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Liminality and Communitas in Social Media: The Case  of Twitter Jana Herwig, M.A. Dept. of Theatre, Film & Media  Studies ...
Point of Departure: Can anthropological concepts of ‘rites of passage’ help us understand early social media use?
Rite of Passage (Turner): 1 - Subject is stripped of its social status 2 - Subject goes through a transitional phase (limi...
0 friends  0 followers  0 updates Detachment from Social Status:
Chaos or confusion:
Usernames level hierarchies:   pic by @mimimixer
Can these concepts  also help us understand  the role of social media  in society?
<ul><li>“ I see [the liminal] as a kind of institutional capsule or pocket which contains the germ of future social develo...
<ul><li>“  Innovation [...] most frequently occurs in interfaces and limina, then becomes legitimated in central sectors ”...
How can these concepts  be applied in the  analysis of Twitter and  Social Media in general?
<ul><li>Pt. I - Interfaces </li></ul><ul><li>Analysis of the symbols  </li></ul><ul><li>that shape liminoid experience </l...
Preview Pt. III: ‘Early Adopter’ vs ‘Mainstream user’ Activity
Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 94% (15 out of 16) went on a hiatus of  ≥  28 days,  75% (12) did so  in first 2 month...
Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ●  ● ●  12.5% women (2 of 16 active users, randomly identifi...
Part I.  Interfaces 1. The Threshold Page
Log-in Sign-up
<ul><li>Log-in: </li></ul><ul><li>Symbol of inclusion and of exclusion, </li></ul><ul><li>asks user for (secret) name and ...
Sign-up? (how cynical…)
Log-in Sign-up Service Description Service Description
<ul><li>Service Description: </li></ul><ul><li>A preview of what is to become of the ritual subject if s/he decides to sig...
New HP: Caters to (potential) initiands AND non-users Service Description Service Description for non-members Service for ...
<ul><li>Liminal vs. Liminoid: </li></ul><ul><li>Update of the concept of liminality for  </li></ul><ul><li>post-industrial...
Part I.  Interfaces 2. The Sign-up Procedure
0 friends  0 followers  0 updates Detachment from Social Status:
Optional anonymity: Username check, but no real name check… yet (Project Verified Accounts)
<ul><li>Anonymity in Social Media </li></ul><ul><li>Structures competition between platforms: </li></ul><ul><li>Facebook: ...
<ul><li>Anonymity/notoriety options: </li></ul><ul><li>Statement of one’s real, full name.  </li></ul><ul><li>Real name as...
<ul><li>Communitas is volatile: </li></ul><ul><li>With real names and ‘meat space’ relationships, social structures and hi...
Scenario I: People addressing each other by usernames in face-to-face situations   pic by @mimimixer
Scenario II: People with social capital gained in other social spheres maintain their status   Example 1: With its more th...
Scenario II: People with social capital gained in other social spheres maintain their status   Example 2:  Although the  i...
Part II.  Users 1. Activity Patterns
Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 94% (15 out of 16) went on a hiatus of  ≥  28 days,  75% (12) did so  in first 2 month...
<ul><li>‘ Early Adopters’ </li></ul><ul><li>Sample 1:  </li></ul><ul><li>16 users  signed up between Oct ‘06 and Mar ‘07 w...
User A
User D
User G
User K
User L The used visualization tool tweetstats.com starts with the first update; User L wrote the first update 600 days aft...
User O (‘Lead User’) Video with all activity patterns in sample 1:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhPdQaZ_Wu4
Part II.  Users 2. Contexts in which Twitter use emerges
<ul><li>Method: Close reading </li></ul><ul><li>What do people write about when they first use or when they return to Twit...
<ul><li>View on Twitter as a web technology </li></ul><ul><li>“ Testing this twitter Flex interface” </li></ul><ul><li>“ w...
<ul><li>View on Twitter as part of a mobile gadget culture </li></ul><ul><li>“ Loving my Touch. Mobilicious.” </li></ul><u...
<ul><li>View on Twitter as a social sphere </li></ul><ul><li>“ thinking about next season as a Happy Hammer - prompted by ...
<ul><li>Twitter as a liminal challenge </li></ul><ul><li>“ Testing this gadget” </li></ul><ul><li>“ Testing twitter” </li>...
Part II.  Users 3. Early Twitter Experience, or: Making Twitter into a social medium
<ul><li>Twitter as asocial medium </li></ul><ul><li>In a user’s early phase, activity is dominated by the interface: </li>...
