Finding Discursive Meaning in Twitter

The use of language has always been a form of social practice, whether we are communicating with each other face to face, through written text, or virtually in the online world.  Like all social practices, language is also the means by which existing social and political interests are either served or contested.  Twitter, the social networking program that offers an online platform for sending and receiving brief text-based messages, has become a popular form of social and political discourse.  Educational scholars and practitioners from across the globe are now using Twitter to share resources, propose new practices and classroom strategies, and discuss views on educational trends and politics.  The question for me is whether this educational chatter on Twitter can truly be considered meaningful discourse.

Twentieth century French philosopher and postmodernist Michel Foucault, whose work focused on the study of meaningful discourse and knowledge production, would likely have been intrigued by the discursive practice of Twitter.  The imposed brevity of text messages (140 characters), the arbitrary and evolving set of abbreviations (codified language) users have developed, and the ability to create chat lines and direct links to other online information all reflect what Foucault might have called Twitter’s system of representation – the conditions, or rules and practices, in which knowledge is produced, organized, and regulated.

I am a relative newcomer to the Twitter scene.   I created a Twitter account in the spring of 2011 after several colleagues in my school district convinced me that this new form of social media would become an essential networking tool for educators across the globe. I was intrigued and decided to join in.

My first few weeks on Twitter were quite interesting as I learned how the program worked and connected with a few other people locally.  But the novelty of a new electronic communication tool soon wore off.  I began to question the value of Twitter.   It seemed like yet another messaging system to check on a daily basis (after voice mail and endless email messages) with little in the way of meaningful communication.  I felt like I was wasting valuable time slogging through banal messages about the minutia of other people’s personal lives in order to find any gems of educational wisdom.  Tweets like  “Just arrived in San Francisco – can’t wait to start my vacation” or “Barney is pooped after an hour and a half on the trails” (with picture of panting dog) were filling up my ‘inbox’, leaving me with the sense that Twitter had simply become, for many people, a shorthand version of FaceBook.  My own few tweets about events happening in schools and at the district level went into the “Twittersphere” largely unnoticed.   It seemed like a one-way communication system with no possibility for meaningful feedback or true discourse between participants.  By the fall of 2011 I was ready to give up on Twitter.

When I shared my observations and frustrations with ‘veteran’ tweeters from my school district, they nodded knowingly.“That happens a lot with beginner tweeters”, they acknowledged.  “You need to develop a discerning list of people to follow and focus on education-related hash tags to really see the interesting educational discussions happening online through Twitter.”

I followed their advice, researching the “Who’s Who” in Twitter education circles and the most widely subscribed and interesting hash tag twitter feeds.  I followed subscribers whose tweets focused on educational topics of interest to my professional work, and unfollowed others who were cluttering up the airwaves with tweets focused on personal observations or advertising.  I began to research other educational leaders’ personal Twitter lists that lead me to other contacts of interest to follow.  And I discovered Twitter super stars in the field– educational leaders with thousands of followers!  While public organizations, initiatives and officials are often openly criticized on Twitter, the thoughts and opinions of these educational ‘power tweeters’ are routinely retweeted and rarely challenged.   A different twist on what Foucault called social and political domination in discourse?

Despite the advice from colleagues and improvements to my Twitter practice, I continued to find the stream of information overwhelming, unidirectional, and fragmented.  My observation was that tweets were like fleeting ‘sound bites’ that moved outwards from the source and rarely resulted in meaningful and sustained discourse.  In fact, most tweets have a very short lifespan; they live about the same amount of time as a mayfly -30 minutes to one day depending on the popularity of the tweet (or the celebrity status of the tweeter) and how often it is retweeted or favourited!

Foucault believed that the discursive meaning of discreet linguistic events relied on the succession of statements (énoncés) that precede and follow it.  In order to understand language or discourse one has to understand the way in which independent statements relate to one another.  The meaning of any one statement is dependent both on its content and style (intrinsic properties) and its context (external factors).  This is the challenge with Twitter; it is not threaded so the messages all come in the same list.  When a new tweet comes through the system (and they come fast!) you are either reading about someone’s new idea, observation or suggestion, such as a response to an announcement, a link to online information or blog; or you are witnessing a reply to someone else’s tweet.  In the former case there may or may not ever be a direct response to the tweet, and if someone does eventually respond to the original tweet the reply may only show up several tweets later in the list. Thus, the context for the original tweet ‘statement’ gets lost amidst the vast amount of new incoming messages.  In the latter case, a reply to a tweet will typically appear out of context – one has to take the time to follow the @ links to find the original message.  So while the Twitter statements do have both the intrinsic form and extrinsic properties of discourse, finding meaning in them is harder work than in a typical field of discourse.

Recently I have noticed that the Twitter trend has taken over most educational seminars and conferences.  Keynote addresses are now often preceded by a host who informs the audience participants of the hash tag to use in order to create a conference Twitter feed.  In these instances, for people in the audience, and even for tweeters attending the conference virtually, one instantly notices more meaningful connections between Twitter messages. There is also a greater sense of what Foucault called the discursive formation of conditions (context for the conference, direct quotes from the keynote) in which the statements are made.

When I presented a workshop at SFU’s Summer Institute this past July I couldn’t help but notice the number of participants tweeting during my presentation.  Many were brand new Twitter users, so the novelty of the program was compelling and at times distracting.  Nonetheless, after the conference had ended, I did enjoy reading the tweets that had been sent out during my workshop.  I realized for the first time how valuable Twitter could be in terms of the immediacy of feedback for presenters.

Despite my criticisms and questions, I do want to be part of the Twitter community of educators.  I enjoy being a contributor, regularly forwarding to my colleagues links to educational websites, blogs and online articles featuring valuable insights into educational theory and practice.  I am also continuing to develop my skills as a Twitter consumer, learning how to use lists of followers and follow specific chats to find meaning among the massive number of incoming tweets.  And, I have to admit, I really do get a thrill when I check my Twitter account to discover new followers or my own tweets favourited, retweeted or mentioned by others.

Perhaps, the appeal of Twitter lies not only in leaving our verbal traces for the online world to see, but also in the possibility, however remote, of engaging in meaningful discourse with others.  Or maybe it’s just about maximizing the impact and lifespan of our tweets. As Foucault noted:

The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know where it will end.”

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