Twitter and cognitive surplus, to create a better world?

On: October 12, 2010
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About Layla Van Daalen
I am MA New Media student of the University of Amsterdam. After I passed my study Communication Multimedia & Design, I worked for half a year as a graphic designer. 1 year ago I moved to Amsterdam to start my premaster at the university. I succesfully completed my premaster this year, and I’ll hope to complete my master at the end of this schoolyear (2010-2011). Beside my study I am still working as a graphic designer and beside my creative activities I am also interested in new media theories. In particulair I am interested in social media, design & interactive installations, locative media, user experience & behaviour.


I post this tweet on my twitteraccount last week. This question leads me to an overarching question:

Why Twitter? Why should we participate?

Twitter is a tool for microblogging, let see how it works:

Twitter can also be seen as an awareness system, a system around news and events. As Hermida says about Twitter:

“For this I have drawn from literature on new communications technologies in computer science to suggest that these broad, asynchronous, lightweight and always-on systems are enabling citizens to maintain a mental model of news and events around them, giving rise to awareness systems that paper describes as ambient journalism.”1

Twitter is a good tool for spreading the word and marketing, this is reflected on different websites and in research. I quote:

“One of the many ways that people use Twitter is for word-of-mouth marketing. If you want to spread the word about your product, service, brand or Web content, than Twitter can be a good place to start spreading the word.”2.

But why should I spread the word if no one follows me? Is it about quantity?

There is an option that you can buy followers, to increase your number of followers. It’s a new trend in ecommerce. But why? They are actually fake followers. I the I think the missing point here is interaction. Even though I can imagine that quantity is an aspect that can influence the tweets and behavior on twitter, is it really about quantity? I don’t think I can get as many followers as Justin Bieber, but I am believe in the fact that we can contribute and participate. We should have focus on an other aspect, quality.

We all have free time, we can all become a user on twitter. Where we should focus on: Is Twitter a tool
for using some cognitive surplus to create a better world?

Following the words of Clay Shirky in he’s Tedtalk about cognitive surplus:

“Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society. “3

For me the message is clear. We can do something together, if we use the surplus and participate.
And is seems that Twitter is a good tool, so that is why we need to focus on the architecture of Twitter.
Focus on the architecture of participation, as Tim O’reillysays:

“I’ve come to use the term “the architecture of participation” to describe the nature of systems that are designed for user contribution. (…)This architectural insight may actually be more central to the success of open source than the more frequently cited appeal to volunteerism. The architecture of Linux, the Internet, and the World Wide Web are such that users pursuing their own “selfish” interests build collective value as an automatic byproduct. In other words, these technologies demonstrate some of the same network effect as eBay and Napster, simply through the way that they have been designed.” 4

Cognitive surplus for consuming, producing and sharing
It is useful to research how Twitter can be used for consuming, producing and sharing, how we can do something valueble on Twitter. It is also necessary to research how users use Twitter today. Danah Boyd says about Twitter and their users:

“Like many emergent genres of social media – is structured around networks of people interacting with people they know or find interesting. Those who are truly performing to broad audiences (e.g., “celebs”, corporations, news entities, and high-profile blogger types) are consciously crafting consumable content that doesn’t require actually having an intimate engagement with the person to appreciate. Yet, the vast majority of Twitter users are there to maintain social relations, keep up with friends and acquaintances, follow high-profile users, and otherwise connect. It’s all about shared intimacy that is of no value to a third-party ear who doesn’t know the person babbling.”5

Users express themselves on twitter and sharing their intimacy life. Can we compare this to generosity?

“Generosity is the habit of giving freely without expecting anything in return. It can involve offering time, assets or talents to aid someone in need. Often equated with charity as a virtue, generosity is widely accepted in society as a desirable trait.”6

Twitter makes us Positive deviants? Positive deviants are

“People and Organisations who ..Challenge Thinking, Inspire Action and Create Conscious Change”7

There are challenges! We have to found out how we can use twitter as a tool for these challenges. And then… spread the word! On twitter?!


1. Hermida, A. 2010, ‘Twittering The News’, Journalism Practice,  [Electronic], vol. 4, Issue 3, pp. 297-308, Available: Communication and Mass Media Complete A52062645 [2010, October 5]
2. Webopedia. [2010, 11 October]
3. Tedtalk. [2010, 11 October]
4. O’Reilly, Tim. The Architecture of Participation June 2004
5. Boyd, Danah. Twitter: “pointless babble” or peripheral awareness + social grooming? [2009, 16 August]
6. Wikipedia. [2010, 11 October][
7. Positive Deviant. [2010, 11 October]

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