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The Secret Life of a Tweet : A Case Study of a Knowledge Ecosystem

October 17, 2014Joanne RichardsonEvents, Former Featured PostsComments Off on The Secret Life of a Tweet : A Case Study of a Knowledge Ecosystem

Last week I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at Sip of Science, a monthly happy-hour forum organized by our friends over at NCED. Sip of Science a wonderful and regular opportunity to listen to interesting people with a beer in your hand!

I presented “The Secret Life of a Tweet : A Case Study of Twitter and Knowledge Ecosystems of Science Communications” to discuss a way of using Twitter to trace the path of information, scientific or otherwise, as it is shared online.  I started with a Tweet that had been posted by the marvelous Anne Jefferson @highlyanne and traced the information in that Tweet back to the source material (in this case, a book review and a book), and then forwards through the retweets (nine of them), to start to paint a picture of the people and platforms touched by the information, and thereby understand more fully its context.  This was followed by an excellent discussion in which the crowd very intelligently questioned the scope, power, and credibility of digital platforms for the dissemination and discussion of scientific knowledge.

Though during the lecture, I did trace a specific Tweet of Anne’s, it is really something that can be done with almost any piece of information on the internet.  Ultimately it boils down to finding ways to answer these questions:

  • Where did the information come from?  What is the source, and is it credible?
  • Where did the information go?  What is the ultimate audience of the information?
  • How did the audience engage with the information?  Was it repeated, discussed, changed?

To answer these questions, and depending on the platforms involved, you can use built-in functionality as well as some judicious Googling.  For instance, Twitter will tell you how many times a Tweet has been retweeted, and by whom.  You can then go and look at those accounts and see who was interested enough to share the message.  Is this comparatively on- or off-topic for them?  Does it represent a widening or narrowing of the audience?  Do the accounts represent individuals, agencies, or membership organizations?

Ultimately, you can’t engineer the perfect piece of information that will reach only the intended audience in only the intended ways.  Wildness and randomness are unavoidable, and information will take on a life of its own.  To explore this, I encourage you all, next time a Tweet or something similar catches your eye, to take a moment to consider and investigate its context.  Where did it come from, and where it is going?

For those of you who are overcome with curiosity, the Tweet we traced was this one “California’s drought is bad, but calling it “unprecedented” is simply untrue. … #eesKSU”


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