Can Twitter be a useful source of knowledge? Thinking about Cities through Twitter.

When I was establishing the ‘forward thinking research’ section of the website (www.thewordsthething.org.uk ) I had in mind a number of strands of thinking that I wanted to take further. These were broadly related to my pre-existing interests in learning, social and community behaviours, public developments and so on. The site  declared that Forward Thinking Developments had an interest in a broad range of topics linking:

  • complexity……and how this related to managing and developing social outcomes
  • learning across distributed networks; on-demand learning; outcome-focused learning; informal learning; learning cities
  • user-determined services; what constitutes ‘expertness’
  • links between myriads of small actions and larger-scale public processes
  • nature of evidence, causality, leverage, models
  • nature of progress; why things aren’t as good as they can be …leadership

‘Research’, like so many other notions, can mean a variety of things to different people. Research is increasingly linked to a need to produce useful outcomes – often with commercialism in mind, or with policy direction in mind. Whilst ‘really useful’ research is important there is also a place for research-type activities that are undertaken for no immediate gain, for playfulness, simply because a puzzle has presented itself. Such activities have value if they stimulate curiosity and provide different ways of seeing our social world.

One of the initial interests, via the website, was how to explore the kinds of things that a modern complex city (like Birmingham, UK) might need to know more about if it is to really flourish.

In this context, some work was already underway on how Birmingham operated and might further develop as a city (not so much in terms of built environment, urban layout – more in terms of relationships, ways of seeing the city, capabilities etc).

A different section of website was concerned with various forms of writing. A subset of this was Place-based Writing (loosely defined) with an early thinkpiece summary on Space and Place. This connected with the city ‘research’ strand through the concept of placemaking.

Relatively late in the day I was also discovering the various uses of social media (in relation to writing) and having got to grip, in a very basic way, with Twitter was beginning to see its values in many ways. I started to wonder about the value of Twitter as a means of study, as a source of knowledge. By this I mean something more than information (of which Twitter is a very good source) and something less than deep understanding (of the kind one might get from a substantial graduate/post-graduate course of focused study).

In what ways might Twitter be a good source of knowledge about any particular topic? The real value of Twitter, as with other forms of social media, is its immediacy. What gets put up on Twitter is more contemporary (happening right now) rather than historical (last week’s story); is more current (minute by minute/ day by day thoughts) rather than established (things packaged into a lengthy course); is more broad-ranging (contributors from a variety of people across the world) rather than institutional (contributors from experts within the same organisation).

Twitter, as a possible source of knowledge, is open-ended and not centrally managed. The scale of what is available is potentially overwhelming. The very nature of Twitter means that tweets up there are partial, fragmentary and often idiosyncratic. The 140 character limit means that fuller explanations rely on clicking through to articles. The words written on Twitter each day would, as an estimate, fill a 10 million page book – with a new one written the next day, and the next. Faced with all of that, where might one start in order to begin to pull out learning in a sense-making way? Having settled on a learning topic, eg ‘Cities’, what would be the most productive way of getting sense out of the range, scale, volume and variability of Twitter?

The puzzle was simple: As an interested non-specialist, would there be a way to use Twitter to research current ideas around Cities?

Some prior thinking needed to be done. Was I interested in all cities or just in larger, more complex ones? I had already produced an early paper on cities and adult basic skills, which outlined the very varied nature of places that were cities: Old mercantile places; old ecclesiastical places; old industrial places etc of various sizes. ‘City’, after all, is simply a designation and there are new cities that have recently been produced simply by a change of nomenclature. Although interested in all cities I was really only interested in larger ones, that were not peculiar examples because of being capital cities, and which were not such huge megacities that they had particular dominant features because of their sprawl.

Through previous work I had become familiar with Core Cities; Eurocities; city regions – and general reading around the pull of megacities, and the idea that city/city links can be as important or more important that city/nation links. I had already noted the annual league tables for leading cities/top cities based on various measures of quality of life and adequacy of infrastructure.

I had done some work on Birmingham as a Learning City (and developed a framework for assessing the extent to which Birmingham was in reality a learning city). In my reading I had come across various categories, associations and labels for cities: smart cities, resilient cities, innovating cities, connected cities, learning cities, cities with a clear sense of place …. and I had been involved in conversations about the extent to which cities might become more capable, well-governed, engaging/engaged, decisive, understanding, tolerant, and so on. A lot of this may simply have been mere semantics, but words are important, language still matters. Words shape perspectives; perspectives influence behaviour; behaviours influence outcomes.

If this was my starting point, how might Twitter take my understanding any further forward?

The flow of tweets is endless and relentless. How could I set about managing the flow to make it useful to my puzzle? What was a reasonable period to select for this exploration – maybe initially 6-12 weeks? Would that be an adequate period to open up access to interesting content around topics related to cities?

Were there productive routes into that 10million page/day equivalent? What might I do to maximise my chances of coming across the right mix of stuff that would leave me feeling that I had learned something substantial about cities? I already had an existing, if somewhat limited, Twitter network that I was following but what was the best way to extend this to capture city-knowledge and still keep the exercise manageable?

Some of my Twitter contacts were being followed because they were key figures in urban development/urban studies. Tracking back to see who they themselves were following gave me a wider range of people to follow. Searching down Twitter lists produced other leads for me to keep an eye on. These flagged up some conferences that were about to happen and which covered various dimensions of cities, and which could easily be followed using the # hashtag for that conference.

This probably wasn’t all that was on Twitter re cities in the chosen period. It was simply what showed up on the ‘slice’ of tweets that I could see.  It did, however, produce a sufficient volume of articles, opinions and links for me to gather around 400 pages of notes re relevant knowledge over a 12 week period. This was edited down into a 30 page article:

Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes

 

A number of trends for cities in the near future were identified. Feeding these back into the hashtag system of Twitter would open up a new range of explorations, but I am content to leave that for some other time or some other person. For me, this current exploration  has demonstrated the extent to which a selective use of Twitter might be a useful learning tool for any topic.

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