<ul><li>The social dimension </li></ul><ul><li>Are users aware of the presence of others? </li></ul><ul><li>(User L’s sixt...
<ul><li>Twitter as a social medium: the @-response as indicator </li></ul><ul><li>After having posted their first @-respon...
Part III.  Social Media Services 1. Social Mechanisms on Twitter: ‘Early Adopters’ vs ‘Mainstream Phase Users’
<ul><li>The 1 st  @-response </li></ul><ul><li>Early adopters wrote 1 st  @-response within </li></ul><ul><li>21 to 745 da...
<ul><li>The 1 st  @-response </li></ul><ul><li>Early adopters wrote 1 st  @-response within </li></ul><ul><li>21 to 745 da...
<ul><li>Types of Social mechanisms </li></ul><ul><li>Default social mechanisms: </li></ul><ul><li>Built into the system, c...
<ul><li>When did # and RT emerge? </li></ul><ul><li>Hashtags: Allegedly popularized </li></ul><ul><li>during October 2007 ...
<ul><li>Appropriation of # and RT </li></ul><ul><li>Hashtags: </li></ul><ul><li>Early adopters  292 to 957 days  (average ...
Part III.  Social Media Services 2. Gendered Twitter-Phases?
<ul><li>Presence of Celebrities </li></ul><ul><li>Different from sample 1, there is a strong presence of celebrities in th...
Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ●  ● ●  12.5% women (2 of 16 active users, randomly identifi...
<ul><li>Gendered Twitter phases? </li></ul><ul><li>Hypothesis 1: </li></ul><ul><li>In 2006/2007, Twitter was eagerly adopt...
Conclusion:  Anthropological concepts of ‘rites of passage’ help us understand several aspects social media use:
<ul><li>Creation of a Liminal Subject  </li></ul><ul><li>< First steps on Twitter  </li></ul><ul><li>Communitas as anti-st...
Questions or Feedback? Send an email to  [email_address]  or, preferably, post a comment on my blog. You can also download...
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Liminality and Communitas in Social Media: The Case of Twitter

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Shorter Version: http://slidesha.re/tO43c
This is the full slide presentation I prepared for the Internet:Critical 2009 conference in Milwaukee. It is the translation into slides of a paper in which I use Victor Turner's model of the Rite of Passge to analyse both how users are initiated to Twitter and to describe the role of Twitter as a space of social innovation within society at large. You can dowload the draft paper from my blog: http://wp.me/peBnE-u4

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Liminality and Communitas in Social Media: The Case of Twitter

  1. 1. Liminality and Communitas in Social Media: The Case of Twitter Jana Herwig, M.A. Dept. of Theatre, Film & Media Studies University of Vienna Email: [email_address] Twitter: @digiom Blog: digiom.wordpress.com
  2. 2. Point of Departure: Can anthropological concepts of ‘rites of passage’ help us understand early social media use?
  3. 3. Rite of Passage (Turner): 1 - Subject is stripped of its social status 2 - Subject goes through a transitional phase (liminality) marked by anti-structure, chaos and egalitarian relations between initiands (communitas) 3 - Reintegration with an elevated status
  4. 4. 0 friends 0 followers 0 updates Detachment from Social Status:
  5. 5. Chaos or confusion:
  6. 6. Usernames level hierarchies: pic by @mimimixer
  7. 7. Can these concepts also help us understand the role of social media in society?
  8. 8. <ul><li>“ I see [the liminal] as a kind of institutional capsule or pocket which contains the germ of future social developments, of societal change [...]” </li></ul><ul><li>Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre , 1982, p. 45 </li></ul>
  9. 9. <ul><li>“ Innovation [...] most frequently occurs in interfaces and limina, then becomes legitimated in central sectors ” </li></ul><ul><li>Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre , 1982, p. 45 </li></ul>
  10. 10. How can these concepts be applied in the analysis of Twitter and Social Media in general?
