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1.5 Community norms

Described image
Figure 5 Hashtag

Three key features of Twitter demonstrate how an open approach has allowed community norms to emerge. The first is the convention of putting an @ sign in front of a person's Twitter ID to send them a reply (e.g. @mweller). This was a user convention first of all, so it would designate that a particular tweet was for the attention of a particular user. As Twitter developed it became a standard convention, and then incorporated into the software, so now users can see all replies to them listed separately. The @ reply rule grew out of the email naming convention but has almost become synonymous with Twitter now.

The second convention was the use of hashtags to define a particular comment which could be grouped together. The use of the # was proposed by Chris Messina in a tweet: ‘how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?’ Hashtags can be seen as metadata, describing the content of a tweet. They became relevant as the use of search on Twitter grew. People could search on a hashtag and thus gather all of the tweets on a particular topic. This was seized on by conferences, so all the delegates at a conference would agree to use a hashtag, and later conference organisers began specifying an official hashtag. Search was originally performed by a third-party service (using the open API), but in July 2008, Twitter bought Summize, the most popular Twitter search tool. Hashtags could now be incorporated into standard Twitter practice, and ‘trending’ became a relevant term as topics grew on Twitter, often denoted by a hashtag. Apparently the Twitter team initially rejected hashtags as ‘too nerdy’ (Gannes, 2010), but their simple, and unregulated, creation has allowed them to flourish.

Hashtags can now be used as the means to define a community, particularly around an event, course or topic. The open data approach of Twitter means that these can in turn be analysed to reveal connections between members, subjects of discussion, locations and prominent members (e.g. Hirst, 2010). As well as a useful means of categorising tweets, hashtags are now so ingrained in practice that they form a part of humour on Twitter, with people often creating ‘mock’ hashtags (although there are no official hashtags) as an ironic counterpoint.

The third norm to emerge is that of the retweet. This is the practice of passing on someone's tweet. Originally, this was achieved by copying and pasting the tweet and adding RT and the user's ID at the start. Boyd, Golder and Lotan (2010) identify the following motivations for retweeting:

  • to amplify or spread tweets to new audiences;
  • to entertain or inform a specific audience, or as an act of curation;
  • to comment on someone's tweet by retweeting and adding new content, often to begin a conversation;
  • to make one's presence as a listener visible;
  • to publicly agree with someone;
  • to validate others’ thoughts;
  • as an act of friendship, loyalty or homage by drawing attention, sometimes via a retweet request;
  • to recognise or refer to less popular people or less visible content;
  • for self-gain, either to gain followers or reciprocity from more visible participants; and
  • to save tweets for future personal access.

As with the other community behaviours, the retweet became enshrined in code, when in late 2009 Twitter implemented a retweet function on its site. This allowed users to easily retweet a message by simply clicking a button, without the need for copy and paste, but some of the subtlety as to how it appears in timelines was lost (it is shown coming from the originator and not the retweeter).

What these three examples demonstrate is that the community has evolved over time, suggesting, experimenting and then adopting norms of behaviour – the ‘stickiness’ we saw with blog culture. Once it has become established, and proven to add value, Twitter has then moved to implement it in code to make it easier and also to further spread its use. It has not imposed the practice from the start, and sought to define how users will interact, which has often been the case with software development; instead it has allowed the community itself to develop its own norms.