Generic, flexible social media spaces such as Facebook and Twitter constitute an increasingly important element in our overall media repertoires. They provide a technological basis for instant and world-wide, ad hoc, many-to-many communication, and their effect on global communication patterns has been highlighted by events as diverse as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the British royal wedding in 2011. The short-messaging platform Twitter, for example, caters for uses ranging from interpersonal and quasi-private phatic exchanges between friends to what Alfred Hermida (2010) and Alex Burns (2010) have both described as ‘ambient journalism’: ad hoc new reporting and dissemination as major events break.
Many such uses have themselves emerged through ad hoc, user-driven processes: even standard Twitter conventions such as the @reply (to publicly address a fellow user) or the #hashtag (to collect related messages in an easily accessible space) are user inventions, in fact, and were incorporated into Twitter’s own infrastructure only subsequently. Innovations by the Twitter company itself, by contrast – such as the ‘retweet button’ or the revised Twitter user interface, for example – have been accepted by its user community with considerably more reluctance and resistance. This demonstrates the substantial potential of social, user-led innovation in social media spaces.
Such processes of user-led innovation, or produsage (Bruns, 2008), in social media spaces are at their most powerful during acute events: crises which demand a rapid response from participants. During the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the 2011 floods in Queensland, Australia, for example, social media platforms were used effectively to coordinate disaster responses and disseminate crucial information about current threats and recommended actions. This drew on a mixture of platforms, and rapidly incorporated additional tools as appropriate – for example by using the Ushahidi event mapping platform as a means of collating and sharing current emergency services warnings through a map-based interface. Such acute events, in other words, drive what can be considered to be a shared, user-led, rapid prototyping process which can lead to permanent further innovation.
Additionally, the technical affordances of social media platforms also provide researchers with an unprecedented opportunity to track such innovative, produsage processes in extraordinary detail as they happen, and to analyse them in close to real time. This paper will present outcomes from a large-scale, three-year research project tracking social innovation (especially on Twitter), providing both information on methodological approaches and results of an in-depth investigation of social media activities during acute events.