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My Actor-Network Paper & Slides at Social Media and Society 2015

I just returned from the Social Media and Society 2015 International Conference in Toronto, and wanted to bring together some of the element from my ongoing work with actor-network theory. My paper was entitled Just What Is Social in Social Media? An Actor-Network Critique of Twitter Agency and Assumptions. Here is a link to it (the slides are also on SlideShare) as a couple colleagues wanted to see them:

Some of the feedback I received in the room, as well as in the hallways after my session, was that many people did not have any familiarity with actor-network theory (ANT), and those who did (surprisingly half the room knew something about it already) had not seen it integrated into the social sciences. While I am not exactly a science and technology studies scholar, at least not at this moment, I find great implications for how we interact with one another while still accounting for the material assemblages (a bunch of things that work together for a certain time) related to social media and social networking.

I was asked for some accessible places to start for reading about actor-network theory, and have personally found these three works to be the most approachable as general starting points:

One suggestion, for those new to the area, don’t let the terms scare you. Postmodern thinkers often create a language to express their turning the world upside down to try to better understand things. Case in point, how many books are there on leadership and management? Right, tons of them, with new ones all the time.
Why is this the case? Most likely because even all that writing still does not capture the complexity of those areas. ANT takes the same approach, “but have you considered this?” while trying to understand elements of reality, otherwise known as elements of this network right here, right now.

Finally, in case the Sched summary of my work this vanishes, I am including it again, below, for potential future reference:


While social media includes the applications that support the creation and exchange of user generated and participatory content (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010), the focus is commonly on the presentation or actions of users, the networks created on the platforms, and what we can do to promote our various WIIFMs (What’s In It For Me). It is less studied from the perspective of the networks themselves, especially through the influence and role of the non-human elements. Through this inverted perspective much may be learned, especially involving simple assumptions about the role of agency, namely the power to act (Latour, 2013). It is this social aspect of social media where actor-network theory can be most usefully employed, as the agency of things themselves may frequently be overlooked (Adams & Thompson, 2011) when rushing to understand the black box of assumptions present in social media research and practice.


This theoretical study will explore a seven-part framework (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy, & Silvestre, 2011) of social media—identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups—through the lens of actor-network theory (ANT). A traditional human-centered study commonly fails to acknowledge the complexity and levels of agency that get black boxed as a frozen network elements (Walsham, 1997, p. 468), resulting in an oversimplification and blurring of networkability.


This study utilizes actor-network theory, a theory or methodological approach that focuses on continuously generated networks, webs of relations, where power can reside within any actor (or to be simpler, any person, place, or thing) who continuously participates in the connections themselves (Callon, 1986; Latour, 2007; Law, 2008). Using ANT, we will partner with the elements in social media (Thompson & Adams, 2013) to better understand the “impacts of digital engagements on processes of knowledge-making and interacting” (Fenwick, 2014, p. 2) and seek to answer the question, “Just what is social in social media?” Given the cornucopia of networks from which to choose, Twitter, due to its seeming simplicity, will be the material-semiotic focus of this 7-part actor-network inquiry where the “hows” of network formation channel new perspectives of our social interactions.


This work in process is ongoing, with explorations, examples, and network perspective of identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups through Twitter being the focus, via both human and non-human actors.


  • Adams, C. A., & Thompson, T. L. (2011). Interviewing objects: Including educational technologies as qualitative research participants. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 24(6), 733–750. doi:10.1080/09518398.2010.529849
  • Callon, M. (1986). Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay. In J. Law, Power, action and belief: A new sociology of knowledge (pp. 196–233). Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Fenwick, T. (2014). Social media, professionalism and higher education: a sociomaterial consideration. Studies in Higher Education, 1–14. doi:10.1080/03075079.2014.942275
  • Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons, 53(1), 59–68. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2009.09.003
  • Kietzmann, J. H., Hermkens, K., McCarthy, I. P., & Silvestre, B. S. (2011). Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media. Business Horizons, 54(3), 241–251. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.01.005
  • Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies), 1–312.
  • Latour, B. (2013). Biography of an inquiry: On a book about modes of existence. Social Studies of Science, 43(2), 287–301. doi:10.1177/0306312712470751
  • Law, J. (2008). Actor network theory and material semiotics. In B. S. Turner, The new Blackwell companion to social theory (3rd ed., pp. 141–158). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Thompson, T. L., & Adams, C. (2013). Speaking with things: encoded researchers, social data, and other posthuman concoctions. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 14(3), 342–361. doi:10.1080/1600910X.2013.838182
  • Walsham, G. (1997). Actor-network theory and is research: Current status and future prospects. In A. S. Lee, J. Liebenau, & J. I. DeGross, Information Systems and Qualitative Research (pp. 466–480). Boston, MA: Springer US. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-35309-8_23

I plan to continue this work, and am interested in any thoughts or suggestions!