Tag Archives: community

Why Weird Twitter

tl;dr There’s no such thing as Weird Twitter

Will there be a mythology in the future, they used to ask, after all has become science? Will high deeds be told in epic, or only in computer code?

And after the questing spirit had gone into overdrive during the early Space Decades, after the great Captains had appeared, there did grow up a mythos through which to view the deeds. This myth filter was necessary. The ship logs could not tell it rightly nor could any flatfooted prose. And the deeds were too bright to be viewed direct. They could only be sung by a bard gone blind from viewing suns that were suns.

R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey

Imagine that there is a community or culture of people that use social media–let’s focus on Twitter–in a particularly interesting or funny or outlandish way. Would you give it a name? Would you try to understand its size or its structure? Its history? Its purpose? How would you go about doing that?

Could it be studied by an anthropologist? A data scientist? An economist? A philosopher? A critic? A journalist? Could it ever understand itself?

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with a name: Weird Twitter.


This is a Google Trends query for the string “weird twitter”.

There have been two spikes in search popularity of “weird twitter” in the past year. The second spike corresponds to the publication of the brilliant “Weird Twitter: The Oral History“, by Herrman and Notopoulos, (BuzzFeed, April 2013). The authors explain:

Weird Twitter is vast and amorphous; what it looks like depends hugely on whom you follow, when you followed them, and what you find funny. … Some of its best writers have a few hundred followers, while others have tens of thousands. Styles of tweeting and types of jokes that originated among its small sects have bled out into the mainstream: Even to comedians, these are some of the funniest people on Twitter.

The first spike in October 2012, which marks the beginning of a consistent hum of search activity for “weird twitter”, coincides with this tweet by erstwhile pseudonymous Gawker writer Mebute Sese Seko.

At the time, Mebuto Sese Seko had almost 10,000 followers. This tweet triggered a series of events that lead to the wider adoption of the term.

Notably, Mebuto didn’t use the phrase “weird twitter” himself, and he linked to screenshots, not to web pages. The second image was of an anonymous Quora post that identified Weird Twitter as Twitter’s equivalent of 4chan’s /b/, or “Random”, subcommunity. The first image pictured a blog post I had written the previous summer.

Boundaried symbolic network community

A lot was going through my head when I wrote that blog post. In the Spring of 2012 I was reading Anthony Cohen‘s work on the symbolic construction of community. For Cohen, a community is constituted by its creation and use of symbols. Especially critical for the community’s identity are the symbols it uses to mark its boundary–members and non-members. I was also reading Caroline Haythornthwaithe‘s work on Social Networks and On-line Community, which emphasizes the topological structure of on-line social networks over symbolic meaning-making.

Schematic diagrams of Cohen and Haythornthwaithe's models of community.

(I did this preliminary work in on-line community detection in collaboration with a classmate, Dave Tomcik.)

At the same time I was following a few of what now would be called Weird Twitter accounts. It got me thinking: most work on virtual communities in cyberspace depends on technical infrastructure to provide the community boundaries. A mailing list is a community circumscribed by the technicalities of mailing list membership. A web service like Reddit supports multiple communities by supporting multiple distinct subreddits. But Twitter supports the growth of an ad hoc network structure without distinct watering holes demarcated in the user interface.

How could one identify a community within such a social network? I had a hunch that these networks, which would depend on the organic social connections between individuals and not the commercially built and sustained technical environment, would be special.

Schematic diagram of a boundaried symbolic networks and containment relations between its lexicons

What sort of digital signature would such a community show? According to my reading of Cohen, it would be involved in vigorous, complex dialog about, among other things, what symbols to use to represent itself. Since the digital environment is one in which symbols (e.g. words) are constantly flying around and being recorded, I thought this kind of community could be algorithmically detected. Which I find both thrilling and chilling. Eric Snowden’s recent whistleblowing has let America know its on-line activity is under state surveillance all the time, on top of the surveillance by commercial interests.

Chaotic resistance

Duchamp's FountainI believe we have an opportunity to use the wealth of data available now to really advance social science. But the reality is our research will, if successful, be used for political manipulation, commercial advertising, and other kinds of social manipulation and control. For me, this makes it imperative that I present my research to the public. If I work on methods for on-line community detection, I should try to make those insights usable by communities to understand themselves and evade detection if they desire.

Most rhetoric about evading on-line detection is about making less information available. That makes sense for the individual. But in aggregate, this cleans the data set, making it easier to find patterns that haven’t been self-censored away.

The biggest challenges to behavioral data scientists are not the availability of data, but data’s complexity. If data has a high Kolmogorov complexity and perhaps logical depth, it will be very difficult to extract patterns from.

In other words: you cannot master noise and chaos. It is the abyss staring back. Much as Dadaism was a tool for eroding the establishment and Situationists sought to challenge society through liberated, authentic expression, social media users can resist surveillance by making their interactions more wild, original and complex. Big Brother is watching, but he can be blinded by confusion fu.

We are always already watched over by machines of love and grace, and other kindsI thought I had found a nexus of this kind of noisy on-line behavior on Twitter. If what I was seeing was a community at all, it was a community of chaos and exploration. And it knew it. I had read the term “weird twitter” in @regisl‘s tweets in March 2012 when he was writing a lot of exploratory, reflective thoughts on Twitter culture. His and others insights into virtual community were profound, echoes of some of the earliest musings on virtual community, such as by Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow in “Crime and Puzzlement” (1990):

As a result of [the opening of Cyberspace], humanity is now undergoing the most profound transformation of its history. Coming into the Virtual World, we inhabit Information. Indeed, we become Information. Thought is embodied and the Flesh is made Word. It’s weird as hell.

