Twitter icebreaker challenge

Simon Usherwood recently posted about the Twitter Communication Game he used at the Active Learning in Political Science workshop (sadly, I didn’t attend). This came just in time for me try with my Basic Political Institutions course, one-half of the introduction to Political Science courses we offer at Texas State University (the other focuses on theories as opposed to institutions). You can use this Twitter icebreaker in a variety of discussions, including politics, communication, geography, social media, and others.

Twitter icebreaker: the game

In the game each participant—twelve students plus me—has, in the classroom, an Internet-able device and a slip of paper with two tasks:

  1. Find and follow everyone without the benefit of any other form of communication (e.g. talking, notes, email). This immediately generates a sense of isolation and presents a problem-solving challenge: how do you find others when you have no common reference?
  2. Given a unique location in the world and resources (everyone has their clothes and device, but some have boarding passes, tickets, a car, or some determined amount of money that ranges from $100 to $5000), arrange a meeting time and location for everyone. Now, how do you coordinate in a leaderless setting where each individual has unique constraints?

Ultimately, we managed to find everyone after about a half hour, but in the remaining half hour made little real progress toward meeting up (see the Storify below). Afterward, we used the last ten minutes or so to introduce the four basic problems of Twitter politics, which happen to be common across all politics:

  • coordination: How do we align our strategies?
  • distribution: How do we negotiate our constraints and divide our costs and benefits?
  • monitoring: How do we ensure each of us upholds her commitments?
  • sanctioning: How do we deter not upholding commitments?

This leads to the collective action problem, whereby the lack of an enforcer allows for free-riding, which each individual chooses over participation, so nothing actually gets done, despite everyone’s preference for something to get done. From there, we can move in many directions toward Twitter icebreaker solutions to these problems.1

The game appealed to me because Twitter, and therefore the Twitter icebreaker, has such an apolitical structure. No one, including me, was in charge. It approximates a state of nature (whether you view it as more Hobbesian, Lockean, Rousseauan, or otherwise is up to you) well, in that no prior order exists, and if it does come about, it comes about as the result of the individuals participating making it happen,whether that involves someone taking over or a democratic process. What better way to begin thinking about basic political institutions?

Extending the Twitter icebreaker

Of course, this would also be fun to use with other subjects:

  • communication, especially if participants spoke different languages,
  • geography, as you can assign participants to anywhere in the world, and
  • social media, obviously.

  1. We can then introduce the flip side of this problem—the principal–agent problem—when we (society, the principal) institute the Leviathan, or a political leader (the agent): how do we ensure that individual, with the advantages afforded to political leaders, upholds her obligations? ↩︎

Jeremy L. Wells

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