Twitter: An Artifact in Activity Theory

When I began Chapter 3 in Digital Literacy, I paused for a good minute on the title alone: Shaped and Shaping Tools.  My mind wandered back into a time when man used mostly his hands to shape things.  I got lost in thought down a path of tools and how we use them to shape so much; then I thought about Twitter and how it is shaping people, communication, and businesses.

Clark writes, “As I’m writing this in the spring of 2009, my current techno-rhetorical obsession is with Twitter, an increasingly ubiquitous ‘micro-blogging’ tool that is capturing the popular imagination” (85).  For some reason, Twitter has never been able to capture my imagination fully, and I continue to be resistant to the Tweet, and I don’t know why.   All around me people are Tweeting.   I fully understand its rhetorical implications, and I actually appreciate it as a tool that has massively changed social media and the way we communicate, yet I just won’t get on the Twitter ride even now when I know I should.

I found it interesting that Clark noted that Twitter was accused by some as “stupid, pointless, narcissistic, and over-hyped,” and “it therefore shows all the signs of a real cultural phenomenon” (85).   Why would something that possesses such negative traits become a phenomenon?  But indeed it has. Twitter has certainly taken the world by storm, and it has forever changed the way we can interact and communicate with each other.  I cannot help think how interesting it would be to capture our century in an archive of Tweets, but goodness, what a large archive it would be.

Twitter is a real cultural phenomenon, and I do not expect it to stop any time soon.  Our readings forced me to think about Twitter as a tool of rhetoric, and I began considering how this tool fits into activity theory.   When I consider an “activity system” with “ongoing, object-directed, historically conditioned, dialectically structured, tool-mediated human interaction,” Twitter fits right into this theory.  Clark cites examples of activity systems as “a family, a religious organization, an advocacy group, a political movement” (98).    Twitter has offered quite a new approach for any system to communicate with the world.  It’s really allowed us to “follow” anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The example given by Qualman of CNN Anchor Rick Sanchez illustrates the Twitter’s ability to “shape” human behavior.  His experimental use of Twitter was as Qualman noted “an overnight success.”  Sanchez was able to use the Twitter platform to capture his audience by asking them to help “produce” his show in some ways.  By asking thought-provoking questions and eventually getting his followers’ tweets scrolling on the byline, he effectively encouraged his 75,000 to watch just to see if their comment made the show.  Talk about a shaping tool!

Now back to theory.  Activity theory calls for groups and individuals to be analyzed with a triangular approach that emphasizes multidirectional interconnections among subjects (the individual, dyad, or group), the meditational means or tools they use to take action (machines, writing, speaking, gesture), and the object or problem space on which the subject acts (98-99).  Twitter is a tool that utilizes a machine to work and allows for writing and promotes interconnectedness; people use Twitter to take action.   Then somehow I found my way to Triangulate, and I was further convinced that Twitter (because we have a method to charter its hidden networks) really is a cultural phenomenon that activity theorists can use for broad cultural understanding.

Clark writes, “Activity theory calls for active attention to analysis of artifacts, whether written genres or digital technologies” (99).  I find Twitter a fascinating example of an artifact from our time that is both a written genre and digital technology.  Twitter is capturing so much of our lives, history, movements, and human experiences.  It is most definitely “an analytical tool in the workplace studies in the rhetoric of technology” (99).

I cannot help wonder about those who will come years and years from now…will they sit around lit up screens and read about us in 140 character Tweets and fully understand our time?  I imagine a timeline in front of them.  A caveman and his hand or club will be present and so will a 21st century man holding a mobile device.  The tools of man have changed!

Posted on October 20, 2013, in Literacy, Social Media, Society. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I agree that Twitter has changed how we interact with each other, even though people might not use it all the time. A lot of my friends use Twitter like I do, it’s a platform I can use to skim to see if there are any important updates from the people I follow. I rarely tweet something myself. Even though people have limited usage with Twitter, I still believe it changes the way we view things. Twitter sets the expectation of quick highlights and if you want to read more about something you can. Twitter has changed our mindset to expect people to make their point short and sweet.

    I love the contrast you have between the caveman and baby using electronics. It shocks me that children understand how to use electronics at such a young age. I think a lot of us have seen how technology has changed our lives, but I think it’s going to be interesting to see how this generation develops because they don’t understand what it’s like to not have it.

