Twitter Timelines and the Art of Skim

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?

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5 Responses to “Twitter Timelines and the Art of Skim”

  1. Top 30 Grad School Blogs Says:

    […] 13. PhD Blog is written by a PhD student who is studying the influence social media has on the identity development and doctoral practices of PhD students. The blog serves as both an outlet for his research, and his thoughts on how PhD are positively and/or negatively affected by social media. Highlight: Twitter Timelines and the Art of Skim […]

  2. Geoff Ball Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, as you addressed many of the questions I’ve considered myself while using Twitter.

    To lend my own experiences:

    I will vary my reading based on the time of day, my workload, and even my mood. Sometimes I read every tweet. Other times I scroll quickly, looking for keywords or my favorite people. If I’m busy, way behind on tweets (my client always saves my last read position, and I always read oldest-to-newest), or fed up with Twitter, I’ll just click the home button to scroll to the top and mark everything as “read.”

    I pay little attention to hashtags, but put a huge emphasis on avatars. I’d go so far as to say I’m disappointed sometimes when someone changes their avatar, as it confuses my perception of them.

    Again, great post. Definitely a blog I’ll be following.


  3. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Thanks for your input Geoff. Can I ask which client you use? The ‘last read’ tweet facility is new to me.

  4. Geoff Ball Says:

    I just use the native Twitter app on Mac and iPhone. They don’t communicate, unfortunately (so the point I read up to on my phone won’t be updated on my computers, and vice versa), but I just make sure that when one is caught up, I catch them all up. I think sync is in the works, but they’ve said that for a while.


  5. » Twitter Timelines and the Art of Skim Professional Learning in Education (PLE) Blog Says:

    […] your study topics, especially if you know how to explore effectively. Take a look at this PhDBlog article for tips on how to skim Twitter to retrieve the latest news, and perhaps get the inside […]

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