I figured that holding a mirror up to the noise, crudely describing and interpreting practices that could not be interpreted or described, could only make the chaotic system more complex. At the same time, it would be a test of Cohen’s theory of the symbolic construction of communities in an on-line context: what happens when a community confronts a symbol, in this case the string “Weird Twitter”, that purports to mark its boundary?

Stuart Geiger had introduced me to M.C. Burton’s idea that “trolling is the new critique.” I was interested in trolling as an experimental method. A grown-up Internet kid who had done and been dished his share of trolling, I figured it was time to put those skills to good use: clumsy live field notes.

The offending post

According to the Encyclopedia Dramatica, this kind of trolling is a Philosopher Attack (“a type of flame war
where a terminally bored, yet well educated person or group ambush an innocent bystander or group, who were just minding their own business”). I posted in August. Nothing happened.

Then Jeb Lund tweeted about it.

Read More… Why Weird Twitter

Tweeting Minarets: A personal perspective of joining methodologies

David Ayman Shamma

Editor’s note: In the last post of the Ethnomining‘ edition, David Ayman Shamma @ayman gives a personal perspective on mixed methods. Based on the example of data produced by people of Egypt who stood up against then Egyptian president and his party in 2011, he advocates for a comprehensive approach for data analysis beyond the “Big Data vs the World” situation we seem to have reached. In doing so, his perspective complements the previous posts by showing the richness of ethnographic data in order to deepen quantitative findings.
David Ayman Shamma is a research scientist in the Internet Experiences group at Yahoo! Research for which he designs and evaluate systems for multimedia-mediated communication.


There’s a problem we face now; the so called Big Data world created an overshadowing world of numerical data analysis leaving everyone else to try to find a coined niche like “small data” or “long data” or “sideways data” or the like. The silos and fragmentation is overwhelming. But really, it’s just all data. Regardless of the its form or flavor, there are people who are experts at number crunching data and people who are experts at field work data. Unfortunately, the speed at which data science moves is attractive and that’s part of the problem; we don’t get the full picture at speed and everyone is racing to produce answers first.

A few months ago, in a conversation with a colleague, he told me “you don’t know what you don’t know, especially when it’s not there.” We were looking for a way to automatically surface a community of photographers on Flickr who didn’t annotate their photos. They didn’t use any titles or tags or any annotations what so ever. But they were clearly a strong and prolific community. If there was some way to automatically identify them, then we could help connect them.

Now, finding metrics for social engagement in unannotated data is not an impossible task when provided with some signal in the data that has some correlation, statistical or otherwise, to the effect you’re trying to surface. But in some cases, it’s just not possible. What you need is just not there; therein is a problem. In other cases, it’s much harder to surface features when you don’t know what they look like.

When you have a lot of data, finding that unexplainable prediction through algorithmic statistics becomes easier. It doesn’t explain why and it doesn’t always work.

Enter Ethnography to answer the why and find out what things might look like—surfacing findings in the age of big data. When I was invited to write a post on Ethnography Matters, I decided to illustrate this through a personally motivated example.

In the late January of 2011, the people of Egypt stood up against then President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. They wanted employment, a fair government, and an end to the 30 year long emergency law which had removed most of their civilian rights. Undoubtedly, you read about it somewhere. At the time, my mother was in Cairo visiting her 100+ year old mother. So this left me glued to the only source of news I could find—a rather buggy Al Jazeera video stream. U.S. news agencies were slow to start some sparse coverage. Somewhere in-between, it was burning up on Twitter.

Tharir tweets

A visualization of Twitter activity directed towards Tahrir by aymanshamma

Read More… Tweeting Minarets: A personal perspective of joining methodologies

Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary

Ethnography Matters is one year old this month! Pick CC BY NC SA by jacsonquerubin on Flickr

Ethnography Matters is one year old! Anniversaries are always surrounded with a quality of epicness and grandness. But I don’t feel so much epic or grand today as I feel grateful.

When Heather Ford asked me to join her, Rachelle Annechino, and Jenna Burrell to start a group blog about ethnography, I immediately said yes. Honestly, it’s not too hard to get me blogging – I already have like 20 blogs. I would’ve agreed if Heather asked me to blog about doggies. Though it did help that Heather, Jenna, and Rachelle are really wonderful people 🙂

But I said yes to Ethnography Matters because I recognized that the space we were carving out was important because nobody was talking about and celebrating ethnographers who weren’t bound by the traditional boundaries of anthropology and sociology.  Most conversations about ethnography were taking place either inside industry doors, academic conferences or departmentx, or blogs that fell along industry or field boundaries.

We felt that ethnography should be understood by a wider audience of non-specialists.  At the same time, we recognized that ethnographers needed a space to talk about the new challenges and opportunities that digital tools posed as objects of study, as analytical tools, and as a medium for conducting fieldwork.

When I joined Ethnography Matters, I didn’t realize how important it would become for my own work.  I was in the middle of an 18-month fieldwork trip that was the last phase of my 7 years of fieldwork in China. I was feeling a bit isolated from other forms of ethnography as this was my longest stint of academic research.

Since my first post in October 2011, I’ve come to rely on Ethnography Matters as a place for me to be exposed to other ethnographers’ experiences.  I have learned so much from Heather, Rachelle, and Jenna over the last year.

Heather’s Wikipedia posts are always illuminating and her post on Coye Chesire’s seminar on trust is super helpful for my own research on online trust. Her interview with Stuart Geiger on the ethnography of robots really pushed me to think about ethnography in a whole different context, and even now I can’t totally wrap my mind around it – like really – ethnography on robots? Read More… Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary