scale before.

I theorised that everyday, personal uses of digital media might be the key to participation in interest, issue and identity based publics.

My theoretical and ethical orientation was grounded in cultural studies, especially its approach to everyday and popular culture; and therefore my cultural citizenship definitions emphasised everyday, personal, even mundane practices of creativity like storytelling, photosharing, scrapbooking, graffiti, skateboarding, cooking or gardening – practices I collectively called ‘vernacular creativity’ – and the way these may serve to connect individuals and communities in the service of broader civic goals.

Coming from this distinctive disciplinary background, I can draw out some complementary and competing meanings of creative citizenship with respect to digital and social media specifically.

  1. Creative and collaborative approaches to solving civic challenges, using digital and social media; that is, creative ways of being citizenly – using digital media to organise and promote the community garden; the development of crowdsourced crisis maps on the fly
  2. Creativity that, through its enactment, visibility and connectedness in digital media contexts, enables certain modes of civic engagement as an often unintended consequence; that is, the civic benefits of creative participation – getting involved in an international community gardening association formed as a result of gardening and locavore food bloggers finding each other online
  3. Citizenship understood as the rights and responsibilities toward creative communities of which one is a member (e.g. a good citizen of the music scene; a good ‘netizen’ – or, being a citizen of digital media – what would that look like?)

Of course we need to bear in mind that creative citizenship, like all modes of group identification, can work to exclude as well as include; and that trolls and bullies can be fairly creative in their uses of digital media too.

The Web 2.0 Moment

The Web 2.0 ‘moment’ of the early to mid 2000s was a key period of optimism for creative citizenship and digital media understood in these ways. The Web 2.0 moment saw the rise of automated blogging software like Blogger and Movable Type, the widespread take-up of these tools, and the broader idea of Web 2.0 services focused on providing platforms for user-created content and connectivity – the barriers to participation in digital culture were now much lower, but participation was still very far from population-wide. This was a moment of artisinal, DIY creative citizenship, but still really the domain of the digerati not the masses.

But there was still a strong sense that the rules and roles of culture were changing. The academic field of research around participatory culture was marked by debates for and against the cultural and social value of user-created content. There were some early concerns raised about free labour in the context of proprietary platforms, but the market in user data, the algorithmic turn were largely yet to come, or at least they hardly registered for most of these critics.

The Social Media Moment
Fast forward to the end of that first decade of the 20th century, and I think we arrive at a different kind of moment, structured by a different set of relationships between the tech industry, the user, and culture – one that I have been calling the platform paradigm.

Indeed, returning to my third model, that of being a citizen of digital media, we might even think of platforms as in some ways analogous to city states – Mark Zuckerberg was infamously called the Sultan of Facebookistan in the media at one stage – but perhaps that’s stretching civic metaphors too far.

A crucial element of this work I have been doing is trying to understand the ‘digital’ elements of social media platforms as material elements, and understanding platforms as co-created. Unevenly and undemocratically co-created, but co-created nonetheless. it is through the interactions between all this ‘stuff’ that platforms are constituted, and that they do things; all these elements are co-influential in what each platform is and can be used for.

I do not think it hyberbolic to say that a very great deal of social life at the micro and macro level has become entangled with digital media – cf Mark Deuze’s book Media Life.

This moment is one characterized by the new ubiquity, legitimisation and normalisation of social media. Even in contexts where the penetration of digital devices is still growing, these dominant platforms will be inextricably part of the digital media ecology for new users – through the Facebook phone, the embedding of Google services into Android phones, and so on.

And the global shift to mobile media greatly extends the meaning of ‘ubiquity’ into our workplaces, our homes, schools, our pockets, and with the rise of wearables, the datafication of even our bodies.

And with the new ubiquity comes the new legitimacy – social media is part of the communicative infrastructure of global society now. And at key points social media has quite visibly been legitimated by government and community uses for practical purposes in undeniably serious situations like the 2011 Queensland Floods. Research has aided this legitimation process by doing large-scale data driven research only made possible by access to the Twitter API, which is really intended for commercial third-party development; and access to such data is a highly controversial and politicised issue right now.

