Who Was the Experimenter in the Twitter Experiment?

A Story of Distraction and Revolt

Contributed by Elizabeth Losh UC San Diego
March 29, 2011
Lizlosh's picture

At two o’clock on January 27, 2011, the experiment began.  In an effort to get more of the two hundred plus enrolled students in my large lecture class participating in class discussion, I chose a hashtag on Twitter, #cat125, and invited a roomful of otherwise silent and passive UC San Diego seniors in the Culture, Art, and Technology program to tweet for thirty minutes and thus add their comments to a freeform evolving stream of text in the public record.  Two weeks earlier, I had posted the first message: “Soon the experiment begins #cat125.” 

In the days leading up to the experiment, I cheerfully projected the #cat125 Twitter feed in class and walked the undergraduate audience through Twitter’s basic lexicon of URL-shorteners, hashtags, and “@” call signs.  Fellow academics who had followed my fitfully energetic tweeting at conferences or professional conventions hailed the effort after my post, “I am showing my #cat125 class how to use Twitter now,” appeared on their news feeds for the service.  Nina Huntemann, an editor of a collection that had included my work, sent “a hello wave from Boston.”   Open publishing advocate Kathleen Fitzpatrick chimed in too:  “Hi, #cat125!”  Cheryl Ball at Illinois State observed that she would soon be doing the same with her “multimodal seminar students.”  Katherine Harris at San Jose State posted an exuberant “Well, hello everyone! We're listening; jump into the conversation at any time #cat125.”  Meanwhile students were tentatively testing the waters with first messages like this one: “@lizlosh this is my first time user twitter, and my first tweet ever. Hello #cat125.”  

Of course, despite these auspicious beginnings, I knew that pedagogical disaster was a distinct possibility.  Social media maven danah boyd has described her own Twitter debacle that took place during a talk in November of 2009 in which “outbursts and laughter” revealed that Twitter “had become the center of attention, not the speaker.”1 One of boyd’s online catcallers reflected later about his culpability in the event:

It seems that the more subtle the speaker’s point, the more impatient and nasty the audience became … The wall made a spectacle of the crowd’s impatience and anxiety feeding on the speaker’s inability to respond. That spectacle united us not as a single group receiving challenging ideas from a thoughtful orator but as quite separate individuals struggling to listen, read, respond, and make sense of the event.2

A few weeks after my own Twitter experiment seemed to fail I read a similarly remorseful account from journalist Nir Rosen. He had resigned from his fellowship at NYU in humiliation after tweeting sadistically about the assault of an Egyptian crowd upon CBS reporter Lara Logan.  In “How 480 Characters Unraveled My Career,” Rosen reiterates his apology, denies any misogyny on his own part, and expresses contempt for the “bizarre, voyeuristic Internet culture” in which “everybody in the mob is looking to get in on the next fight first, to be at the center of the thing that's happening, even if there's nothing really there.”3

Certainly, as students chose screen names, there were already signs that they wanted to remain anonymous and ironically distant from the proceedings: their online monikers included “cat125isthebest,” “IHeartCat125,” “CATmademetweet,” and “ChancellorFox” after the head of the university.  However, because witty, short-form communication that is heavy on humor and light on gravitas is the preferred vernacular, I lauded rather than chastised them for their inventiveness. 

Soon after the experiment commenced, multitasking and divided attention quickly became major themes in the Twitter stream.  One student admitted “I feel guilty to have made this twitter account during class … but I blame new media for my A.D.D.”  Others focused on their sensory perceptions of stimuli unrelated to the lecture with comments like “I just noticed all the flags on the ceiling” or “Who is eating tasty delicious smelling food?  What delicious vittles are you enjoying?”  During a class session devoted to disability videos on YouTube, even comments somewhat germane to the clips that were shown emphasized the students’ difficulties with sustained attention and engagement, particularly if the video timeline played for more than a few minutes.  Some credited their discomfort with the material as a reason to tune out.  As one student opined while a video created by an autistic person played, “i feel alienated when I was watching that video earlier today.  I had to stop it in the middle.” 

