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May 09 2013


Diaries, the original social media: How our obsession with documenting (and sharing) our own lives is nothing new

If you’ve ever kept a diary, chances are you probably considered that document private. As in,


— Luke (@StereotypeLuke) March 24, 2013

But that wasn’t always the case when it came to personal journals. At least, not according to Lee Humphreys, a communications and media researcher at Cornell.

Humphreys led a conversation this week with Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective on historicizing social media practices. Humphreys argues that, through journals and diaries, people have been recounting their daily activities and reflecting on them for much longer than Twitter and other social media platforms have been around.

But through her research, Humphreys found that it’s only been in the last hundred years that journalling has come to be considered a private practice. In the late 19th century, she says visiting friends and relatives would gather together and read each others diaries as a way of keeping up to date and sharing their lives. Journals were also kept in early American towns to mark and record important events: weddings, births, deaths and other events of community-wide importance.

“You don’t get a real sense of personal, individual self until the end of the 19th century,” Humphreys told the Cornell Chronicle in 2010, “so it makes perfect sense that diaries or journals prior to that time were much more social in nature.”

At Humphreys’ talk on Tuesday, some suggested that the advent of Freudian psychology — or perhaps the mass popularization of the novel — had contributed to this inward turn by America’s diarists. As the profession of journalism began to rise at the beginning of the 20th century, the independent writer was becoming increasingly self-reflective, creating the expectation of privacy that we were familiar with prior to the arrival of the Internet. But Humphrey is arguing that before we had a mass media, there was a system of personal writing that looked like a slower, more loosely networked version of Twitter.

people want to make twitter their diary but isn’t a diary suppose to be private?

— #slick (@rickstayslick) May 7, 2013

The similarities between Twitter and historic trends in diary keeping don’t stop there, according to Humphreys. She points to a surge in the popularity of pocket diaries, which, like Twitter, restricted the number of words you could write due to their small size, but also made them mobile. With 60 percent of tweets now being written on mobile devices, according to Humphreys, as compared to around 14 percent when she conducted the study in 2008, trends in Twitter behavior are in fact reflecting historical trends in self-reporting. So even the practice of making notes about your daily activities as they are happening isn’t a new behavior.

A second study Humphreys conducted revealed even more lessons about our drive to create personal records. Using the diary entires of a soldier in the Civil War, which he dutifully copied and turned into letters home, and the personal blog of an Iraq War soldier, Humphreys explored the reasons people feel compelled to record the events of their lives.

Primarily, she says, people journal as a way of strengthening “kin and friend” relationships. The soldier in Iraq, referred to as DadManly, originally began his blog as a way of keeping in touch with all of his family members at once. Charlie Mac, the Civil War soldier, exhibits a similar desire for communication and relationship maintenance by sending home a faithfully transcribed (we assume) copy of his diary. Both men, Humphreys says, described experiencing profound frustration and anxiety when the medium through which they communicated was disrupted, whether by an Internet blackout or a rainstorm that dissolved parchment and delayed the post.

The writings of Charlie Mac and DadManly shared another important similarity: Although both were writing for ostensibly private audiences, there was an implicit understanding that their words might someday reach a wider audience. When DadManly saw web traffic from strangers, he began to increasingly write about his political views on the war, providing what he believed to be a unique perspective of support at a time when very few journalists in the traditional media felt the same way.

Charlie Mac also had reason to believe his diary letters were being shared with an audience larger than the one he was directly addressing. In fact, he sometimes included parenthetical addresses to specific individuals, should they happen to come across the documents. But there was also a real possibility that his war correspondence would be picked up and reprinted by newspapers. (Or, as it happened, compiled, archived, and read by researchers hundreds of years later.) After the war, he ended up becoming a journalist at The Boston Globe. What more apt analogue to the media of today than a world in which one’s personal commentary on current events is so appreciated that they can be transformed into a lifelong career?

During the course of Charlie Mac’s budding career, he would have observed the budding of what we consider the traditional media hierarchy. Information would increasingly begin to flow from the top down, rather than be gathered voraciously from amateurs in the field. He would see news brands begin to shape and control narratives, and come to exist in an information system with less and less emphasis on personal interactions.

Of course, what we’ve seen in the decades since the dawn of the digital age is just the opposite. Humphreys said one of the early conclusions from her research is the possibility that the mass media of the 20th century was in fact a blip, a historical aberration, and that, through platforms like Twitter, we are gradually returning to a communication network that indulges, without guilt, the individual’s desire to record his existence.

