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My place . . . or yours? November 1, 2009

Posted by IaninSheffield in research, TELIC.
Tags: , , , , ,

Have recently been discussing a paper for my Master’s course called ‘Rethinking the Virtual’ by Nicholas Burbules.  In it he contends that virtual spaces can be transformed into virtual places which have greater significance and familiarity, and that this is achieved through immersion in the environment.   This is clearly related to the way we think about learning environments and more particularly those mediated by the Internet.

Twitter logo

from Matt Hamm on Flickr

Being a bear of little brain, I invariably find theoretical papers hard work.  As I try to get to grips with the concepts, I often search for touchstones in the real world, templates I can drop over my thinking to see if they fit the theory.  And that’s when I thought about Twitter.  Twitter has become the hub of my professional learning network and as an online environment might constitute what Burbules refers to as ‘the virtual.’

The first element in contributing to ‘the virtual’ are four factors which together provide a sense of immersion in the environment – interest, involvement, imagination and interaction.  Taking each in turn, Twitter clearly holds my interest – it is sufficiently complex and captivating for me to return to it on a regular and frequent basis (this is confirmed by Java et al, 2007).  I’m certainly involved in the experience – it matters to me; I get a great deal from it in terms of resources, insights, links to further information, and I care about the contributions I make and how they are viewed.  (I was mortified when I got suckered by the recent Mafia game scam and how I was perceived as a result).  My imagination is constantly stimulated in different ways, from thinking about the people in my network from the little snippets of life stories which are scattered around, to the ‘what if’ questions which arise when I’m stimulated by a particular post.  Twitter provides so many ways to interact with the environment, starting with the simple act of making your first Tweet then replying to the Tweets of others and providing the option of filtering or searching for information through the use of the hashtag.  Although Twitter for me is a professional and not social networking tool and the Tweets that really matter are those that help me develop professionally, when the people I have chosen to follow answer that fundamental Twitter question “What am I doing,” it only enhances the sense of immersion, paints a richer picture and gives me a reason to care.

Burbules goes on discuss the notion of virtual space and time and that an online environment becomes a ‘space,’ a place people choose to occupy, interact with others and do things together – Twitter clearly facilitates this.  The time aspect is interesting in that whilst Twitter can be a synchronous space enabling communication and activity in real time, the time for those involved can be very different – one may have just got up whilst the other is about to go to bed.  Asynchronous communication is also possible . . . in fact a group of people collaborating on an activity might include some using the space synchronously and others using it asynchronously.

From the outset, Twitter has developed from a space into a ‘place,’ as Burbules would have it.  i.e.  a space which the users have appropriated for themselves (Mischaud, 2007).  The whole environment, given the number of users (25 million by the end of 2009?), is vast and given the nature of the way it works, somewhat transient – it is perhaps these reasons why a common reaction for the first experience is ‘I don’t get it.’  But then people make the space a place by following people they find interesting; they in effect create maps which allow them to navigate the environment.  They also change the architecture to suit their favoured mode of interaction, perhaps using a mobile to device to send and receive Tweets or by using an interface like Tweetdeck or linking with other services like TwitPic or Facebook.   So whilst Twitter provides the space for all these people to occupy, each creates his or her own place within it.

Mi Casa es Su Casa

by rosefirerising on Flickr

On that basis then, I think Burbules probably would classify Twitter as ‘the virtual.’  For me it’s just a constant source of inspiration, advice and encouragement – it’s my place . . . but mi casa, su casa!

Further reading:

Courtenay Honeycutt, S.C.H., 1899. Beyond Microblogging: Conversation and Collaboration via Twitter. Available at: http://www.computer.org/portal/web/csdl/doi/10.1109/HICSS.2009.602 [Accessed November 1, 2009].

Java, A. et al., 2007. Why we twitter: understanding microblogging usage and communities. In Proceedings of the 9th WebKDD and 1st SNA-KDD 2007 workshop on Web mining and social network analysis.  San Jose, California: ACM, pp. 56-65. Available at: http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1348556 [Accessed November 1, 2009].

Levy, S., 2009. Mob Rule! How Users Took Over Twitter. Wired, (November 2009). Available at: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/10/ff_twitter [Accessed November 1, 2009].

Mischaud, E., 2007. Twitter: Expressions of the Whole Self – An investigation into user appropriation of a web-based communications platform. LSE – MEDIA@LSE. Available at: http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/media@lse/mediaWorkingPapers/MScDissertationSeries/Mishaud_Final.pdf [Accessed November 1, 2009].



1. nickpack - November 5, 2009

Lots to think about here Ian, but the bit that caught my eye was the bit about Twitter being for you a ‘professional’ tool. You go on to say that you enjoy the ‘real life’ snippets you get from those you follow as it enriches the experience. I have noticed that too and for me it is of fundemental importance.

We often worry as education developers about how we encourage our colleagues into new ways of working. We’re very keen to develop more collaborative approaches at the moment and are concerned to set up scenrios which may help collaboration to start. You may recall that this concerned us greatly a few years back when we embarked on a plan to drag teachers up and down the country to meet with each other before getting them to collaborate virtually (and in the case the virtual was really the non-existant).

For me, these little insights into ‘virtual colleagues’ real lives alongside those wonderful snippets relating to professional life sort of bridge the gap that we were trying to fill back then by bussing people round.

I mentioned in a previous comment that I think Twitter is becoming a more important part of my working life, too. I think that this is one of the reasons why it works, because it enables interactions that potentially include both life and work just like you might get in a… well, in a staff room!

ianinsheffield - November 5, 2009

Hadn’t thought of the link with the physical networks we were trying to establish – thanks for that. Given your working circumstances, perhaps as you’re suggesting, Twitter might become your surrogate staffroom?

2. nickpack - November 18, 2009

Yes, and no. If you’re looking for a surrogate staffroom you’re really looking for a PLN, aren’t you? So Twitter is part of a number of tools you might use and gives you access to different staffrooms (or different parts of the same staffroom?), to extend the metaphor. You are absolutely right that in my circumstance this is key but I think that many teachers would welcome the same ‘extended staffroom’ provision – in fact they do, don’t they, you can hear them all out there blogging and tweeting away!

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