    • Yes, that is so true….we tend to forget sometimes what it is like to not have something, and now I fully understand why my mother and grandparents would always tell us that we did not know how good we had it.

  2. evelynmartens13

    I was pretty puzzled about Twitter initially, but now I find that I actually like being able to read the ‘headlines” and decide if I want to follow up. I mostly don’t follow people who are making comments or offering their opinions about what’s going on in the world, but I’ve been thinking about signing up for a couple just to see what that’s like.

    Sanchez’s success really is a good example of Qualman’s premise that consumers are driving the brand almost as much as marketers (more?).

    • Hi, Evelyn,
      Maybe what you say here is what I need to remember: that I can decide to follow or not….and then be selective to avoid feeling like Twitter has become just one more social media aspect of my life that becomes a time sucker.

  3. I have been making a concerted effort to learn how to use Twitter. Just yesterday, I sent a tweet to a local fast food chain because the oatmeal I bought was pretty runny. I didn’t think anything of it, but within an hour, I had a tweet back with a link to fill out an online comment card. Tonight, I got a call from the manager of the local restaurant and they are sending me some coupons for free breakfast items! So, Twitter is great for consumers to be heard, and, I am finding that it’s just as great for companies so they can respond to customer issues, quickly, and efficiently. This is much more constructive than just complaining about it to my husband, boss, friends, and pets and not ever going back to that particular store. And it’s much faster than writing an email or (gasp) letter!

    • Wow! I continue to be amazed each time I read an experience that demonstrates the power of social media and businesses. I agree that this is certainly more time efficient than an email or letter (appreciate your gasp!) I don’t remember if I shared this but recently I used Facebook to get Comcast to send a technician sooner, and it worked! SM has certainly become a powerful tool for the customer.

      • Congrats on your own experience with Comcast! The restaurant example is only my second real experience using SM to get better customer service, but I am already starting to feel a little giddy with the power, LOL.

  4. My teenagers use Twitter like a super-charged group text. They add photos and links and the ever growing # (we had fun trying to explain that little symbol on Twitter to my husband! He did not get it at all!). Why they want the Twitter-verse to read what they have to say is beyond me. I think it has to do with them not realizing how big the world really is and not understanding what privacy really means. Unfortunately, I think that is something they will have to learn the hard way down the road.

    • Hi, Jennifer,
      Learning things the hard way does sometimes have the most impact. And, to be honest, I wonder what my little ones will continue to experience as they grow….will they be all over Twitter, or will there be some new tech social media site that is the rage in ten years or so?

  5. I enjoy the following aspect of Twitter that allows me to follow news sources and topics of interest, but I’ve found it much more difficult to get into tweeting myself. When I post a status on Facebook, only people within my social network can see it, so I assume that it is likely that what I have to say will matter more to them than to the expansive Twitterverse.

    You mentioned being interested about Clark’s comment that people call Twitter “stupid, pointless, narcissistic, and over-hyped,” and “it therefore shows all the signs of a real cultural phenomenon.” I interpreted this comment to mean that something (like Twitter) gains official “real cultural phenomenon” status when it becomes so prevalent that the resisters deem it stupid, pointless, narcissistic, and over-hyped.

    • Hi, Jess,
      I think you are right about the Twitterverse really affecting how much we might want to share….as you say Facebook gives us the option to be a little more contained. To be really honest, I don’t like sharing much of my life with the world; I am definitely an introvert, so I really do not see myself as a Tweeter, but more and more, I have been thinking about its educational value and, of course, learning much about its power within businesses and organizations.

  6. I have a Twitter account, but have never really posted anything (Tweeted?). I did use Twitter extensively in the past few weeks. My husband is a Federal Civil Service Technician and was on Furlough during a part of the government shut down. I started to follow some journalist from CNN and found that she was posting things in Twitter before others. I found it very useful because there were small snippets of what was happening that I could glance at during work instead of needing to read an entire article to know what was going on.

    Outside of that, I’m not sure what else to use Twitter for. I do follow a few people and sometimes they post things and I’m like….why do I care….and so then I stop, because its a Tweeting overload.

    • I can see the value in your use of Twitter here in your example….finding important information from a reliable source is really a great way to use it.

      I also agree about Tweeting overload….sometimes, SM is just overwhelming, so knowing when to say when, I think, is a good thing.

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