Personal diarists are not only comforted by recording and sharing their experience, Humphreys says, but they are empowered by claiming their own narrative. She suspects it was for this reason that so many 19th-century women kept journals — in the hopes that they and their families would be remembered. Her point takes on contemporary significance when she points out that Twitter is more popular among African-American and Hispanic youths than among whites.

The most powerful argument for Twitter as a force of erosion of the public media is not, as we hear so often lately, that it feeds the fires of rumor and speculation. The argument that Twitter is facile is much more potent — that Twitter users are self-obsessed, that a minute spent tweeting is a minute wasted, that Twitter is the digital embodiment of the general degradation of intellectual society — many of the same arguments made a decade ago about blogging.

This is what I ate for breakfast… Greek potatoes, orzo, Greek salad, dolmades, and OJ. #Hmm yfrog.com/nxfktoej

— Miss Illinois (@StaciJoee) March 28, 2012

I’m going to be a total blogger today. This is what I ate for breakfast. LOL http://yfrog.com/h2tovdrj

— Holly Becker (@decor8) February 20, 2011

What Humphreys has found, instead, is that if we are all navel-gazers, it’s not Twitter that made us that way. And further, that we are tighter-networked, faster-responding, further-reaching navel-gazers, with a richer media experience, than ever before.

Image by Barnaby Dorfman used under a Creative Commons license.

January 29 2012


If half of all retweets on Sina Weibo are spam, trending topics are useless

Penn Olson :: We’ve long been concerned about just how many of the 250 million users of Sina Weibo are real, and not spam or zombie accounts. Now a report from the HP Labs ‘Social Computing Research Group’ claims to have found that an astonishing 49% of all retweets on the microblogging service come from fraudulent accounts. To make it worse, those automated fake users account for about 32% of the total tweets and therefore falsely drive what’s ‘trending’ on Sina Weibo. 

Continue to read Steven Millward, www.penn-olson.com

January 23 2012


Tumblr blows past 15b pageviews and more than 100m uniques per month

Business Insider :: The latest social-media phenomenon, Tumblr, continues to post astounding traffic metrics. Founder and CEO David Karp spoke at the DLD12 conference in Munich, where he reiterated some of the company's recent milestones: 100+ million uniques, and 15+ billion pageviews per month.

Continue to read Henry Blodget, www.businessinsider.com


Twitter takes the world: microblogs explode overseas, attract global brands

Forbes :: It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but sometime during the last six months the game changed dramatically for Twitter and its overseas imitators. After years of questioning how many people really use Twitter or whether Twitter would ever develop a meaningful business model, the blogosphere started speculating about the date of Twitter’s inevitable IPO. This has been accompanied by a surge of investor interest in China’s microblogging platforms, known as (Sina Weibo) “weibo,” as well as would-be Twitter clones such as Russia’s Futubura, owned by Mail.ru, and Singapore’s Mig33.

[Elise Ackerman:] The reason for the abrupt change of focus is the surprising success of Twitter’s advertising model.

Continue to read Elise Ackerman, www.forbes.com

June 13 2011


China: Yu Jianrong, Sina Weibo microblog: "take a picture to rescue begging children"

The Australian, The Times | beijingdoll.wordpress.com :: Professor Yu Jianrong, a chinese academic has harnessed the power of the country’s huge, frenetically innovative blogosphere in a stand against child-trafficking. The crime has become a national scourge in which as many as 60,000 children a year are abducted from the streets and sold. In the 15 days since Yu Jianrong established his Twitter-style account on Sina Weibo, the microblog — entitled Take a Picture to Rescue Begging Children — has exploded in popularity and commands a network that reaches into local government and media.

Via @virginiacasado

Continue to read beijingdoll.wordpress.com


May 24 2011


Follow, Follow, Tweet Tweet (realities of microblogging)

Microblogs like Twitter are a great vehicle to help organize political demonstrations in countries run by corrupt governments (and an effective way to spread misinformation), but how can nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), libraries, government programs, and other mission-based organizations really use microblogs to promote their work, increase attendance at an event, get donations or mobilize or support volunteers?

I've updated my resource on Microblogs and Nonprofits yet again, this time adding much more information about live microblog/live tweet events. This is a primer based in reality - you won't find a panting endorsement about how you will raise millions of dollars via Twitter or Facebook or any other technology-tool. Rather, this resource is, I hope, a no-nonsense, anti-fluff, anti-hype, practical list to help nonprofits, NGOs and other community-focused initiatives explore microblogging and use it effectively with volunteers, event attendees and others they are trying to reach and engage.

Being able to work online is now an essential and much-sought-after skill in the work place, no matter what your job at a nonprofit, NGO, government agency, etc. This isn't the domain of just your marketing department anymore: program staff, those that work with volunteers, and anyone that works with the public or with clients at a mission-based organization has a role in using online tools on behalf of mission-based organizations. This updated resource is just one of many pages on my site meant to help those at mission-based organizations who want to enhance their online skills quickly.

