Understanding Microblogs as Microworlds

On: October 11, 2008
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About Inge Ploum
- MA New Media @ University of Amsterdam - Research: mashing aesthetics and media philosophy to question every cultural object related to digital technology. Particular emphasis is placed on the construction of images of the future. - Spare Time: founder Science Denied (http://www.sciencedenied.net), independent film director/producer, graphical artist & musician 'Die Samplemännchen' & 'Guitar & the Melodies'


The evolution of blogging has introduced another breed of blogs: the microblog. The microblog is a type of blogging that allows users to write compact messages and publish them.  These synoptic messages mostly describe one’s current status within a limited amount of space by instant messaging, text messaging, mobile phones, e-mail, mp3 or the Web. Members may choose to make these messages public or make them available to a restricted group of friends (called ‘followers’). Several services latched on the growth of this mini-blog phenomenon; such as Twitter, Pownce, Tumblr, Jaiku, and MySay. In this article I’ll analyze the concept of microblogs as microworlds by focussing on certain microblogging properties. I will state that the microblog and microworld concepts have equivalent qualities, and that microblogging services could benefit from earlier executed microworld experiments.

Microblog versus Weblog
Microblogging tools facilitate the sharing of status messages either within a social network or publicly (Java & Song: 2007). These push-technology tools use a minimalist format to encourage lightweight interaction over the Web. Even though the microblog is seen as a subset from the weblog, both have distinctive characteristics.

Compared to regular blogs, microblogs have a limited amount of space per message (usually 140 characters). This means that the mode of communication has transformed from ‘conversation via essay’ to ‘conversation via abstract’. The user requirements for content generation are lowered, thereby increasing the interaction processes in terms of speed (messages are pushed to the user in real-time) and frequency of update. Because microblogs have lowered user requirements, the user is more likely to post several messages a day.

Another differing factor is the visibility of posts. In microblogging services, as well as most social networking sites, a user has the ability to allow other members to view his/her messages. For example in Twitter user X can allow another user to ‘follow’ him/her, but user X can also reject the other user. On the personal page of a user are both the persons ‘followed’ and the ‘followers’ of the user visible. A friendship or social relation can thus be reciprocated or one-way (Java & Song: 2007).

Microblogs also differ from traditional weblogs when it comes to identity searchability. In microblogging your feed (based on your online identity) is discovered at a specific domain or with a specific service. Therefore your identity can only be linked to other people inside that same domain or service.

Although the term microblog indicates that it’s part of the category ‘blog’ – a very small and personal weblog – microblogs do differ characteristically from blogs in their functional design and in the way that content is delivered.

The term ‘microworld’ literally means a tiny world in which a student can explore and discover facts that are true about that precise world. Microworlds shouldn’t be confused with simulations, because a microworld functions as a ‘real’ world (a copy of our physical world) and not simply as a simulation of another additional or imaginary world. Education scientist Lloyd Rieber defines microworlds as follows:

“An interactive, exploratory leanring environment of a small subset of a domain that is immediately understandable by a user and also intrinsically motivating to the student. A microworld can be changed and modified by the user in order to explore the domain and test hypotheses about the domain.” (Rieber, 2005: 564)

Rieber’s description accentuates the minimalist design of a microworld and the importance of active user agency. While the concept microworld is primarily used in didactical research, the term might be useful to understand microblogging in its social context.

Microworlds, a nascent of the constructivist learning theory, are defined in the interface between the human and the computer program (Edwards, 1995). Because there are different types of microworlds, it would be helpful to map a few generic properties. Microworlds are:
– Subject and domain specific
– Simple representations of reality
– Supposed to stimulate intrinsic motivation
– Immersive experiences
– Designed to give the user agency and the ablity to manipulate the content
In the following paragraph I’ll compare these properties with characteristics of microblogs in order to understand how the user interface might influence how microblogs are used.