The mainstreaming of social media platforms like Twitter has made possible communities of interest like agchat oz. Weekly Twitter Q&A sessions use the #agchatoz hashtag to capture discussions of interest to the self-identifying agricultural community, ranging from personal issues such as succession planning and rural mental health, to work matters including sustainable farming methods and how to manage natural disasters, as well as more public concerns such as animal welfare and live export. Most discussions solicit a range of perspectives from producers, consumers, scientists, journalists and other professionals; sometimes discussions connect to other issues and their hashtags (like #banliveexport for the issue of animal welfare in the meat industry), thereby causing a collision of constituencies. …not to mention #felfies (short for farm selfies) – which are perhaps an instance of what Lance Bennett calls personalised inclusive collectivity – where the #felfie meme is doing network-building work as well as self-representation for global rural citizens.

And social media has its own popular cultures that support practices of what John Hartley has called silly citizenship – memes, viral culture of the web (Shifman), which are a vital part of political discourse today – where by political I mean both Big P and small p politics (e.g. gender and sexuality issues). The David Cameron on the phone to Barack Obama meme-fest is a great example of this – it is silly and funny but also enacts a strong critique of the contemporary mediatization of politics and the dominance of superficial PR over political communication.

Competing Futures

But despite or even simultaneously with all this flourishing of activity, the affordances of the dominant platforms we associate with social media have changed in complex ways that at least according to some critics, do support mass take-up in the service of business interests, but may not support user creativity and innovation as they once did. (Always bearing in mind the counter-example of the Kodak camera, which created a mass market via the enclosure and automation of key aspects of the photographic process, but at the same time opened up access to photographic production to the masses).

I do think there have been some significant shifts in the way that users and their agency are being repositioned as these platforms grow and mature and seek profit ever more urgently as the venture capital runs out – and here I use the shorthand ‘the self and the world’ to think about the axes along which this repositioning occurs.

and as these platforms evolve and the technical means to advertise and market to us become ever more sophisticated, our experiences of them are ever more heavily mediated by the corporate interests of these platforms – even when the corporate interest is to serve us content we perceive as ‘relevant’, keeping us coming back for more.

How then do the politics of platforms, data ownership and access, the algorithmic turn, filter bubble, advertising-driven etc affect the creative citizen?
e.g. FB newsfeed algorithm might mean that organisations increasingly need to pay to get messages through such channels; and there are pretty serious consequence for global citizenship of the tendency of these platforms to encourage us to associate with and consume the content of people who we like and who are like us, as this visualization by Gilad Lotan of hashtag co-occurrence in Instagram images associated with the Gaza conflict shows.

Provocations: the Digital Creative Citizen

I conclude with some suggestions about how digitally native strategies and tactics for engaging in social media platforms might become part of the apparatus of community-based creative citizenship initiatives as well:

1. Exploit social media logics with playful and ‘silly’ citizenship
2. Adopt adaptive, multi-platform strategies & avoid delegating everything to one or two platforms
3. Develop critical engagement with platforms and their cultures as part of digital creative citizenship

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#asmc14 paper: Hashtag as hybrid forum: the case of #agchatoz Fri, 20 Jun 2014 10:32:01 +0000 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.

This paper proceeds on the basis that contemporary publics are emergent – that is, they are constituted through their involvement with mediated issues and events, rather than pre-existing as a ‘public sphere’ (Marres, 2012; Warner, 2005). Digital media platforms and practices are influencing both the nature of such publics and the means through which they engage in issues (Papacharissi, 2010; Bruns & Burgess, 2011); at the same time, digital methods present significant new opportunities, not only to understand but also to improve this situation (Rogers, 2013).

Hashtag studies
Hashtags are often used to focus empirical research on the dynamics of public communication in Twitter, on a range of traditional topics extending from elections to natural disasters and television audiences (Bruns & Burgess, 2011; Bruns & Stieglitz, 2012; Deller, 2011). Indeed, the current proliferation of data-driven research on Twitter within media & communication studies has led to a saturation of what we might call ‘hashtag studies’.

… While the choice to focus on hashtag-based discussions has largely been driven by a combination of methodological convenience and the constraints on access to Twitter data,

there is still room to consider the performative role of the hashtag in materially shaping and coordinating public communication on specific issues, within and across social media platforms. However, most of the scholarship on hashtags has considered them as mere communicative markers.

SO: Hashtags enable, shape and coordinate the emergence, connectivity and mutual awareness of ad hoc publics (see also Bruns and Burgess 2011) outside of their participants’ individual networks of followers.

