Twitter and conversation analysis – who’s here?

“Hoosier,” the somewhat odd name for a native from Indiana, may have its roots in conversation. One of the stories is that when a knock from someone at the door rang out, the person inside would ask, “Who’s here?” and the greeting was shortened to “Hoosier?” Since I grew up in northern Indiana, my memories of it are fond and nostalgic. I’m particularly pleased that some of the researchers of Twitter and conversation analysis are at Indiana University, a lovely campus that I visited more than a few times.

Is Twitter appropriate for conversation and collaboration?

Tonight I’m reading a paper titled “Beyond Microblogging: Conversation and Collaboration via Twitter” originally published in the proceedings for Hawaiโ€™i International Conference on System Sciences. Written by Indiana University professor Susan Herring and doctoral candidate Courtenay Honeycutt, it describes some research questions about Twitter being used for conversation and collaboration. To quote from their discussion, “This study investigated the conversationality of Twitter, with special attention to the role played by the @ sign.”

Specifically they studied the public timeline and the use of the @ symbol that Twitter users actually invented to talk to each other as described in this New York Times article, Twitter Serves Up Ideas from its Followers. The researchers also had to filter out the other uses of the symbol, some of which are entertaining. The emoticon @_@ is one googly-eyed guy that they didn’t intend for this study. The offhand reference to someone else using the @ symbol was also filtered out, along with email addresses, and location references such as “I’m @ the coffeeshop right now.” They wanted to study one Twitter user addressing another for specific reasons.

They found that the @ sign use has doubled in two year’s time, and that Japanese and Spanish speakers use it as often as English speakers.

How is the user-invented @ convention changing conversation-based content?

They also found, and this was interesting to me, that the use of the @ symbol may actually be expanding the types of content that are being used in microblogging.

We further found that tweets with @ exhibited a
wider range of content, in comparison to tweets without
@, and that most tweets without @ just answered
the Twitter siteโ€™s question: What are you doing? This
suggests that @, in addition to directly enabling a more
interactive use of Twitter, is indirectly contributing to
expanding the types of content expressed in tweets.

In the footnotes they further note the use of the @ symbol to address others is happening in Flickr, the photo sharing site, and I would add that it’s also used often in blog comments when responding to a specific person. It’s spreading as a standard, practically! Updated to add: right after publishing this post, I hopped over to Google Wave, and in a non-profit wave I joined, they had already implemented an automatic link to a person’s Twitter account if you addressed them starting with the @ symbol. Woah.

Learning more about conversation analysis

Last month I spoke with Tanya Rabourn, who is studying information science at the University of Texas who helped me begin to understand conversation analysis. She said that studying Twitter is “sexy” right now, but also pointed out that research in conversation analysis originated with studying suicide hotlines for conversation patterns. Yow. Conversations on IRC are also studied frequently – text based conversations are easily enumerated and analyzed, I suppose. There’s even a tool available for download from Indiana University called VisualDTA that helps with Dynamic Topic Analysis (DTA) by providing a way to visualize the structure of the topic flow within a conversation. (See pages 7 and 8 of the Beyond Microblogging: Conversation and Collaboration via Twitter PDF for examples of VisualDTA diagrams.) I also learned a lot by reading a blog entry that describes written discourse at Studying online conversation in the Twitter generation that Tanya had tagged on a social bookmarking site. I learned that Conversation Analysis studies the “norms and conventions that speakers use in interaction to establish communicative understandings.”

Customer support and Twitter

Naturally, seeing how I’ve written a book with Conversation in the title, I want to relate what I’m reading to what I’ve already written. (Or is that unnatural?) So, where are the customer support conversation analyses? Has anyone studied the back-and-forth written discourse that occurs in 140-characters to see what some best practices are for engagement and troubleshooting to help someone with Twitter? Or is Twitter simply a method to get to the front of the support queue by saying “Pay attention to me because I have a smart mobile device so I must have a bit more money than your average slob of a customer!”

I believe that phone conversations for customer support have been studied quite a bit – looking for phrases that sound like triggers for anger, avoiding long pauses, and when one party overtakes a phone conversation, it’s relatively easy to detect when that’s happening. But with Twitter, you could have long pauses intentionally as asynchronous, IM-like conversations happen when someone gets up from their desk and returns after a business meeting, for example. Neither party is angry about that long pause, it’s just an understood agreement in the Twitter medium that you may or may not be immediately responsive. How does that time factor change the “agreement” for a support exchange? Is Twitter reserved for the narcissistic whiners? Or are true relationships happening and caring, meaningful attention being paid to customers on Twitter?

Wait, don’t answer these questions. I want some data and dynamic topic analysis to back up your theory. ๐Ÿ™‚


  • October 27, 2009 - 11:22 am | Permalink

    Okay, I won’t answer that question. Though it’s tempting. I will say that I started using Wave a few days ago, and I can’t imagine why anybody would collaborate via Twitter once Wave is widely available.

  • October 28, 2009 - 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anne,

    Interesting post on using Twitter for conversation and collaboration. I just finished a group project for a class that required us to use Twitter to define a concept and 10 strategies to effectively implement that concept. (I’m a graduate student in technical communication – the class is on using social media in public relations.) I found the assignment somewhat challenging (primarily related to trying to get a complete thought out in 140 characters) and I didn’t really think Twitter was a very good tool for group work. We also couldn’t use @ all the time because we were talking to multiple people in our group and using @replies used up too many characters. That meant at times we flooded our other followers’ pages with our tweets. We did use hashtags so at least others would know our tweets probably meant something to someone else. (If you’re interested in seeing our conversation my group’s hashtag was #ADPR02.)

    I haven’t seen Google Wave yet but it sounds interesting. I look forward to seeing what it offers!

  • October 28, 2009 - 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Hee hee, Cat, I guess I’d let you answer that question. ๐Ÿ™‚ You’re in an Agile shop too, right? Wave is reminding me of Campfire and Etherpad, both tools we’ve used as an Agile team. My Agile team isn’t on Twitter at all, though. I guess I see Twitter and the @ symbol as ways to have a universal IM client. Collaborative idea sharing, maybe. Collaborative authoring? No way.

  • October 28, 2009 - 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment Peggy! I was about to say @Peggy and @cat and decided against it. ๐Ÿ™‚ I could see how all those tweets, even the @ ones, would be like “flooding” someone’s stream, especially in a group setting where they are following both the sender and recipient of the tweet.

    I would love to see more tech comm programs offer social media in tech comm classes (rather than having you take the PR one!) ๐Ÿ™‚

  • October 28, 2009 - 4:57 pm | Permalink

    As a matter of fact my department (at NC State University) is teaching a course on social networking and technical communication next semester: Your book will be required reading for it. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s a special seminar topic the professor put together after several of us were already in the social media in PR seminar course this semester.

  • October 28, 2009 - 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Oh, that’s great news! And thanks for the link to the blog as well. I’ll have to tell some Texas-based professors about it – I’ve been talking to a few in Austin and we’re hoping to put such a class together here as well, so thanks for sharing!

  • Jenny
    November 1, 2009 - 10:30 am | Permalink

    Verrry interesting article, Anne. Thanks for all the links (which were also a great feature of your book).

    This is not meant as a cheap promo or anything–I just wanted to add that anyone interested in how conversation is used for analysis and social trending is also welcome to check out my employer’s Web site ( Cheers!

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