Many of these students were paying much more attention to the popularity metrics that drive social media platforms like Twitter than to the course’s content.  One wrote, “I wonder if we could actually get #cat125 to become a top trending topic.  that would be ridiculously fun.”  Another student bemoaned the fact that “clearly we aren’t tweeting enough if we aren’t even a top trending topic.”  Soon notices informed them that they had reached their collective goal and that #cat125 was trending in San Diego.      

Within minutes the students also made plans for coordinated counter-programming to my carefully orchestrated series of presentations about disability on YouTube in honor of Diversity Day on the campus.  First, there was the suggestion to all drop pencils at a given time.  Then, a particularly confident user of Twitter and other forms of social media gave a command that was retweeted throughout the room: “i say at 2:30 we all randomly start coughing … the proff isn’t tweeting so she won’t know whts going on hahaha.”  I had, in fact, seen the pencil drop tweet and was aware that there was dissatisfaction with both the class and the experiment being expressed in the room, but I had set a rule for nonintervention and was preoccupied with the special guest who had just arrived in the lecture hall, Professor Tom Humphries, Associate Director of the Education Studies program on my campus and co-author of the influential books Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988) and Inside Deaf Culture (2005).

Right on schedule at 2:30 the coughing began in the middle of a video created by a schizophrenic female journalist. Tweets such as “hahahah at the coughing,” “hehe,” and “halls anyone?” soon appeared with the #cat125 hashtag.  One student suggested that “We should ‘applaud’ in American Sign Language instead,” and another posted “Say when,” but the coughing and laughing continued until I announced the end of the use of laptops and other mobile devices and introduced the Professor Humphries to the group.  Among the final words registered in the stream as students were closing laptops and cellphones was the student who wrote this plaintive farewell: “I didn’t know what to say … #cat125 deleting account now…”  In expressing both her disapproval of the conduct of her classmates and her own form of ironic distance on the experiment, another wrote, “I remember that from eighth grade.  #cat125.  This is why we can’t have nice things!”

When I have told the story of the Twitter experiment and the coughing exploit that followed to my academic colleagues, I hear a lot of generalizations to explain the students’ seemingly callous behavior in front of both a guest (and his translator and his translator’s class of student-interpreters) and a deaf peer seated in the front row on a day designated for tolerance and understanding for the entire campus.  Faculty claim that such antics are symptomatic of a broader undermining of respect for knowledge among the so-called “digital generation” and a waning of the traditions of sustained attention once fostered by print culture.  Others credit the taunting to the numbing effect of communication at a distance without the social glue of face-to-face communication.  Some even suggest, in a live-by-the-sword/die-by-the-sword logic, all classes in and about the Internet will necessarily devolve in this way, so academic departments should think carefully before placing them on their schedules.

In contrast, many students saw revolution rather than devolution at work in recalling the events of the day and understood it as a manifestation of the power of self-organizing groups with distributed communication tools.   On the class blog a number of students made analogies between the coughing exploit orchestrated with Twitter and the activities of flash mobs using mobile devices to topple the regime in Egypt at about the same time.

I’m not sure I accept the easy analogy between radically different political and cultural contexts or the rhetoric of petty dictatorships, but I did get a number of very substantive suggestions from students drawing on examples that range from a Facebook course page4 to an episode of Gray’s Anatomy5 for ways that social media could have been used more effectively in my classroom.  Expressed in these postings is a desire for students’ common digital efforts to be directed toward specific and measurable learning goals rather than to the flash mob behavior celebrated by others.  Not all of these suggestions include an active role for the lead instructor.  So I’ve invited both undergraduate students and graduate teaching assistants to record their own impressions of the Twitter experiment and to add their own analysis to my account.   

  • 1. danah boyd, ‘Danah Boyd | Apophenia » Spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from My Perspective’ [accessed 1 March 2011].
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Nir Rosen, ‘How 480 Characters Unraveled My Career - Egyptian Protests - Salon.com’ [accessed 1 March 2011].
  • 4. ‘Facebook Lecture Vs Twitter Experiment | CAT 125’ [accessed 1 March 2011].
  • 5. ‘Dr. Tweeter | CAT 125’ [accessed 1 March 2011].