Epistemic Value in the Tweet Economy (2013)

First published 16 November 2010, Epistemic Value in the Tweet Economy quite accurately predicted the ways in which activists and young revolutionaries the world over would utilize services such as Twitter to stand against social injustice and organize to oppose political corruption. Given recent events in the United States surrounding government surveillance of US citizens, I now find it appropriate to repost this piece with modest and timely revisions.

Since Twitter’s launch in July 2006, this simple service has emerged to provide a new vehicle for the transfer of communication to hundreds of millions of users.

With the finite, 140-character count each tweet is constrained to, Twitter users must thoughtfully consider the content of each tweet. 140 characters can be limiting, and often Twitter users must take time to shorten links using services such as bit.ly, include relevant hashtags, tag fellow Twitter users using @replies, and consider a number of other aspects of the culture(s) and etiquette which have sprung forth from the emergent virtual structure that is Twitter.

The efficient Twitter user utilizes the 140-character constraint to convey complex cognitive concepts. Photos and images can be shared via services such as TwitPic and Twitter’s own image service. Screenshots are also commonly shared via these services as a way to convey information about ideas being produced, and events occurring exclusively in emergent virtual spaces.

Links to recorded video can be shared via services such as TwitVid, and live video streaming can be integrated into tweets by using services such as Ustream. Other tools used by the efficient Twitter user include location integration via services such as Foursquare  and Twitter’s own application programming interface (API), which allows for Google Maps integration.

And as mentioned above, hashtags, @replies, and link-shortening are all important and continually evolving means of facilitating information transference that the efficient Twitter user employs in order to increase the sum of epistemic value incapsulated within a given tweet. Indeed, the efficient Twitter user has many available tools at her disposal allowing her to convey complex cognitive concepts containing vast amounts of valuable information.

Many have criticized services such as Twitter, trivializing the increasing role these emergent virtual spaces play in our everyday lives. These critics have attempted to shield themselves from the truth that each day our physical lives are further shaped by these structures.

Criticism ranges from the common Why should I care that ‘OMG that was the most #awesome sandwich!!1’?”, to claims that carry deeper implications, such as “the revolution will not be tweeted.” Malcolm Gladwell may have expressed his lack of faith in the service, but Twitter and its loyal users should not feel slighted. Chris Dixon  thinks there is value to be found in the tweet economy, as well as in other social services that cater to similar sociological needs.

Government officials have taken note as well.

In June 2006 the US State Department  requested that Twitter delay a scheduled update which would necessarily entail a period of downtime for the service. This period of downtime was to coincide with what emerged to be the violent civil unrest of the recent Iranian elections, and Twitter was serving a vital function: namely that of providing a vehicle for the transfer of information in a time essential to the protection of personal and political freedoms of millions of individuals.

It is clear that despite a number of critical views, Twitter has served as an essential space for the transference of information among individuals who may be geographically, politically, socio-economically, ethnically, and religiously disparate.

It has also been reported that Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, has continued to play an active role in developing the ways Twitter can be used as part of what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (in a speech harkening back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms) has termed “21st Century Statecraft.”

The epistemic value of the tweet economy is often utilized by everyday citizens who wish to exchange information relevant to presently-occurring local events.

When the musical artist Jack’s Mannequin performed in Tempe, Arizona, one way the Phoenix New Times reported on the event was by curating tweets from concert attendees. By making sense of hashtags and location-integration, the New Times was able to harvest the epistemic value of tweets in order to contribute to the New Times’ journalistic enterprise.

On 29 July 2010, a number of citizens gathered in Phoenix, Arizona at a Maricopa County Sheriff’s detention facility to protest the recently-enacted and controversial immigration law, known as SB1070. Protesters—many of whom may be considered efficient Twitter users—utilized the value of the tweet economy to inform one another and the world of events unfolding before them.

This information included live video recordings of peaceful demonstrations, geographic data pertaining to traffic and parking, and photographs documenting the actions of law-enforcement officials. Hashtags, retweets, and a variety of other services were each used uniquely in order to add relevant epistemic value to tweets, which in turn was transferred to individuals accessing those tweets.

Thus, it is not only evident that adding to the epistemic value of tweets can add value to our physical lives, but that adding to the epistemic value of tweets in fact does add value to our physical lives.

One barrier to harnessing this wealth of epistemic value is finding an effective manner with which to make sense of this knowledge. Fortunately, there are many tools available to the efficient Twitter user that aid in the task of tweet-curation. In September 2010, Twitter launched New Twitter, which provided basic and useful ways of visualizing the epistemic value of the tweet economy. Twitter also offers apps for a multitude of devices that aid in tweet-curation. These apps are available for every major mobile platform, as well as the desktop environment.

Additionally, vehicles for tweet-curation have been created by innovators outside of Twitter itself. One such 3rd party application available to the efficient Twitter user is TweetDeck (acquired by Twitter in 2011). These are useful tools for organizing the epistemic value of the tweet economy, and many other useful methods of tweet-curation are emerging as well.

Clearly, in order to effectively harness the epistemic value of the tweet economy, one requires access to a sufficiently robust system of tweet-curation tools.

Looking forward, how will the tweet economy continue to shape our lives? In what ways will the physical domain become increasingly shaped and molded by Twitter, and similar platforms?

Given the wealth of epistemic value manifest in the tweet economy, Twitter may be viewed in a number of ways. To me, the most useful way to perceive Twitter is as a manifestation of collective consciousness. Keeping in mind the 140-character constraint inherent to tweets, combined with the ability to convey complex cognitive concepts, each tweet may be viewed as an individual thought, and a constituent part of the collective consciousness.

Thoughts can range in complexity from concrete, simple, and metaphysically informative, e.g. “My name is John Doe,” to abstract, elaborate, and epistemically valuable, e.g. “I believe because of Y, and you should too because of Z.” In a similar manner, the epistemic value of an individual tweet can span a vast range of complexity.

Let us take a moment here to conduct a thought experiment. Consider the number of individual tweets published at a given point in time. Now, take a mental snapshot of Twitter as a whole, freezing it at that moment. If tweets are virtual analogues of thoughts, and if Twitter is a virtual manifestation of collective consciousness, then by taking a snapshot of each tweet created in that instant, one may survey the entire constituency of the collective consciousness.

If Twitter is to be viewed as a manifestation of collective consciousness, then proper curation and understanding of the epistemic value within the tweet economy are vital to the real-time thought-trajectory of our physical lives. Although I will not provide an argument here for this claim, I believe that access to these sources of epistemic value must be viewed as an inalienable right to members of the global community.

I share the sentiment expressed by Jack Dorsey in September 2010:

My hope for Twitter? People use it as a peacemaker. Immediate & shared understanding inspires empathy which reduces conflict.

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