Attention and inattention on Twitter

I missed this research on twitter social networks as i was taking time away from the internets when it was posted. Here’s Jeremiah Owyang’s coverage of network analysis conducted at HP labs.

The research does seem only to illustrate the obvious. For all the followers one may have, we engage in a much smaller subnetwork or core group. If you’re into social network analysis, the paper is worth a read.

But it may be risky to draw conclusions from it, and here’s why. The research can only cover tweeting activity — it cannot measure reading. To measure twitter’s value only by tweet activity mistakes activity for attention. And to measure “networks” by conversationality mistakes talking for influence.

I think it’s a fair bet that most of us consume a lot more of twitter than we actually reply to, retweet, or direct message. We have impressions of people we have never messaged. We have impressions of people based on their followings, without having read them. We have impressions of people based on what they say, regardless of how many followers they have.

I use tweetdeck, like many of us. I have no clue how many followers most of you have. But I have an impression of many of you. There’s no way to extract impressions we have from attention we spend, if the attention is not given actively — as an @reply, direct message, or follow. Social media are highly asymmetrical — how we give or spend attention can be tracked only by our actions. There’s no tracking the things we don’t act on — tho we may be paying attention.

Furthermore, the actions (tweeting) that can be tracked may just as well correspond to a self-interest as correspond to an interest in the person addressed. Because I @reply doesn’t mean I know you, your blog, or your influence. I may simply be responding to you. I may be soliciting your attention to me. I may be soliciting the attention of your audience (who follows you). I may be soliciting the attention of the audience I feel a part of (those I follow). Or I may be soliciting the attention of my audience (who follows me).

There’s a grand asymmetry in audience attention and awareness in twitter, due to the fact that our own tweets are shown (inaccurately) within the context of those we follow, not those who are following (seeing/reading) us. You probably have felt, as I have, that your tweet is being seen by the people you see in tweetdeck. Those aren’t the people who see your tweet (excepting mutual follows)! We tweet to an audience in front of us, when in fact our audience is behind us.

Furthermore, the research assumes that conversationality = trust = networks that matter. Conversation and networks are two different things. I can have fun and engaging conversations on twitter with people I don’t (yet) know, but be influenced by many I have never tweeted to. Network influence shouldn’t be measured by conversationality alone. Research such as this, while illuminating, fails to address why we do it and what it means to us. In spite of the obvious asymmetry in follower count vs actual conversation on twitter, in spite of the obvious fact that all friends are not equal, there’s still the fact that we add followers, accrue followers, and are motivated by some aspect of that practice. Engagement with the medium should not be reduced to participation and activity.

I think there’s a myriad of other factors at work behind who reads, who @replies, and who RT’s. Some want the attention of the influencer, and will act on that by tweeting. Some, intimidated by the influencer’s influence, may read — but read pretty religiously. Some influencers attract a following but maintain a hands off and non-conversational tweeting style. Some influentials have extremely chatty and present tweeting styles, and may be much more capable of making things happen. Can loyalty be measured in twitter activity and patterns of use? Where would it be found — in network density or in reciprocity and frequency of activity?

There’s also the matter of what sociologists call the “public sphere.” Some commentators criticize social media for clipping our attention spans and eliminating the binding commitments we form and sustain in face to face interactions. I make those claims sometimes. There’s no denying the difference mediated interaction has with situated interactions. We don’t share time on twitter. But there is clearly a benefit to one’s sense of self, and clearly a self-interest satisfied by accruing followers on twitter. Some amount of the price paid by our reduced “attention spans” may be refunded by an enduring sense of presence and belonging we feel by our attendance.

Sociologist Erving Goffman had a concept for what he called “sanctioned eavesdropping.” It described situations in which overhearing is permitted, and forms a low-commitment kind of social interaction. He also had a concept for “civil inattention.” As Anthony Giddens put it, “Civil inattention is trust as ‘background noise’—not as a random collection of sounds, but as carefully restrained and controlled social rhythms.” They were talking about face to face situations. But I have little doubt that we bring our sensibilities to online social practices also.

As Goffman put it best, “These two tendencies, that of the speaker to scale down his expressions and that of the listeners to scale up their interests, each in the light of the other’s capacities and demands, form the bridge that people build to one another, allowing them to meet for a moment of talk in a communion of reciprocally sustained involvement. It is this spark, not the more obvious kinds of love, that lights up the world.”

Note: This blog post belongs to a series on “status culture.” The posts examine status updates, facebook activity feeds, news feeds, twitter, microblogging, lifestreaming, and other social media applications and features belonging to conversation media. My approach will be user-centric as always, and tackle usability and social experience issues (human factors, interaction design, interface design) at the heart of social interaction design. But we will also use anthropology, sociology, psychology, communication and media theories. Perhaps even some film theory.
The converational trend in social networking sites and applications suggests that web 2.0 is rapidly developing into a social web that embraces talk (post IM, chat, and email) in front of new kinds of publics and peer groups. User generated content supplied to search engines is increasingly produced conversationally. Social media analytics tools provide PR and social media marketing with means to track and monitor conversations. Brands are interested in joining the conversation feeds, through influencers as well as their own twitter presence.
This changing landscape not only raises interesting issues for developers and applications (such as the many twitter third party apps), but for social practices emerging around them. So we will look also at design principles for conversation-based apps, cultural and social trends, marketing trends, and other examples of new forms of talk online.
These blog posts will vary in tenor, from quick reflections on experiences to more in-depth approaches to design methodology for conversational social media.

This entry was posted in Social practices, SxD Theory, Twitter and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Larry

    I always enjoy your take on the social interaction approach to social media. I also read the study you discuss, on the HP website as well as the one published in First Monday. I had a different take on it over at Skilful Minds though. You might find it an interesting exercise to compare your’s with mine.