Monday, November 1, 2010

Hello twitter! From tool to 'affordance'

In the context of my research on the influence of (micro-)blogging on participatory development practices, I signed up to twitter several months ago, in order to follow a number of influential (micro-)bloggers. Personally, I perceived twitter as what I half-jokingly described to one research respondent as 'narcisitic babble'. In fact, blogger Ewen wrote a nice post on the ego-tripping potential embedded in social media, containing the memorable quote 'there's an I in twitter and a me in social media'! (see also Naaman et al., 2010). From this perspective, I really never thought it was worthwhile to 'tweet' myself.   
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Then one morning I attended a conference which was all about knowledge, change and engagement in development processes.

Very interesting, and populated largely by development professionals talking about the need for policy makers to engage in practice. When I got back to my office later than afternoon, super-twitterer Giulio announced that the big daddy of policymakers, the World Bank itself, was opening its doors, inviting people to tweet in their 2-cents worth as to what should be on the policy agenda this coming year during its annual WB/IMF meetings. As a worldbank blogger writes: "So, world, you laid down the challenge of increasing our transparency. Now the ball is in your court." This was of course a beautiful challenge in response to the discussions I had been hearing that very morning. But how to get the message across...? A quick look at my twitter feed showed a live stream of 'social reporting' streaming from the event through twitter, providing an entry point to this opportunity being fed back to the participants of the conference. I tweeted the WB blogposting, and hashed it in to the conference. And it felt good!

So I guess we can pinpoint that exact moment as my personal twitter-revelation - when twitter went from being a (fairly useless) tool, to enabling a particular social practice. This is what (some) scholars describe as technology 'affordances' (eg Davidson and Vaast, 2010), in order to emphasize the entanglement of technology in practice, and presenting a perspective on what technology actually does, rather than focusing on the tool itself. 

In fact, this 'tool'-preoccupation has been bothering me for years, even prior to my switch to academia when I was involved with knowledge management in various development organizations. Every so often (actually, it was often), someone would post to the listserve saying something like: 'hey, check out this great tool!' or asking: 'which is better, droopal or joomla', and the discussion would continue entirely around the characteristics of the tool itself, rather than on the situation which people were trying to cope with. This infatuation with tools seemed to distract from what people were actually trying to do, or which problem they were trying to solve. In a recent research article we describe that this engineering approach might even contribute to a difference between latent (intended) objectives, and active approaches in terms of knowledge management. In fact, we argue, such approaches could even prove counterproductive to development goals, strengthening knowledge transfer rather than participation and engagement of intended beneficiaries. 

But back to my current project: as far as we can tell in this stage of data analysis (not yet complete), it would appear that the self-referred avant garde among development (micro-)bloggers have taken to social media through its affordances, rather than focusing on the technology aspects of it. This calls for some real innovation in terms of how organizations and scholars look at the phenomenon. How long it will take for the mainstream to catch up with the avant garde... time will tell. In any case - the field is still wide open for research and theory development on changing practices in the field of organizational studies and international development. So, how we are doing this in our research group? Not yet sure, but we're trying! @kinresearch