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Introducing: The Twitter-thing!

Context: The Twitter-thing is the (awkward?) translation into English of 'Twittertinget' - a project I worked on last year with two Danish colleagues, Irina Papazu (CBS) and Tobias Bornakke (Uni. of Copenhagen) in collaboration with the Danish newspaper Politiken. The Twitter-thing is a tool that draws on TCAT in order to build a network visualisation of how Danish MPs use hashtags on Twitter. Here follows my abstract for the upcoming Data Publics conference in Lancaster, where I'll be exhibiting the Twitter-thing.

Parliaments could seem to be highly issue-agnostic places. All sorts of problems move in and out of these large and expensive devices (Dányi 2015), while the membership stays more or less the same in-between elections. But as issues are taken up and left behind by parliaments, they also make cuts in the parliament in the sense that specific sets of parliamentarians become attached to specific issues. The aim of the Twitter-thing tool is to trace these cuts and visualize them by means of Twitter hashtags and a piece of code developed by Tobias Bornakke while visiting the médialab at Sciences Po in Paris.

Screendump of the tool. Click to interact with it.
What the Twitter-thing tool does, is to track all tweets sent by parliamentarians in Denmark and then visualize the individual parliamentarians in a network together with the hashtags, they have used. In this network, a link is made between the name of an MP and a hashtag when this MP has used the specific hashtag in a tweet. In other words, the tool visualizes how parliamentarians group around specific topics and issues by using hashtags.

As such, the Twitter-thing seeks to explore the following question: What if the parliament was approached not as a representation device for the population of a nation, but as an assembly of multiple and constantly transforming issue publics (Marres 2007)? What kinds of issues are highlighted by the parliament via Twitter, and what would it mean to ask a parliament to represent issues, or indeed ’things’ (Latour 2005), instead of a populace?

The resulting publics – or things in the sense of a collective aroused by an issue – are data publics in the sense that they are not aware of themselves as specific publics (Warner 2002). At the same time, it is entirely possible to self-select membership of these data publics by using a specific hashtag. This raises the question of what feedback loops are in place between visualizations of the use of hashtags and decisions to use hashtags in tweets, including the question of how a tool like the Twitter-thing might change things.

The Twitter-thing invites users to explore these questions, and more, by making the network available in an interactive format that allows users to browse at their own leisure, zoom in and out, search for particular politicians, parties or hashtags, narrow down the network and make screenshots. As such, the Twitter-thing is an experiment with re-tooling the parliament into a more issue-oriented device.

Outro: I'm still thinking about how to exhibit this in the best possible way at the Data Publics conference. Any thoughts and ideas are most welcome in the comments!