Twitter Set Theory & The Wisdom of the Group

Several weeks ago I was introduced to an idea that I have found to be profound in its simplicity but complex in its implications. In an informal discussion about educational technology at EduBloggerCon West, Steve Hargadon described the kind of learning that is taking place in today's social networks. Interestingly enough, I caught the discussion via Ustream (and participated remotely within the Ustream chat), demonstrating yet another facet of this idea. I will paraphrase what Steve has come to call "the wisdom of the group":

You don't need to have everybody in the room in order to have a good conversation. In other words, once you reach a certain number of people - local experts, if you will - you can have very rich dialog without requiring that all of the experts be present.
Steve has found this to be true in many of the social networks that he frequents, and I have found it to be true in Twitter. In the days following our discussion, I have drawn up several diagrams that I think demonstrate additional dimensions to this concept (they also fit in nicely with this fine collection).

Twitter Set Theory

To begin, I find the overlapping nature of Twitter conversations to be fascinating. As one person speaks with another through an @reply, their conversation is not only visible to the person receiving the reply, but - if tweets are made public - is also inherently viewable by anyone following the person that sends out the tweets. Thus, using the diagram example below, if Amazing Mary decides to reply to a question posed by Popular Pete, then not only will Pete see Mary's reply, but the 1,200 people that follow @amazingmary will also see the reply (and will, in one sense, participate in Mary's conversation with Pete). Additionally, if Pete chooses to reply back to Mary, his 1,498 followers will see his response. Nevertheless, because only a percentage of Mary's followers also follow Pete, only that fraction of the population involved will ever see both sides of the conversation. This fact alone can make for any number of meaningful conversations that can possibly take place either without (A) the knowledge and participation of Pete, or (B) the knowledge and participation of Mary.

Another example of the "wisdom of the group" might come in the event that Presenter Paul tweets something controversial, thought provoking, or otherwise conversation-worthy. Followers of Presenter Paul might choose to converse about the topic that was brought to the surface by Paul but all aspects of the conversation(s) likely take place without Paul's inclusion and even without Paul's knowledge of it (simply because Paul doesn't actually follow that many people).

To expand upon this idea, consider for a moment Ned N00b. Ned has 13 followers, all of which also follow Presenter Paul. Because of this fact, if Paul decides to pose a question to his followers - and Ned decides to re-tweet Paul's question - Ned's re-tweet will fall upon only those that have already heard the question as originally posed by Paul. Furthermore, because Ned doesn't follow any of the same people that Paul does (see the next diagram), many of the responses that Paul might receive will never be seen by Ned. As a result, Ned the N00b is once again left in the dark.

Twitter Tracks

Shifting gears slightly, I think that another interesting element of Twitter is the intermingling that takes place on the network overall - the nature of which makes for a vastly different user experience, entirely dependent upon the user's level of participation.

Consider Ned N00b once again. If Ned, not unlike many apprehensive beginners, rarely interacts with other Twitter users and merely tweets about "what he is currently doing", then his experience in using Twitter will be vastly different than the experience of others - especially if those others are highly active in their participation and interaction with others. Amazing Mary and Sharing Sam, for example, are in constant connection with other Twitter users. Their conversations rarely center upon themselves and, considering Mary in particular, often jump from topic to topic and from person to person.

As a result of this apparent hesitancy to reach out (is it fear that causes such an initial reaction, nervousness, or mere caution?), I would think that the Twitter experience of Ned N00b would most likely parallel the experience of Twitter users like Popular Pete and Presenter Paul minus one important distinction: Pete and Paul likely receive @replies from a number of people that they don't follow. Ned N00b, unfortunately, rarely receives such interaction as relatively few people even know that he tweets. Sure, he receives a little feedback from thoughtful users like Amazing Mary and he even dips down to "interact" with Popular Pete, but likely receives no mutual response since Popular Pete simply can't keep up with all of his "fans". Therefore, Ned's overall Twitter experience is largely solitary, affording him an experience not unlike that of Presenter Paul; Paul's by choice, Ned's by reality.

In the end, Twitter remains a constant stream of conversation which, I can only imagine, probably looks something like this to the uninitiated:

In conclusion, I invite your thoughts regarding the hypothetical situations I have posed above.
  • Am I completely off my Twitter here or is this something that deserves additional thought and exploration?
  • Is it possible for even Ned N00b to engage in meaningful, highly educational conversations - even when the experts aren't present?
  • What are some insights into these ideas that I may have missed?
By the way, the names in this post have been changed to protect the innocent (Ned N00b excepting). Ten points extra credit if you can correctly identify any of my hypothetical Twits.

Technorati Tags:

blog comments powered by Disqus
Creative Commons License
Original content distributed on this site is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.