First, I’ll dicuss the property ‘microblogs as simple representations of reality’. The minimalist design and simple functions of the user interface of microblogging services seem to correspond with this property. The limited amount of space per text as well as the simplification of social relations (relations are generally defined in phrases such as ‘follows’ and ‘being followed by’) illustrate how microblogs can be interpreted as simple representations of reality. This property is closely related to the second characteristic of microworlds: try to stimulate the intrinsic motivation of the user. The simple design of microblogs eases the cognitive load of the user, because less cognitive tasks are required from the user (Lajoie & Derry, 1993). For that reason users are more likely to use microblogs instead of ‘regular’ weblogs. The property of active user engagement also influences the intrinsic motivation of a user. In microblogs, as well as ‘regular’ weblogs, users are able to create their own content within the parameters of the microblogging service. The possibilities of active user engagement, however, are restricted to the code of the service used. This ‘restricted’ engagement favours easy-to-use functionalities (in other words transparency) over complex manipulative features (in other words reflexivity) to stimulate uncomplicated interactions between user and service.

Describing microblogs as being site- and domain specific is to some extent more problematic, because this involves looking at two perspectives: the domain and site. Looking at the domain of microblogs, it is indeed site-specific. A microblogging feed is only discovered ‘inside’ a particular domain or within a specific microblogging service. Subsequently, a narrower or more specified view on the blogosphere is created, while domain specific microblogging services limit the movements of its users with regard to making (new) social relationships and identity management and distribution. However, looking at where people microblog, there isn’t a confined space to be found; people are geographically distributed among different countries. This geographical distribution not only concerns the user’s physical location, but also the social networks people have created. Twitter users, for example, are globally distributed and their friendships may cross continental boundaries (Java & Song: 2007). This indicates that the topological and geographical structure of microblogging platforms is scattered across the world, and thus not site-specific. 

Another aspect that’s worth mentioning is how people use microblogging platforms; in other words, how content is created. In ‘Why We Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities’ Akshay Java and Xiaodan Song analyze the user intentions on Twitter. Their findings suggest that, although users may have multiple user intentions, four broad usage categories can be distinguished: daily chatter (largest and most common usage), conversations (21% of total usage), information sharing through URL’s (about 13% of total usage) and reporting news (Java & Song: 2007). Java and Song’s study reveals that people have different motivations and utilities for using microblogging platform. For example, a single user may have multiple intentions (he/she talks about the wheater and posts interesting URL’s) and as a result will create diverse content. The ability of users to generate their own content obstructs the microworld property of ‘specific-ness’. Instead of creating locatized content, users create diversified and heterogeneous content.

Finally, the microworld property: immersive experiences. From a constructionist point of view this means that the user is actively engaged in the content generation process. This perspective, however, doesn’t acknowledge the active role of technologies in this process. In the case of microblogging experiences, the user activity is not only dependent upon the amount of social relationships, but the activity is also shaped by the microblogging technology itself. The users as well as the technologies are actively engaged in the creation of user experiences. The immersive-ness of experiences is therefore dependent upon how users and their communities put microblogs into use and how microblog services are designed. Because microblogging is a relatively new phenomenon, not much research (to my knowledge) has been done on mapping personal user experiences within certain microblogging services. This kind of research could indicate how user experiences are created in the reciprocal dialogue between user and technology, and how designs influence the experience of usage.

Microblog as Microworld: the Verdict
This article has revealed that the terms microblog and microblogging are problematic when it comes to understanding the social context of this phenomenon. The idiom microblogging indicates that it’s similar to regular blogging and that the main difference between these two blogging-types lies in the size of the blogposts. Size, on the other hand, isn’t the only difference between micrblogs and ‘regular’weblogs. Visibility as well as domain/service specificity are both equally important differences.

By comparing microblogging with the concept microworld, I’ve tried to uncover the social contexts in which microblogging takes place. This comparison demonstrates that both concepts share similarities in terms of design and format. Based on this analysis, I believe that the microblogging practice could be more thoroughly understood if we place microblogs in line with microworlds. In addition, microblogging services could benefit from the best practices of microworld experiments in order to understand how people use microblogging tools.


– Edwards, L.D. (1995). ‘Microworlds as representations’. In: A.A. diSessa, C. Hoyles, R.
Noss & L.D. Edwards (eds.), Computers and exploratory learning. New York: Springer, p. 127-154.
– Java, A. & X. Song (2007). ‘Why We Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities’. Retrieved from: http://ebiquity.umbc.edu/paper/html/id/367/Why-We-Twitter-Understanding-Microblogging-Usage-and-Communities (7-10-2008)
– Lajoie, S.P. & S.J. Derry (1993). Computers as cognitive tools. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p. 261-263.
– Rieber, L.P. (2005). ‘Multimedia Learning in Games, Simulations, and Microworlds’. In
Mayer (eds.): The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, p. 549-567.

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