Visualizing Twitter Conversations – Twitwheel

I came back to work this week after a glorious 5 week holiday (the longest, and BEST, holiday I’ve ever taken) and have mostly dug out now from the backlog of emails, RSS feeds etc that piled up during that time.

One gem I discovered in the pile, via OLDaily, was a link to a new platform called Talkwheel. What I saw when I went to that website, a discussion platform similar to many microblogging systems that created a visualization of the conversations (and their depths/intensities) excited me. Not only have I had a long interest in visualization, it spoke to work I did very early on in my career of using the medicine wheel and talking stick as a method of facilitating online conversations.

However, when I tweeted about it I did so with a caveat:

While I loved the visualization, the idea of having to switch to a new platform did not appeal to me at all.

But, owing both to the power of open conversations and the canniness of the folks at Talkwheel, I quickly got a reply that I was underestimating the power of their platform:

Sure enough, after some back and forth, the pointed me to an example which is exactly the kind of thing that excites me, Twitwheel. This is an instance of the Talkwheel visualizer that has been customized to work with Twitter, and uses either a username or a search term as the seed for exploring conversations. As an example, here is a conversation that happened yesterday where I introduced David Gratton the project to Pat Lockely, who has been working on the Open Attribute plugin.

Perhaps there are other tools that already do this, but I haven’t come across them. Most of the twitter visualization stuff I’ve seen focuses on friend relationships or simply _that_ a tag was used, not that it was used in a conversation _between_ people. And what is exciting is that the TalkWheel folks, clearly Web 2.0-savvy, understand its value to existing conversations and platforms (but also have built their own, which in many cases in formal ed might be just what the doctor ordered given all the privacy concerns, etc.)

From a formal learning perspective, one of the pieces that is missing here is the ability to visualize the full set of pre-defined participants; like much of Web 2.0, this currently seems to be based on visualizing “presence,” not “absence.” By this I mean – I can see what conversations are happening, but what I can’t see is what conversations *aren’t* happening, or at least I can’t see this unless someone contributes at least 1 thing, and thus starts to show up on wheels. When part of your task, whether in a classroom or in a community, is to help foster connections, being able to see these absences is HUGELY useful. This is not a big shortcoming and something I could see being fairly easy to address; in the context of twitter it could be done by using a “list” as the seed for a wheel rather than an individual, that way the gaos between all members of a list become apparent very quickly.

Still, exciting to see tools like this emerge. Will look forward to playing with it more and seeing if there are ways to have it visualize Buddypress networks, Moodle and phpBB-style discussion forums. – SWL

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