The Co-Production of Platforms by Users: A Case Study of Higher Education

I’ve enjoyed reading Twitter: A Biography very much. I came to it after myself and Lambros Fatsis finally submitted The Public and Their Platforms to a publisher, which is a shame because it resonates with and would have helped us further develop the arguments in our book. At the heart of these is the question of platform and agency, something which I think Jean Burgess and Nancy Baym are relatively unusual within platform studies as being empirically and theoretically sensitive to. I really like how they express this in their critique of van Dijck and Poell:

But while van Dijck and Poell do note the two-way character of programmability, where users have significant agency and input into content generation, curation, and popularity, 43 this theoretical model is still missing a sense of platforms’ rich cultures of use—how they are given form and meaning through everyday life, and through the practices of diverse individuals, communities, and publics.

Twitter: A Biography, pg 18

As we argue in our book, there’s a fundamental antinomy between the behavioural science which grounds platform epistemics and the reflexivity which firms assume in how their users approach platforms. The former eviscerates agency by reducing social action into human behaviour, while the latter is dependent on the capacity of users to respond creatively to the affordances of platforms. As Jean Burgess demonstrated in her YouTube book with Joshua Greene, this includes the critical role of users in co-producing the platform through the development of user cultures which firms unavoidably respond to in their stewardship of the platform over time. They observe how the early user interface of Twitter invited users to interpret the platform in order to see how it could be used:

With a minimalist interface, guided only by a prompt that encouraged the expression of personal real-time experience in compact form, Twitter’s ambiguity almost demanded that its users develop their own ideas about what to do with it.

Twitter: A Biography, pg 8

They point to Van Dijck’s idea of ‘interpretive flexibility’ (which I think Noortje Marres theorises in a much more sophisticated way in her Digital Sociology book) to highlight “a state where (almost) anything seemed possible, in which the potential uses, purposes, and configurations of Twitter were relatively open to experimentation and contestation”. This is what was so intriguing about the platform but also confusing, lending it a slightly esoteric quality for new users. The gap this opens up invites what they describe as a form of public pedagogy:

A form of public pedagogy emerged. Whether to help others out or gain attention as Twitter experts, bloggers wrote copious “what is Twitter, and how to use it” articles for at least the first few years of Twitter’s existence. 10 Those posts that circulated on well-read blogs got the most attention. This meant that from the beginning, the public conversation about what Twitter was and what it should be used for was shaped significantly by tech influencers—mostly white, a lot of them men, and with technical expertise and professional identities tied up with journalism, software development, and especially blogging.

Twitter: A Biography, pg 9

An important set of sources was marketing blogs and tech blogs’ how-to articles and reports on platform changes. Especially in the earlier years of Twitter, when social media existed alongside an active blogging culture, early adopters and lead users regularly wrote articles about feature and platform changes, providing detailed descriptions, critiques, and discussions of the implications of such changes for the future of the platform. But it is important to note here that the propensity to publish opinion pieces on the technical and social aspects of platforms has been unlikely to be widely shared across the demographics and cultures that constitute Twitter’s userbase, even in those first few years. The coverage and discussion that we are drawing on is therefore

witter: A Biography, pg 25

This is something which has fascinated me within the academy, as myself and other early adopters were drawn into this public pedagogy by being cast as social media gurus and invited to give talks, workshops and seminars. This role led me to write a book, now in its second edition. It was an under-theorised role though, dominated by precarious graduate students for whom it could be a profitable side-hustle and upwardly mobile academics for whom their (perceived) social media literacy was an opportunity for the accumulation of academic capital. I’ve written in multiple places about how this led advocacy to substitute for analysis, leading the conversation about social media for academics to be dominated by enthusiasts who largely saw themselves as waging a cultural war against luddites who would respond to this emerging trend in knee-jerk ways. But it also squeezed out the public pedagogy which Burgess and Baym are talking about here, leaving genuine instruction coupled with brow beating about the need to adopt these platforms in order to avoid being left behind.

I use the word ‘instruction’ to convey the limitations of the pedagogical content which tended to be included in these channels. Technical instruction in social media platforms has a limited shelf life because the platforms themselves change so often, as part of a process of ‘social churning’. This includes norms and standards on the platform which, as I’ll come on to, unavoidably change over time. It’s for this reason that I’ve sought in my work to support practical reasoning about social platforms i.e. helping people make decisions within a rapidly changing landscape, as opposed to instructing them about the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to use platforms. As a corollary to this normative change, as well as the aforementioned interpretive flexibility, we also find normative dissensus on platforms:

Yet Twitter’s meanings and role have always been ambiguous, and early usage patterns betray subtle but significantly different understandings of its purpose, the source of its potential value, and the kinds of relationships that were meant to be built and sustained between users

Twitter: A Biography, pg 12

This is particularly pronounced within professional groups, with their own pre-existing norms being inflected through the architecture of the platforms in ways liable to change both the existing norms and the culture of the platform. It follows from the fact that academics don’t agree about everything therefore they don’t agree about how to use Twitter as an academic. In this sense, we need to recognise the performative element of public pedagogy on platforms. In making claims about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to use social platforms, there’s an implicit attempt to shift prevailing norms in the absence of any prior agreement.

