Archive for November, 2012

Twitter Timelines and the Art of Skim

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

I’ve commented previously on how sites like Twitter provide researchers with explicit interactions and user relationships that lend themselves to network-based data mining methods and visual analytics. These help us understand frequencies and patterns of use up to a point, but fall short in indicating the complex, inconsistent and selective viewing behaviours and strategies that underpin how we actually engage with Twitter.

These are partly determined by how we access Twitter, and how we may adopt ‘filtering’ systems (within Twitter and third-party). But what I’m particularly interested in here is how we ‘scan’ or ‘skim read’ our Twitter timelines. When new users express concern about the apparent content overload, experienced users tend to reassure them by explaining they don’t have to ‘read everything’ and that they will ‘get used to’ scanning tweets. It’s fairly clear why we do this, but how?

Observational methods (remotely or through screen recordings) can provide limited data, but for a more accurate insight, eye-tracking technology can record how we actually ‘read’ sites like Twitter, as demonstrated here. Supplementary methods such as the think/talk-aloud protocols associated with usability testing, and follow-up memory tests might offer opportunities for triangulation.

I’m not experienced in these tools, or familiar with how they are being used in research, and I would question how much the ‘laboratory’ conditions in which these types of investigations are typically undertaken reflect everyday use. But it is interesting to speculate on the contribution they can make to our understanding of user engagement with Twitter. Given such an approach, the type of questions one could explore might include:

  • How much consistency / variation in skim reading do we exhibit over different periods of engagement?
  • Do we navigate tweets in a generally (reverse) chronological order or more randomly?
  • How ‘far back’ do we check tweets since we last looked?
  • What are our dominant focal points – specific users or specific content?
  • How much do we focus on specific components – in particular URLs, hashtags?
  • How important is the colour coding of these components?
  • Do we focus more on specific types of tweets (e.g. those with links)?
  • Do we notice specific words or terms (that are not hashtagged)?
  • What about capital letters, symbols, exclamation marks, expletives etc?
  • Do we primarily identify our followees by their user names or avatars?
  • Are some (types of) avatars more instantly recognisable?
  • How much does the unfamiliarity of original authors of formal retweets (not RTs) attract our attention?
  • Do we take much notice of who retweets them?
  • Are we more likely to ignore multiple tweets from excessive users?

Free Academic Books Here!

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Informal file sharing practices amongst academics are not widely discussed. George Veletsianos blogged about how researchers use crowdsourcing on Twitter to access academic papers – an activity I also discussed a couple of years ago. The #ICanHazPDF hashtag has been created specifically to facilitate such exchanges. What I’m particularly interested in here is the role of file storage sites in the exchange of academic content, and specifically, academic e-books and their various digital formats (PDF, ePub .azw etc.)

Following the introduction of the SOPA and PIPA bills, the authorities began flexing their muscles early this year, most notably in the shutting down of the file storage service Megaupload for facilitating copyright infringement through open file sharing. Some of the most popular file storage services immediately responded by disabling their file sharing functionality, and thereby restricting downloading to the personal files of registered users. Some sites however continue to operate open sharing services, providing potential access to digital content (including academic books), most effectively sourced through third-party search engines. As with all content on these sites, specific books are routinely removed – presumably at the request of publishers or the authors themselves (see the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) – and then reposted. Cat and mouse.

For affiliated academics, there are legitimate avenues for obtaining books and other texts that are not readily available institutionally. In the UK, the Inter-Library Loan (ILL) service enables university students and staff to request any book from the British Library, though it may take several weeks or even months to receive the most sought-after books and loan periods can be very short. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see a PhD student stood for hours at a photocopier meticulously copying every page of a weighty volume of text.

I recently went to a university training session on academic copyright, in which it was specifically stated that we are expected to copy only a ‘reasonable amount’ of any text, without indicating what a reasonable amount might be, or on what ethical or legal grounds such an evaluation may be determined.

In addition, dedicated ‘e-library’ systems can provide institutional access to digital books and texts. Though typically restricted to online viewing only, some enable the printing of one or a limited number of pages at a time. Therefore, an entire book can feasibly be saved to PDF or other formats in this way, but it is a repetitive and time-consuming process.

It is perhaps assumed that the technological limitations ’embedded’ in these various methods of copying (Latour would have something clever to say at this point) are sufficient to deter wholesale copying. This might apply to busy and waged academics, who will probably just buy the book instead (or at least try and convince their department to). But what about the research student, who is (relatively speaking) time-rich and financially poor? Academic textbooks are notoriously expensive, especially niche or out-of-print titles.

Under these circumstances, we might not feel we are flouting the ‘rules’ (however ambiguous they are) by engaging in the practices described here, particularly in a climate increasingly dismissive of academic publishing hegemonies and supportive of open publishing / access agendas. But is it fair that a book that may have been written by a professor in your own department, a colleague or supervisor, or yourself for that matter, can be obtained in this way?

Thinking about durability…

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

It’s easy to fall into the trap of equating different publishing genres or formats with one-dimensional perspectives of what constitutes academic ‘quality.’ Further still, we often make assumptions about their durability.

Academics have the right (and the inclination) to question their ideas, change perspectives, and even – especially in the formative years of their training – challenge fundamental epistemologies. Yet I’ve found early-stage PhD researchers in particular have a tendency to assume they will never come to question anything they have or will formally publish. Conversely, they suggest there is every chance of them regretting virtually anything they might blog.

Of course, the not inconsiderable process of writing and articulation required in getting formally published (not forgetting the accompanying peer review) cannot be overlooked. This indicates that such texts have been well considered and argued. However, the perceived reliability of the format does not guarantee the durability of the relevance or inclination of key arguments contained within them over any given time. Whilst it is equally possible that some blog posts – however informal and unstructured they may be – will continue to resonate and influence.