  11. 11. <ul><li>Pt. I - Interfaces </li></ul><ul><li>Analysis of the symbols </li></ul><ul><li>that shape liminoid experience </li></ul><ul><li>Pt. II - Users </li></ul><ul><li>Chronological close reading of individual timelines </li></ul><ul><li>Pt. III - Social Media Services </li></ul><ul><li>‘ Early adopters’ vs ‘mainstream users’ </li></ul>
  12. 12. Preview Pt. III: ‘Early Adopter’ vs ‘Mainstream user’ Activity
  13. 13. Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 94% (15 out of 16) went on a hiatus of ≥ 28 days, 75% (12) did so in first 2 months Sample 2: signed-up Mar’09 - Jul‘09 9% (1 out of 11) stopped updating for ≥ 28 days (max. time on Twitter: 6 months)
  14. 14. Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● 12.5% women (2 of 16 active users, randomly identified) Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● 91% women (10 of 11 active users, randomly identified)
  15. 15. Part I. Interfaces 1. The Threshold Page
  16. 16. Log-in Sign-up
  17. 17. <ul><li>Log-in: </li></ul><ul><li>Symbol of inclusion and of exclusion, </li></ul><ul><li>asks user for (secret) name and password, </li></ul><ul><li>tests the user (‘Treshold Guardian’) </li></ul><ul><li>Sign-up: </li></ul><ul><li>Symbol of inclusion and of exclusion, </li></ul><ul><li>esp. used in beta stages, as a marketing strategy and ‘early adopter’ token (e.g. Google Wave, invite trading sites) </li></ul>
  18. 18. Sign-up? (how cynical…)
  19. 19. Log-in Sign-up Service Description Service Description
  20. 20. <ul><li>Service Description: </li></ul><ul><li>A preview of what is to become of the ritual subject if s/he decides to sign-up </li></ul><ul><li>Liminoid experiences are optional, therefore have to compete with another. </li></ul><ul><li>Often they are commodities, which one selects and pays for (movie, play in a theatre, but also social media platforms </li></ul>
  21. 21. New HP: Caters to (potential) initiands AND non-users Service Description Service Description for non-members Service for non-members Log-in Sign-up
  22. 22. <ul><li>Liminal vs. Liminoid: </li></ul><ul><li>Update of the concept of liminality for </li></ul><ul><li>post-industrial societies (Turner 1982). </li></ul><ul><li>Liminal phenomena: tribal or early agrarian societies; no distinction of work and play (all part of ‘work of the Gods’) </li></ul><ul><li>Liminoid phenomena: optional, </li></ul><ul><li>a matter of individual choice </li></ul><ul><li>rather than of collective rhythm </li></ul>
  23. 23. Part I. Interfaces 2. The Sign-up Procedure
  24. 24. 0 friends 0 followers 0 updates Detachment from Social Status:
  25. 25. Optional anonymity: Username check, but no real name check… yet (Project Verified Accounts)
  26. 26. <ul><li>Anonymity in Social Media </li></ul><ul><li>Structures competition between platforms: </li></ul><ul><li>Facebook: Oppressed. Accounts with ‘fake’ names are suspended. </li></ul><ul><li>4chan Random board, /b/: Enforced. Derogatory terms fors users w/ names. </li></ul><ul><li>Twitter: Optional Anonymity; </li></ul><ul><li>Incentives to give up anonymity. </li></ul>
  27. 27. <ul><li>Anonymity/notoriety options: </li></ul><ul><li>Statement of one’s real, full name. </li></ul><ul><li>Real name as nickname (impersonators!) </li></ul><ul><li>Picture of oneself as an avatar. </li></ul><ul><li>Link to a website w/ personal information. </li></ul><ul><li>Linking Twitter with email address book </li></ul><ul><li>Meeting other Twitterers face-to-face </li></ul>
  28. 28. <ul><li>Communitas is volatile: </li></ul><ul><li>With real names and ‘meat space’ relationships, social structures and hierarchies are re-injected into Twitter </li></ul><ul><li>How did it feel when your boss (colleague, high school mate, mother ...) started following you on Twitter? </li></ul><ul><li>(email me: jana.herwig@univie.ac.at) </li></ul>
  29. 29. Scenario I: People addressing each other by usernames in face-to-face situations pic by @mimimixer
  30. 30. Scenario II: People with social capital gained in other social spheres maintain their status Example 1: With its more than 2 million followers, the account @oprah receives several replies in an hour, and has replied six times in its first seven months – only once to a non-celebrity.
  31. 31. Scenario II: People with social capital gained in other social spheres maintain their status Example 2: Although the informal ‘Du’ is typically used between German-speaking Twitter users, the account of Austrian TV-anchor @ArminWolf is mostly addressed with the formal ‘Sie’.