These disagreements come to the fore under conditions of “software update unrest” when the imposition of new platforms features provokes a backlash from their users. However it’s a more pervasive feature of social platforms as they change and grow over time, through this interaction between users and the architecture. Burgess and Baym analyse mentions, hashtags and retweets in terms of this dialectic as user innovations are incorporated into the architecture of the platforms, with ambiguous consequences for these nascent institutions once they’re hardwired into the socio-technical system. Through their platform-elicitation method, they reconstruct the reflexivity of users negotiating normative dissensus on the changing platform, in this case with the development of retweeting prior to it being incorporated as a retweet button in 2009:

As with the @, there was visible public pedagogy and discussion around the different alternatives and when you should use each variant. 3 A “better way to retweet,” wrote one “expert,” was to ask people to be creative and write their own tweet, but acknowledge the source with “via @user.” 4 Fiona, one of our interviewees, was particularly concerned with identifying and adhering to the etiquette of using the variants correctly: “It’s a lot of just kind of being in the environment and seeing what people are doing and kind of always being like, ‘Okay, what are the social norms? What are the social norms?’” Retweeting, she found, was steeped in norms. “If somebody tweets something into my stream and I’m going to tweet from it, if there’s room I usually try to squeak in a, like, ‘via somebody,’” she told us, “because I feel like that’s important. It’s like citing, right?

Twitter: A Biography, pg 85

In effect this hardwired particular norms about what RTs are and the significance of them, described by them on pg 89 as hardwiring etiquette. This is a really interesting vector of institutionalisation which it’s important to understand if we want to adequately grasp platform and agency. The decision nudged Twitter’s user cultures in a particular direction, incentivising the creation of messages that “will circulate widely, rewarded by attention and engagement metrics” and leading to a situation in which “retweets have come to dominate the usage of the platform over both original tweets and replies, making Twitter more newsy, more noisy, and less conversational than it was in its youth” (pg 105-106).

This is an example of the dynamic which I think can be usefully framed in terms of platform and agency. As they put it, “While in certain circumscribed ways, social media platforms are actually co-created by users, they are also constantly and gradually changing at the hands of their designers, developers, and owners” (pg 55). This involves recognising the business decisions involved in these modulations of the platform over time, for example the tension between generativity and usability which tracks divergent interests between established and emerging users. Insider knowledge was necessary to enjoy Twitter in its early days but it also got in the way of user growth by lending the platform the aforementioned esoteric character:

The challenge, for Twitter and for other platforms, is maintaining a tension between generativity (the ability to transform and do new things with features) and usability (the ease of grasping what a feature is for and doing things with it that are in your interests). Too far one way, and nobody but insiders and early adopters understand the platform’s conventions; too far the other way, and the possibilities for use become too constrained and the features become static, unable to be changed or used differently.

Twitter: A Biography, pg 114

They make the important observation that ‘hardwiring etiquette’ also involves metricisation. As they put it on pg 36, it adds an “entirely new, trackable, and potentially monetizable layer to the network architecture (or “social graph”) of the platform” which, as we’ve seen, inclines users in certain directions as they seek to maximise their performance in terms of the new categories which have been incorporated into the platform in measurable ways. Each of the three features they analyse (mentions, hashtags and retweets) help “make Twitter more datafiable and monetizable” with retweets in particular becoming “an indicator of resonance and attention” creating “a thirst for metrics that could track and measure them.” (pg 90). This vector of measurable circulate changes the character of a tweet, such that “Being retweeted became an event about which one was notified, and each tweet bore the mark of its success or failure as a retweetable tweet” (pg 92) and “As people came to see the value of being retweeted and began crafting tweets with intent to be retweeted, retweeting came to be implicitly regarded as a measure of quality” (pg 93).

Once we see it in these terms, user cultures become a complex and ambiguous object. Undoubtedly real, though difficult to empirically substantiate and inevitably in a constant process of change. My interest in user cultures for academic social media goes hand-in-hand with my focus on practical reasoning. In reasoning practically about how to use platforms, we’re responding to but also exercising an influence over a user culture. In this sense, it’s another platform and agency dynamic which cuts through the unfolding of the platform over time.

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