Beginning on the morning of July 5th and concluding in the afternoon of July 12th, I updated Twitter 81 times, and each update was an @reply to another Twitter user. In other words, I made no updates that were not directly in reference to--and addressed to--another user (most of whom I already followed, but some of whom I didn't).
This experiment started simply as an attempt to curtail my own usage; at times, I feel like I might be spamming those who follow my updates, and I never want folks to feel like I'm overdoing it, that I'm posting too much. But more importantly, this was an exercise in concerted listening, in using the digital publics of Twitter to read, respond, and hopefully add to the conversations of others.
Here are a few (purely anecdotal) observations:
Because I often feel like I'm simply posting things that are interesting to me and my research communities--things which surely are *not* interesting to all of those who follow my updates--my initial observation is that the @reply experiment forced me to listen to others in a very concerted way.
I've mentioned previously on Twitter that I read almost every update of every person that I follow. The main way that I'm able to do this is by enabling device updates for a large majority of the folks that I follow (granted, compared to others, I follow a relatively small number of people). So, even if someone is posting from a radically different time zone--and I miss those tweets in realtime--I catch up with them eventually via my mobile. In short, I'm already a pretty good Twitter listener, I think.
But active listening and purposeful responding are something else; these are the activities that were more strongly engaged during the @reply experiment. Not only did I actively read nearly every tweet, but I was more strongly aligned in a sense of addressivity--responding and reacting, and hopefully fostering conversation. Of course, this didn't always play out in practice (read on).
The Digital Phatic
It's certainly nothing new to assert that social network sites like Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook foster phatic communication online. But I want to suggest that the digital phatic is something much more purposeful (and thus rhetorically significant) than the commonplace gloss of phatic interaction as "small-talk." At the same time (because "small-talk" is itself rhetorically significant in many contexts), I don't want to suggest that this notion of the phatic--the "small talk" understanding--isn't a very valid descriptor of much interaction on social network sites (lol, lmao, ttyl).
For me, the @reply experiment suggests that the digital phatic is both/and. In support of a more purposeful and rhetorically significant understanding of the digital phatic, I simply offer the cost associated with a thoughtful @reply. Valdis Krebs, for example, is among the most careful re-tweeters and responders I know on Twitter. He'll often publish and rewrite a short response to another's post two or three times, until he feels that it's presumably acceptable for public consumption. How do I know this? Because I receive his updates on my mobile, and each update, even those deleted, (usually) show up on mobile devices once they're posted.
My point is this: many of my own @replies during this experiment were ostensibly phatic, but they also attempted to convey amplifying information or to engage conversation in ways more meaningful than the common sense of "small talk." Yes, writing under 140 characters, many will point out, carries little cost or effort. And yes, writing under 140 characters, many will point out, requires a good deal of skill and effort. Doing so while explicitly responding to/and or engaging others can enact both senses of the phatic simultaneously, thus calling for research on the potentiality of the digital phatic.
For the first few days of the experiment, I had zero issues with using Twitter as a reply platform only. I was quite happy, in fact, responding to the things that others found interesting or were discussing.
However, I came across a tremendously fascinating item in my feed reader 4 days in, a lengthy interview in The Paris Review with Gay Talese. This was something that I felt absolutely compelled to share with my Twitter community for two reasons: first, it's simply a brilliant interview that I think a lot of people would find interesting. But secondly, and more importantly, it's the type of sketch that's fascinating to writing researchers like myself for what it says about the writing practices of an expert. What to do? What to do?
I tweeted it. As an @reply. I cheated. Kind of.
As I sat there with this wonderful item to share, I thought about how I could maintain fidelity to my experiment while still sharing said item. I would @reply it to someone whom I felt would appreciate it, and possibly discuss or share with others. Who to send it to?
For some reason, Collin Brooke was the first person I thought of, and I just felt he'd appreciate the interview (for the record, while I met Collin briefly at last year's Watson conference, I certainly don't know him well; most of my interaction with him is through his scholarship and on Twitter. We seem to have similar interests, and that's perhaps why I thought of him with respect to the Talese interview). This exercise revealed a potential problem with using an @reply to initiate conversation/sharing: he never said a peep.
This is certainly not Collin's fault, and here's what I'm getting at: when someone updates Twitter, and one responds within a reasonable time frame via @reply, there's an expectation that the latter message is received. When one uses an @reply to initiate a conversation or to explicitly share something with another user, the expectation becomes something different.
For all I know, Collin was simply busy and didn't have a chance to read the interview. He might not have even seen it. He might have taken a look and decided it wasn't for him. The point is, I cheated and used an @reply as a means for publicly sharing on Twitter, and it didn't really work well, it seems. So, using @replies for responsive addressivity = win, while using @replies for initiative addressivity = fail in my limited and purely anecdotal sample.
Since the end of my @reply experiment on July 12th, I've posted an additional 50 updates. Interestingly, 32 of those were @replies. I've actually grown very fond of using the @reply to track and engage the posts of others rather than using Twitter as a platform for simply broadcasting things. I did some of the latter, to be sure, but I really like the idea of actively *looking* for conversations to join in digital publics, even if my contributions are rebuffed or ignored.
I think my ratio of public updates to @replies will remain relatively similar.
What's been your experience with @replies on Twitter, or addressivity in other digital publics? What am I missing here? Is this worthy of more in-depth and rigorous study?