  32. 32. Part II. Users 1. Activity Patterns
  33. 33. Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 94% (15 out of 16) went on a hiatus of ≥ 28 days, 75% (12) did so in first 2 months Sample 2: signed-up Mar’09 - Jul‘09 9% (1 out of 11) stopped updating for ≥ 28 days (max. time on Twitter: 6 months)
  34. 34. <ul><li>‘ Early Adopters’ </li></ul><ul><li>Sample 1: </li></ul><ul><li>16 users signed up between Oct ‘06 and Mar ‘07 who were still active in May 2009, identified via whendidyoujoin.twitter.com . </li></ul><ul><li>The single user (User O) that did not experience a hiatus also attended the biggest number of events where social media is used (e.g. SXSW, CES, flashmobs). </li></ul>
  35. 35. User A
  36. 36. User D
  37. 37. User G
  38. 38. User K
  39. 39. User L The used visualization tool tweetstats.com starts with the first update; User L wrote the first update 600 days after signing-up.
  40. 40. User O (‘Lead User’) Video with all activity patterns in sample 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhPdQaZ_Wu4
  41. 41. Part II. Users 2. Contexts in which Twitter use emerges
  42. 42. <ul><li>Method: Close reading </li></ul><ul><li>What do people write about when they first use or when they return to Twitter? </li></ul><ul><li>Four contexts were identified: </li></ul><ul><li>Interest in or view on Twitter as: </li></ul><ul><li>- a web technology </li></ul><ul><li>- part of a mobile gadget culture </li></ul><ul><li>- a social sphere </li></ul><ul><li>- a liminal challenge </li></ul>
  43. 43. <ul><li>View on Twitter as a web technology </li></ul><ul><li>“ Testing this twitter Flex interface” </li></ul><ul><li>“ wondering if there’s a way to push Adium / Facebook updates to Twitter automatically” </li></ul><ul><li>“ Just twitting from my DOS console” </li></ul><ul><li>“ Trying to figure out the twitter api” </li></ul>
  44. 44. <ul><li>View on Twitter as part of a mobile gadget culture </li></ul><ul><li>“ Loving my Touch. Mobilicious.” </li></ul><ul><li>“ Got a nokia e61i now... Getting connected to everything mobile” </li></ul><ul><li>“ Google Latitude... Cool... http://is.gd/ijOV” </li></ul>
  45. 45. <ul><li>View on Twitter as a social sphere </li></ul><ul><li>“ thinking about next season as a Happy Hammer - prompted by a fellow fan now following me.” </li></ul><ul><li>“ @xxx You are not the only one in the UK that is glad to see AmberMac back on here, Shame Net@Nite is no longer recorded live though ” </li></ul>
  46. 46. <ul><li>Twitter as a liminal challenge </li></ul><ul><li>“ Testing this gadget” </li></ul><ul><li>“ Testing twitter” </li></ul><ul><li>“ back” </li></ul><ul><li>“ ASDf” </li></ul><ul><li>“ mic check, 1-2” </li></ul><ul><li>“ i totally forgot about twitter, i suck” </li></ul><ul><li>“ trying to remember how to use twitter” </li></ul>
  47. 47. Part II. Users 3. Early Twitter Experience, or: Making Twitter into a social medium
  48. 48. <ul><li>Twitter as asocial medium </li></ul><ul><li>In a user’s early phase, activity is dominated by the interface: </li></ul><ul><li>In their very first update, 87.5% (14 out of 16) reported what they were doing. </li></ul><ul><li>(one reported what he was going to do, another posted a sequence of arbitrary characters). </li></ul><ul><li>Study by Mischaud 2007: 41.5% </li></ul><ul><li>reported what they were doing </li></ul><ul><li>(Content analysis of 5767 tweets from 60 users) </li></ul>
  49. 49. <ul><li>The social dimension </li></ul><ul><li>Are users aware of the presence of others? </li></ul><ul><li>(User L’s sixth update, posted on day 745 on Twitter, responding to someone with a similar nickname) </li></ul>
  50. 50. <ul><li>Twitter as a social medium: the @-response as indicator </li></ul><ul><li>After having posted their first @-response, 75% of users in the ‘early adopter’ sample did not experience another hiatus . </li></ul>
  51. 51. Part III. Social Media Services 1. Social Mechanisms on Twitter: ‘Early Adopters’ vs ‘Mainstream Phase Users’
  52. 52. <ul><li>The 1 st @-response </li></ul><ul><li>Early adopters wrote 1 st @-response within </li></ul><ul><li>21 to 745 days (average: 411 days) </li></ul><ul><li>It was contained in update no. </li></ul><ul><li>3 to 302 (average: update no. 68) </li></ul>
