The @Reply Experiment: Phatic Communication in Digital Publics

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:

Listening Practices

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.

I Cheated

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?


Collin said...


I certainly didn't mean to rebuff or ignore you. I don't recall what I was doing at the time, but I do remember following the link, and saving the page for a couple of days later, when I had time to read it. I do remember wondering why you sent it.

By the time I got to it, though, it felt untimely to post a reply, so I didn't. I vacillate between using Twitter more ambiently (like you describe above) and less so, a-word-that-should-be-invented-meaning-the-opposite-of-ambient-ly. Right now, I'm in the less so phase, and so the experiment failed.

I wonder if that's something that can/should be controlled for here, or perhaps another line of inquiry that's hinted at in the beginning of this post--to what degree is addressivity or responsivity generalizable?

For example, I tend to access Twitter in different ways at different times: sometimes via the website, sometimes with a desktop client, sometimes on the iPhone, and it strikes me that each of these changes my ratios with respect to Twitter. It's easier to type at my computer, I'm more likely to miss something older than 50-60 tweets on the website, etc. etc.

This is definitely something it'd be interesting to hear you work on...and maybe this comment will atone for the FAIL I caused? ;-)


Brian J. McNely said...


Again, no worries at all! I truly didn't mean to "call you out" for not responding, and as I mentioned just now over on Twitter, it was actually a *good* thing, as it illustrates the inherent difficulty of using @replies as a means for initiating conversation.

This is not to say that it can't work that way (I once @replied Clay Shirky to ask a question about his book, and this was quite effective). If someone had @replied me in the last few days (as we packed up the house and prepared our move), it's likely I would have shelved it or missed it entirely.

And remember, *I* was to blame for "cheating." I wanted to post something, and unfairly chose someone to address that post to (you!); this could have worked well, been ignored entirely, or been somewhere in between. Above all, it hints at the limitations of the @reply for certain forms of communication.

Above all: you, sir, are an inspiration!

Vincent Rhodes said...

Thoughtful commentary and an interesting experiment. I find that my Twitter use tends to be largely @reply (with the excpetion of class-related tweets which are required for my two PhD courses this summer).

With that said, I have to admit that I enjoy reading the other updates as well. Not the banal (brushing my teeth) kind, but the quirky/pithy/moderately profound ones that convey a slice of life and make me think. @warnick is good at this... as are you. I've also enjoyed some of the photos you've posted as well.

After all, these tidbits help me get to "know" you a little better (at least your digital self) so I have a better sense of what kind of interesting interviews to pass along!

Brian J. McNely said...


Thank you for the feedback and insights! And I agree about your thoughts on ambient awareness/connectivity.

At the same time, I wonder how you feel about being "required" to use Twitter for your classes. I would also be interested to know whether such a requirement met with resistance from classmates.

I am opposed to requiring students to use Twitter for a given course, but I'm very much in favor of using it to foster learning and discussion beyond the classroom. The problem is reconciling the two positions. This is something I'll be working through this fall...

So, if you have any further thoughts to share on "mandatory" Twitter use, I'd love to hear it!

Vincent Rhodes said...

I have to say it was interesting... We still have two weeks to go for our summer doctoral institute (SDI) and will be tweeting for both classes during that time. I'll highlight a few positive experiences and some challenges:

1. I hadn't really used Twitter prior to #CW09 and really used it then in anticipation of my courses. I needed to become more familiar with the technology and conventions. The requirement to use Twitter exposed me to a new tool... and that's a worthy outcome.

2. Tweeting is clearly a different experience from the typical discussion board posts required for several previous PhD courses. While discussion boards allowed for longer, in-depth theoretical discussion, the conversation was sometimes stilted (only one or two replies, if any). The tweetsream seemed to engender more dialog (shorter, to be sure) but it "felt" different. Also, from a purely selfish perspective, once I got used to the 140 character limit, it took less time to develop tweets than typical discussion board posts (which is helpful in a compressed course situation like our SDI).

3. Finally, tweeting was more public. Because we weren't using a Blackboard discussion forum, anyone could read and respond to our posts. While a little unnerving at first, it was interesting to have a few people jump into our conversation who were not members of our class.

While not an exhaustive discussion, those are some of the highlights. I'd be happy to chat more about this if you want.

Melanie said...

Wow, I never realised how seriously some people engaged Twitter. This is a great and thoughtful and reflexive analysis (very rare in current discussion of social media). That said, it is important to account for differences in use.

One thing I wanted to address is the comments on retweeting. For me, as a bookmarker, if I find something really valuable I bookmark it (and then decide whether to "tweet this" (via Diigo) if I think the item is worth resharing in my network. Sometimes I'll retweet AND bookmark in order to attribute the source of the info (also important to me in the info economy). Sometimes, if I'm really busy, I don't have time to do more than RT or bookmark (but not both).

I'd say that some folks will choose bookmarking over RT because that way we're collecting that item for future use by those outside of our Twitter network. By sharing only within Twitter it becomes a walled garden.

Might be interesting to do a random survey to see how many people bookmark AND RT or how many people identify has heavy social bookmarkers (I know quite a few).

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