Bruns and Stieglitz (2011) differentiate between three different types of hashtags: ad hoc ones, which emerge “in response to breaking news or other unforeseen events”; recurring ones, which users employ to contribute repeatedly to a certain topic (such as the #agchatoz which we investigate in this chapter); and praeter hoc ones, which relevant organisations predetermine and encourage users to adopt when tweeting about a particular event, such as a conference or TV show.

Bruns and Moe (2013) further distinguish between topical and non-topical hashtags. They suggest that topical hashtags are used to contribute to a discussion on a particular topic. These can be long-standing themes (e.g. #auspol), backchannels to TV events (e.g. #masterchef) or reactions to particular issues or events (#royalwedding). Non-topical hashtags are emotive markers, such as #facepalm or #fail and can be applied to any type of tweet. Hashtags are highly generative, malleable and replicable in cultural terms.

Hashtags as hybrid forums
This paper focuses specifically on how some (but not all) hashtags can be understood as what Michel Callon, in the context of technology and society, has called ‘hybrid forums’:

Forums because they are open spaces where groups can come together to discuss technical options involving the collective, hybrid because the groups involved and the spokespersons claiming to represent them are heterogeneous, including experts, politicians, technicians, and laypersons who consider themselves involved. They are also hybrid because the questions and problems taken up are addressed at different levels in a variety of domains. (Callon, Lascoumes & Barthe, 2001:18)

Here, in exploring the possible forms and forums of ‘technical democracy’ e.g. in relation to nuclear power or genetically modified food, Callon is discussing rather more formalised and more recognisably institutional spaces – indeed the traditional institutions and fora of democracy – than social media, but this is precisely where digital methods applied to social media platforms have much to offer.
To this definition, we would add that they are also markedly hybrid today because they take place within a complex media environment centred around social media platforms, whose volatile dynamics, material features and competing business models also need to be taken into account.

The case study for this paper is #agchatoz, a persistent and recurring Twitter hashtag with at least some of the characteristics of a ‘hybrid forum’ understood in this way. A local variant on the original US-based #agchat farmer advocacy or “agvocacy” Twitter community, #agchatoz originally had a mission to “raise the profile of Australian agriculture by shining a light on the leading issues that affect the industry and the wider community.” Weekly Twitter Q&A sessions use the #agchatoz hashtag to capture discussions of interest to the self-identifying agricultural community, ranging from personal issues such as succession planning and rural mental health, to work matters including sustainable farming methods and how to manage natural disasters, as well as more public concerns such as animal welfare and live export. Most discussions solicit a range of perspectives from producers, consumers, scientists, journalists and other professionals; sometimes discussions connect to other issues and their hashtags (like #banliveexport for the issue of animal welfare in the meat industry), thereby causing a collision of constituencies.

A survey of the most-shared URLs over six months on the hashtag gives an indication of the kinds of topical coverage. From agvocacy…

…including organised lobbying…

…to deliberative democratic engagement with high stakes environmental issues affecting farming and rural communities, like coal seam gas exploration…

…creating at times some counter-intuitive alliances between the urban left and the rural right….

…and even the Greens….

….while much of the tenor of the conversation frames the hashtag as an opportunity to bypass media stereotypes and have a voice in national debate, there is also a fair bit of antagonism towards a perceived uninformed city-dwelling culture who insufficiently value the role of agribusiness in Australia’s society and economy.

…and there are some dramatic collisions of opposing viewpoints and organised political groups on issues like animal welfare/animal rights.

…not to mention #felfies!

So #agchatoz, we argue, is a hybrid forum in the ways we described above, borrowing from and extending on Callon.
a generative site of speculative examples
a topical area not so familiar in media and communication studies, which tends to be more interested in politics, culture, and media in themselves
how can digital methods be used to discover issues and their publics, rather than researching already-known ones?

[refer here to the data slides, which for now have to more or less speak for themselves]

As we move forward with this project, digital methods combined with close regular observation allow us to go well beyond noting the loudest voices and dominant themes and attempt to trace the full diversity of stakeholder and non-stakeholder perspectives, substantive issues and topical diversions that come together within the #agchatoz forum. We argue that such an approach can help to tease out the complexity and diversity of issues of concern to and generative of publics. It is therefore important also to develop modes of performing such research in public, such that we reflexively and explicitly engage the publics forming around these issues.

Bruns, A. & Burgess, J. (2011). The use of Twitter hashtags in the formation of ad hoc publics. In 6th European Consortium for Political Research General Conference, 25 – 27 August 2011, University of Iceland, Reykjavik.

