Prof Explores Vocabulary, Knowledge in Twitter Project

altered-pocket-dictionary02In her latest media project, EMAC associate professor xtine burrough used Twitter as a stage to explore the ideas of knowledge and the self.

“@IKnowTheseWords: A Twitterbot Textual Performance” details Burrough’s multi-year project aggregating and archiving all the words she knows in the form of tweets.

In an effort to quantify her existing vocabulary, Burrough programmed a twitterbot, an account that sends out automated posts, to tweet the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Day” daily. She’d then interact with the bot, informing the artificial user if the words were within her personal vocabulary.

Burrough said the project began in 2004 with a pocket dictionary and a bottle of Wite-Out. She would flip through the dictionary crossing out the words she didn’t know.

“I started the project in 2004 with the idea that I would transform a pocket dictionary into a uniquely personal artist book,” she said. “I had been thinking about how a person’s vocabulary is at once the tool she uses for self-expression and a cultural self-portrait. Put differently, a personal collection of words, or a wordhord, reflects the person activating and changing it. I wanted to see if I created a document of my wordhord I would be the same person between when I started the project and when it ended.”

Unsure of how to measure the project’s progress, Burrough stopped working in the dictionary a few months after started the project.

“The task of covering words was tedious and I couldn’t envision an end-game for the project,” she said. “What would happen to it? I was stuck on the conceptual problem of the work being such a static form of representation. So I put the project in a box, and that box has moved with me to every new apartment and house during the last 11 years. I found the dictionary again after I moved to Texas last summer.”

After attending a Feminist Maker Space session, led by Dr. Kim Knight and organized by the Feminist Research Collective at UT Dallas, Burrough wanted to revisit and improve her project by making it automated and accessible to the public.

“Rethinking this project as a continuous twitter feed, as a call and response between my bot and myself addressed the problem of the book as a static site of representation,” Burrough said. “Once I had found a way to rethink that missing element, the project came to life. In retrospect, a Twitterbot seems so obvious but I wouldn’t have though of it, or of revisiting this project, if I weren’t sitting in a Feminist Maker Space session wondering what I would do with a Twitterbot.”

The article is available online, and it was published by Persona Studies — a peer-reviewed journal that explores the construction of the public self through online culture, pop culture and everyday life.

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