Remember: content is still king. Be thoughtful and be strategic about whatever communication tool you use, even the flavor of the month.

September 21 2010


Teaching Twitter to students

This semester I took a course I have been teaching for 10 years and moved it to a WordPress.com blog. The students and I still meet in person once a week to discuss ideas, but otherwise, everything is on the blog.

Each student was required to start his or her own WordPress.com blog, and all their assignments are submitted as posts on their blogs.

This week’s assignment centered on Twitter, and I’m very happy with the results! My intention was to give the students an experience of using Twitter that would introduce them to new people and new sources of information and show them one of the most significant ways that Twitter is different from Facebook.

If you want to see the students’ reactions and reports about their experience, their blogs are linked in the sidebar of the course blog. Just follow the link to the assignment (above). This week only you can see a link to their Twitter posts (because of the way I set up the RSS feed) — but by Friday those links will start to be replaced by links to their next assignment.

If you’re interested in using WordPress.com in this manner for a course, leave a comment here — I’d be happy to answer any questions!

(Note: This course happens to be for graduate students, and it’s not a skills class, so I’m not teaching them how to be journalists.)

May 19 2010


Study finds postive media coverage of Twitter

In April 2009, the well respected New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked the founders of Twitter: “Did you know you were designing a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls?”

Her dismissive approach towards the micro-blogging service captures the attitude of many journalists to Twitter.

This negative reaction to a new communication technology is nothing new, say researchers From San Diego State University.

In a paper just published by New Media & Society (subscription required), Noah Arceneaux and Amy Schmitz Weiss found that the public response to Twitter is similar to earlier communication technologies such as the telegraph or radio.

In “Seems stupid until you try it: Press coverage of Twitter 2006-9″, they conclude that:

Every major form of electronic communication, from the telegraph to the internet, has been greeted with ambivalence, though the preponderance of positive press coverage revealed by this research suggests that the skepticism over Twitter will not slow its diffusion and commercial adoption.

For the study, the researchers analysed media coverage of Twitter from March 2006 to March 2009, looking at a sample of newspapers, news agency copy, magazines and blogs.

They found that most stories mentioned at least some of the benefits of Twitter.  The positive themes were:

  • New sensibility: The steady stream of real-time messages creates a new form of social awareness.  I have applied this to news, describing it as “ambient journalism
  • Commercial use: The use of Twitter for promotional offers, ads or to communicate with customers
  • Civic use: Twitter as a platform for participatory democracy, mobilising people or distribute emergency updates

Negative stories were in a minority, and the researchers were surprised that only a few stories could be labeled as entirely negative. The negative themes were:

  • Information overload: Twitter as a torrent of useless information
  • Acceptable practices: A focus on the etiquette for microblogging and what wasn’t acceptable behaviour
  • Unanticipated consequences: The use of Twitter for spam or identity theft

Arceneaux and Schmitz Weiss conclude that media coverage of Twitter follows a similar pattern to the reaction to older communication technologies.

For example, the question over what is acceptable on Twitter echoes debates over the appropriate use of the telephone. The researchers write that:

Technologies, such as Twitter today and the telegraph in the past, inspire negative responses because they disrupt established concepts of communication, prevailing notions of space and time and the distinction between public and private spheres.

Despite some vocal skepticism, such as the quote from Dowd, the research found “that newspapers, magazines and blogs have promoted and actively encouraged Twitter’s diffusion”.

March 23 2010


February 01 2010


3,000 followers on Twitter

Last March I had 1,000 followers on Twitter. Sometime earlier today, I reached 3,000:

Screen capture from Twitter

I’m sure many of those folks have not signed on to Twitter since the week when they opened their account. so I’m not going to throw a party or anything. And Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU, has 31,488 followers on Twitter, so I’m not even in the big leagues.

If by chance you want to follow me, I am @macloo on Twitter.

For articles and blog posts about Twitter, see these bookmarks.

I’m often asked if we should be teaching Twitter to journalism students. I don’t think there’s much to teach, really. I do think Twitter should be discussed in journalism classes — and maybe even more in public relations classes!

Twitter is most valuable when you choose a relevant set of people to follow. The introduction of Twitter lists made it easier for a brand-new Twitter user to find those people. For example, you can just check out Patrick LaForge’s mediapeople list — there are 310 journalists on it, and the stream usually has something of interest going on. Or take a look at my media-thinkers list — it’s visible in a widget in the sidebar of this blog too.

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