Article Review: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience

Marwick, Alice E., and Danah Boyd. “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience.” New Media & Society 13.1 (10 July 2011): 114-133.

http://nms.sagepub.com.ezproxy.mnsu.edu/content/13/1/114.full.pdf+html (requires login)
Abstract:

Social media technologies collapse multiple audiences into single contexts, making it difficult for people to use the same techniques online that they do to handle multiplicity in face-to-face conversation. This article investigates how content producers navigate ‘imagined audiences’ on Twitter. We talked with participants who have different types of followings to understand their techniques, including targeting different audiences, concealing subjects, and maintaining authenticity. Some techniques of audience management resemble the practices of ‘micro-celebrity’ and personal branding, both strategic self-commodification. Our model of the networked audience assumes a many-to-many communication through which individuals conceptualize an imagined audience evoked through their tweets.

Research question(s)

  1. To what audiences do Twitter producers write?
  2. What strategies do Twitter producers use to effectively engage their followers?

Research methods

This study traced tweeted questions to their Twitter handle’s followers. They also traced their followers’ retweets of the questions, which reached an unidentified number of case subjects. Additionally, they sent the questions via @reply to:

  • Random Twitter users that were in the public timeline at the time of the study
  • 249 people in the 300 most-followed accounts
  • A subset of users with 1,000-15,000 followers.

Because of this methodology, there is no way to determine how many Twitter users saw the questions. However, 226 responses from 181 users were compiled for this study.

Results

There are two primary Twitter groups that responded to the questions: “regular” people with fewer followers and “micro-celebrities” who have many followers. The tweeting strategy for each group is different and is attributed to each group’s definition of “friend.” However, the ‘conceptualization” of a Twitter audience is not unique to either group, as each group has an ideal or imagined concept of who their friends (in the case of ‘regular’ people) or fans (for ‘micro-celebrities) were.

Regular people vs. Micro-celebrities

The results of the questions showed that regular people were most likely to describe their followers as ‘friends.’ Twitter, for them, is an extension of their current social network and their intended audience is their pre-existing network of friends. Moreover, some respondents were prone to describe their audience as “me” as a way to express their opinions in the way a social diary is used. However, this study was quick to point out that even though the “me” tweets may not recognize an audience, the tweets do not go into a void and as such the “me” group may be ignoring the existence of their actual audience.

The micro-celebrity group conceptualized their audience as fans or a community that they managed. This group recognized that a communication strategy is needed to effectively interact with and keep their followers.

Authenticity

The regular group desires to be authentic while the micro-celebrity group recognizes that appearing authentic is just as successful a strategy to engage their audience. Either way, being perceived as authentic is the goal. This is difficult to achieve on Twitter because users operate under one username, or one distinct Twitter personality and especially in the case of micro-celebrities, maintaining authenticity can be particularly tricky. This is because Twitter forms a “context collapse,” which confines an audience to one stream and thereby limits a Twitter producer from varying their self-presentation strategy. This phenomenon affects how both groups tweet by limiting their ability to interest all of their audience and by self-limiting their intended audience.

Audience

There are many conceptualized audiences: the ideal audience, the intended audience, the audience invoked, a perceived audience, an imagined audience, and an actual audience. The “networked audience” is used as an abstract to define the unidentifiable yet potential viewers that are connected by the network of followers within a social context.

Recognizing that one cannot identify the actual audience within a context-collapsed environment leads to the acknowledgement that tweets will reach a varied audience. For this reason, those Twitter producers who desire to maintain followers and promote self-commodification (or “personal branding”and typically by the micro-celebrities) will develop a Twitter strategy that ultimately limits their tweeting. Their own audience limits them—in this case, because of context collapse, the Twitter producer must write to the “most sensitive common denominator.” In essence, the context collapse creates the opposite of an ideal audience and actually limits what people write on Twitter.

Successful Twitter producers

Successful microbloggers manage to work within these constraints by balancing their perceived authenticity with their imagined audiences’ expectations. A strict adherence to a Twitter-producing strategy will help to accomplish this end.
One aspect of a successful strategy is to reveal personal information as a way to seem authentic as well as to mention outside interests that are relevant to the audiences’ demographics. Other key strategies for successful Twitter producing are interacting directly with followers while simultaneously appealing to a wide variety of audiences. This is achieved by actually limiting what is tweeted by maintaining a balanced personal to professional tweet ratio. However, an effective strategy would conceal this approach from the audience while the perception of authenticity is attempted. Ultimately, this method is insincere but if done well it can be difficult to distinguish as well as highly effective for growing followers and increasing a personal or professional brand.

Professional tweeting

Those who desire to use Twitter for self-commodification (personal branding) must undertake to write to their imagined audience, which consists of other professionals similar to themselves. This audience consists of the writer’s “professional environment” and as such, carries with it “potential professional costs” (p. 125).

Key takeaways

To establish a successful professional brand using Twitter, managing your message to the potential audience means writing to the imagined audience, which may include coworkers, friends, family, bosses, and fellow professionals. Similarly that there are strategies for effective blog posting, there are strategies for optimal Twitter use. These social networks influence reciprocity by forcing the content producer to be cognizant of his or her followers’ feedback by monitoring replies and integrating followers’ interests, which in turn dictates what content is created.

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