Bruns, A. and Moe, H. 2013. “Structural Layers of Communication on Twitter.” In Twitter and Society edited by K. Weller, A. Bruns, J. Burgess, M. Mahrt & C. Puschmann, 15-28. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Bruns, A., & Stieglitz, S. (2012). Quantitative approaches to comparing communication patterns on Twitter. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 30(3-4), 160-185.

Callon, M., Lascoumes, P., Barth, Y. (2001). Acting in an Uncertain World. An Essay on Technical Democracy. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England. (Translated by Graham Burchell).

Deller, R. (2011). Twittering On: Audience Research and Participation Using Twitter. Participations 8(1).

Halavais, A. 2013. “Structure of Twitter: Social and Technical. ” In Twitter and Society edited by K. Weller, A. Bruns, J. Burgess, M. Mahrt & C. Puschmann, 29-42. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Marres, N. (2012). Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. London: Palgrave.

Papacharissi, Z. (2010). A private sphere: Democracy in a digital age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rogers, R. (2013). Digital methods. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ruppert, Evelyn, John Law and Mike Savage. 2013. “Reassembling Social Science Methods: The Challenge of Digital Devices.“ Theory, Culture & Society 30(4): 22-46.

Warner, M. (2005). Publics and Counterpublics. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

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Twitter set to release all tweets to scientists? Not exactly. Wed, 04 Jun 2014 00:51:03 +0000 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.

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Web history and popular memory Sat, 24 May 2014 22:01:30 +0000 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 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 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

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Emerging Methods for Digital Media Research: An Introduction Thu, 14 Mar 2013 00:54:24 +0000 I’m very pleased to be able to announce that the methods-focused special issue of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (JOBEM) edited with my CCI colleagues Axel Bruns and Larissa Hjorth is out now.

When the original Call for Papers went out we had an extraordinary response, and it was genuinely difficult to sort through so many great abstracts to get to a balanced set of papers, but I am totally happy with the results – this is a special issue that I think really is more than the sum of its parts, making a statement about the state of the art and the forward agenda for questions of methodology in our field. And I know that for sure I’ll be using these papers in my own work in the immediate future.

Thanks to the efforts of the journal’s general editor Zizi Papacharissi the full issue will be made open access later in 2013, but for now it’s behind a paywall. So with permission I’m reproducing the editors’ introduction here.

Bear in mind also that many of the authors work at universities with institutional repositories – it may be possible to access pre-print versions of the articles.

Emerging Methods for Digital Media Research?: An Introduction

Jean Burgess, Axel Bruns and Larissa Hjorth

Now as in earlier periods of acute change in the media environment, new disciplinary articulations are producing new methods for media and communication research. At the same time, established media and communication studies methods are being recombined, reconfigured and remediated alongside their objects of study. This special issue of JOBEM seeks to explore the conceptual, political and practical aspects of emerging methods for digital media research. It does so at the conjuncture of a number of important contemporary trends: the rise of a ‘third wave’ of the Digital Humanities and the ‘computational turn’ (Berry 2011), associated with natively digital objects as well as the methods for studying them; the apparently ubiquitous Big Data paradigm, with its various manifestations across academia, business and government, bringing with it a rapidly increasing interest in social media communication and online ‘behavior’ from the ‘hard’ sciences; along with the multisited, embodied and emplaced nature of everyday digital media practice.

The issue contains seven articles that advocate for, reflect upon or critique current methodological trends in digital media research. It ranges from a discussion of the emergence of a new wave of Digital Humanities (Neils Bruegger and Niels Ole Finneman), the potential for digital media research of emerging approaches like Media Archaeology (Frederick Lesage), the role of language in research (Randy Kluver, Heidi Campbell and Stephen Balfour), to the ways Big Data is impacting upon content analysis (Seth C. Lewis, Rodrigo Zamith, and Alfred Hermida), digital media methods (Merja Mahrt and Michael Scharkow) and the large-scale policy research potential of community media archives (Nicole Matthews and Naomi Sunderland).

The special issue begins with Randy Kluver, Heidi Campbell and Stephen Balfour’s ‘Language and the Boundaries of Research’ which argues that ‘data-driven research’ has failed to engage with its increasingly internationalized context, especially in terms of its Anglophonic or Western-centric focus. As Kluver et al. rightly identify, the field remains focused upon Western media as a placeholder for ‘global media’. Here we are reminded of the importance of understanding Digital Media in context. While Big Data can often abstract the cultural, social and linguistic nuances of digital media practice, there is a growing pool of researchers exploring interdisciplinary methods such as ‘ethno-mining’ that use ethnography to critique Big Data (Anderson et al. 2009) and situate digital media as part of the complex dynamics of everyday life (Coleman 2010). In their review article ‘The Value of Big Data in Digital Media Research’, Merja Mahrt and Michael Scharkow provide a critical survey of methodological approaches to media communication and how the field is being reconfigured in an age of Big Data. In particular, Mahrt and Scharkow focus upon the consequences of using Big Data at different stages of research process, in dialogue with the traditions underpinning manual quantitative and qualitative approaches. For Seth C. Lewis, Rodrigo Zamith, and Alfred Hermida in ‘Content Analysis in an Era of Big Data: A Hybrid Approach to Computational and Manual Methods’, by blending computational and manual methods one can gain insight into content. Drawing on a case study of Twitter, Lewis et al. argue that a hybrid method of computational and manual techniques can provide both systematic rigor and contextual sensitivity.

This is followed by Anne Galloway’s ‘Emergent Media Technologies, Speculation, Expectation and Human/nonhuman Relations’ in which Galloway draws on her background as one of the earliest researchers to study ubiquitous computing to discuss the role of sociology in situating emergent media technologies as part of a cultural process involving a range of human and nonhuman actors. Here Galloway focuses upon the often-overlooked aspect of anticipation and expectation in the process of media practice and the production of imaginaries for and of the future. Drawing on the work of Bruno Latour, Galloway concludes with some thought-provoking questions for relationships between Digital Media methods and design.

For Neils Bruegger and Niels Ole Finneman in ‘The Web and Digital Humanities: Theoretical and Methodological Concerns’ there is a need for the Digital Humanities to understand the complex social, temporal and spatial dimensions of the web. Using the case study of the real-time and archived web (as a dynamic depiction, not simply a copy of what was once online) to illustrate their point, Bruegger and Finneman argue that currently the Digital Humanities is limited in its ability to capture the moving architecture of digital media. Complimenting this discussion by picking up on some aspects of the related field of software studies as well as cultural analytics and media archaeology, in ‘Cultural Biographies and Excavations of Media: Context and Process’, Frederick Lesage argues for a ‘cultural biography’ approach to the study of software as media objects – as ‘things’.

Nicole Matthews & Naomi Sunderland’s ‘Digital Life Story Narratives as Data for Policy Makers and Practitioners: Thinking Through Methodologies for Large-scale Multimedia Qualitative Datasets’ explores the role of community-based digital media narratives (e.g. via digital storytelling projects) in ‘amplifying marginalized voices in the public domain’. It is clear from Matthews and Sunderland’s piece that despite the large numbers of these projects and hence the depth of research potential in the stories they have produced, the effective deployment of this potential in social policy remains a missed articulation with political, ethical and methodological dimensions.

Anderson, K., Rafus, D., Rattenbury, T., and R. Aipperspach (2009). ‘Numbers Have Qualities Too: Experiences with Ethno-Mining’,
Berry, D. (2011). The Computational Turn: Thinking About the Digital Humanities. Culture Machine, 12. Retrieved from
Coleman, G. (2010). Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39: 487–505.


1. Randy Kluver, Heidi Campbell and Stephen Balfour, Language and the Boundaries of Research: Media Monitoring Technologies in International Media Research

2. Merja Mahrt and Michael Scharkow, The Value of Big Data in Digital Media Research

3. Seth C. Lewis, Rodrigo Zamith, and Alfred Hermida, Content Analysis in an Era of Big Data: A Hybrid Approach to Computational and Manual Methods

4. Anne Galloway, Emergent Media Technologies, Speculation, Expectation and Human/Nonhuman Relations

5. Neils Bruegger and Niels Ole Finneman, The Web and Digital Humanities: Theoretical and Methodological Concerns

6. Frederick Lesage, Cultural Biographies and Excavations of Media: Context and Process

7. Nicole Matthews and Naomi Sunderland, Digital Life Story Narratives as Data for Policy Makers and Practitioners: Thinking Through Methodologies for Large-scale Multimedia Qualitative Datasets

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