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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

Theres theory behind that there Twitter

I’ve got this little speech that I give about Twitter based on a sociolinguistics class I took in the fall of 1995. Yep. First honors class at Millikin with a professor that later sent me to Argentina, because she would not allow me to go to Jordan. Long story. I remember two things about that class.

The first was my final project – a social graph of the college campus. I took two people from each class and asked them to draw their social graph. Who did they talk to, who did those people talk to and then draw lines connecting people that knew each other.

Then I took all eight social graphs and combined them, by hand, on a huge sheet of paper. I then looked for patterns in how people talked to each other on campus. I saw clearly who the connectors were (Colin Brady), what departments were isolated (Theater) and what departments were open (Communications). It’s the sort of thing you can do with an application on Facebook now, I think the touchgraph app or social wheel, and read about in The Tipping Point. But in 1995, the days of college without internet, a hand drawn map of social interations got a lot of attention.

The second concept I remember clearly is phatic expression. Not “pretty hot and tempting” phat, but phatic. AKA small talk.

Imagine you are walking down the hallway of your residence hall. You pass a neighbor and say, “what’s up?” and he says, “nothing.” Then you keep walking. Later you’re walking through the kitchen at work, someone is filling their coffee. “How’re things?” she asks. “Busy, but good,” you respond and keep on walking to the bathroom.

If either person hadn’t greeted you, you go back to your dorm room or office and wonder, “what happened? why the cold shoulder?” Those small bits of conversation are called phatic communication. Alone those bits are meaningless, but together they build a relationship. Phatic communication keeps the doors open for more communication.

Think about it. You’re working on a big project and need to brainstorm. Do you pop into the office of the person who regularly greets you in the hallway or the person that gives you a cold shoulder? You seek help from the person who greets you.

And that is Twitter. That is the heart of Twitter.

Seemingly meaningless conversations that add up to a relationship being formed. It is the digital version of what’s up/fine in the hallway. Relationships include long conversations, sure, but the cement is often tiny interactions that keep the door open between long conversations. Twitter expands the hallway to the globe. It was why Talia was comfortable offering me her extra bed last summer, even though we’d never met. We’d been saying what’s up/fine for a few months and then when I was in need, she opened her door.

The arguments against Twitter are the same things I’ve heard from people complaining about those little hallway passings. “They don’t really care how I’m doing? Everyone can’t be fine all the time.” “Who cares what I had for breakfast?” I don’t really care what you had for breakfast, but I care about you. And Twitter gives us the space for phatic expressions in leiu of a hallway.

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