  53. 53. <ul><li>The 1 st @-response </li></ul><ul><li>Early adopters wrote 1 st @-response within </li></ul><ul><li>21 to 745 days (average: 411 days) </li></ul><ul><li>Mainstream users achieved this within </li></ul><ul><li>1 to 25 days (average: 8 days) </li></ul><ul><li>It was contained in update no. </li></ul><ul><li>3 to 302 (average: update no. 68) </li></ul><ul><li>For mainstream users it was update no. </li></ul><ul><li>1 to 64 (average: update no. 14) </li></ul>
  54. 54. <ul><li>Types of Social mechanisms </li></ul><ul><li>Default social mechanisms: </li></ul><ul><li>Built into the system, could be triggered automatically, e.g. @-response. </li></ul><ul><li>Emergent social mechanisms: </li></ul><ul><li>Result of collective experiment with social-semantic opportunities of a text field, </li></ul><ul><li>e.g. retweeting, hashtags </li></ul><ul><li>Emergent mechanisms may be turned into default ones (cf. Twitter’s Project Retweet) </li></ul>
  55. 55. <ul><li>When did # and RT emerge? </li></ul><ul><li>Hashtags: Allegedly popularized </li></ul><ul><li>during October 2007 #sandiegofire </li></ul><ul><li>First use in sample 1: 8 January 2008 </li></ul><ul><li>(‘Lead user’ O, referring to #CES) </li></ul><ul><li>Retweeting: unknown. </li></ul><ul><li>First use in sample 1: 30 April 2008 </li></ul><ul><li>(‘Lead user’ O, about a flashmob) </li></ul>
  56. 56. <ul><li>Appropriation of # and RT </li></ul><ul><li>Hashtags: </li></ul><ul><li>Early adopters 292 to 957 days (average 697) </li></ul><ul><li>Mainstream 1 to 143 days (average 45 days) </li></ul><ul><li>Retweeting: </li></ul><ul><li>Early adopters 405 to 947 days (average 701) </li></ul><ul><li>Mainstream 1 to 94 days (average 39 days) </li></ul><ul><li>N.B. These mechanisms had presumably not yet emerged when sample 1 signed up. </li></ul>
  57. 57. Part III. Social Media Services 2. Gendered Twitter-Phases?
  58. 58. <ul><li>Presence of Celebrities </li></ul><ul><li>Different from sample 1, there is a strong presence of celebrities in the updates generated by the mainstream phase sample. </li></ul><ul><li>Within the first 100 updates, C2 sends @-responses to 15 different celebrities (musical artists, TV hosts, Hollywood actors); another, E2, writes to 11 celebrities, including fake accounts and accounts of fictional characters from a TV series. </li></ul><ul><li>User M2 communicates almost exclusively with band members or fans of NKOTB. </li></ul>
  59. 59. Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● 12.5% women (2 of 16 active users, randomly identified) Sample 1: signed-up Oct’06 - Mar‘07 ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● 91% women (10 of 11 active users, randomly identified)
  60. 60. <ul><li>Gendered Twitter phases? </li></ul><ul><li>Hypothesis 1: </li></ul><ul><li>In 2006/2007, Twitter was eagerly adopted by people with an interest in the web and IT industry, the majority of which are men. Signing up to secure a nickname is a practice common in this group. </li></ul><ul><li>Hypothesis 2: </li></ul><ul><li>The 2009 influx of celebrities is likely to have been an incentive for people with an interest in celebrity culture – the majority of which are women – to join Twitter. </li></ul>
  61. 61. Conclusion: Anthropological concepts of ‘rites of passage’ help us understand several aspects social media use:
  62. 62. <ul><li>Creation of a Liminal Subject </li></ul><ul><li>< First steps on Twitter </li></ul><ul><li>Communitas as anti-structural community > </li></ul><ul><li>< Forms of community that become possible (and are also precarious) on Twitter </li></ul><ul><li>Role of Liminality within society > </li></ul><ul><li>< Social Media as space for social innovation </li></ul><ul><li>Social Media exist at the interface of technology, individual practice & society. </li></ul>
  63. 63. Questions or Feedback? Send an email to [email_address] or, preferably, post a comment on my blog. You can also download the draft paper (with comment and annotations) from there: http://digiom.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/coming-to-grips-with-twitter-200607-vs-2009 Short link: http://wp.me/peBnE-u4

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