Software and the struggle to signify: theories, tools and techniques for reading Twitter- enabled communication during the 2011 UK Riots

Pond, P 2016, Software and the struggle to signify: theories, tools and techniques for reading Twitter- enabled communication during the 2011 UK Riots, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Media and Communication, RMIT University.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Software and the struggle to signify: theories, tools and techniques for reading Twitter- enabled communication during the 2011 UK Riots
Author(s) Pond, P
Year 2016
Abstract This thesis analyses communication on the micro-blogging service Twitter during the 2011 UK riots. It examines the complex constructive relationship between software and collective meaning-making during a period of acute social crisis and asks whether Twitter’s software-structures facilitated productive, democratic discourse.

While politicians rushed to impose ‘Victorian’ condemnation on the moral failings of rioters and their families (Bridges 2012) the broadcast and print media delivered commentary that was reductive, politicised and polemical (Kelsey 2012). These concerns, combined with an absence of rigorous, critical oversight, suggest a failing of the public sphere.

While some theorists have argued that Internet media should be capable of fulfilling a normative-democratic role (Kellner 2004), the temporality of Internet-enabled communication may undermine democratic expectations, because the rapidity of information flow stresses the deliberative period (Barber 2006, Hassan 2012, Buchstein 2002).

To examine this issue, the conceptual framework identifies several ‘logics’ by which the software-constructed temporality of communication should interact with the normative requirements of deliberative exchange. These logics frame the development of an empirical methodology.

Analysis of thematic content, deliberative potential and the constructive influence of Twitter time-space in the riot public produces the following key findings.

1. The most dominant thematic concerns reflect closely discourse in the wider mediasphere. Twitter users strive to explain the riots, seeking and analysing socio-structural causes

2. There is clear evidence of a relationship between software-structures and discourse. Twitter’s hashtag syntax supports thematically and deliberatively discreet discourse streams.

3. Deliberative tweets concentrate in the #UKRiots stream, suggesting that there may be discreet ‘hashtag cultures’ on Twitter – communities that are shaped by (or themselves shape) structural identifiers and are committed to a certain type of discourse.

4. While such hashtag cultures may suggest coordination, Twitter permits different ‘langues' that discourage deliberation. Analysis across the structural layers finds little evidence of ideal speech conditions.

5. The majority of tweets contain links to external media, and this has implications both for the deliberative potential of tweets. The logic of hyperlinking ‘defers’ meaning in complex ways. Locating and ‘restricting’ meaning is thus extremely difficult.

6. There is some evidence that the temporality of hashtag streams may reveal something about the dynamics of discourse coordination. As stream density increases, communicative reasoning may become more difficult.

These findings suggest some important conclusions about the democratic potential of Twitter discourse and some priorities for future research. Principal among these is a call for greater dialogue between the computing, statistical and social sciences.

Barber, Benjamin R. 2006. "How democratic are the new telecommunication technologies?" Second Conference on the Internet, law and politics: analysis and prospective study, Barcelona, Open University of Catalonia (UOC).

Bridges, Lee. 2012. "Four days in August: the UK riots." Race & Class 54 (1):1-12.

Buchstein, Hubertus. 2002. "Bytes that bite: the Internet and deliberative democracy." Constellations 4 (2):248-263.

Hassan, Robert. 2012. Not ready for democracy: social networking and the power of the people. The revolts of 2011 in a temporalized context. Arab Media & Society 15. Accessed 10 October 2014.

Kellner, Douglas. 2004. "9/11, spectacles of terror, and media manipulation: A critique of Jihadist and Bush media politics." Critical Discourse Studies 1 (1):41-64.

Kelsey, Darren. 2012. "Defining the ‘sick society’: Discourses of class and morality in British right- wing newspapers during the 2011 England riots." Capital & Class 39 (2):243-264.

Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Media and Communication
Keyword(s) Social media
Software studies
London riots
Big data
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Created: Wed, 13 Apr 2016, 09:20:22 EST by Denise Paciocco
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