Twitter: A Tool for Academia to Connect, Share, and Grow Relationships
Digital Media Convergence
COMM 563 SP09
Twitter allows individuals to send out messages to followers as well as the public about any topic, without editing, complete with what a power user of the system named Andrew Korf calls “ambient intimacy” or “to follow or be somewhat intimate with people without needing to directly engage them” (Salas, 2009). It is a very direct way to broadcast, relatively easy to do (comparative even to blogs), and allows for an asynchronous audience and interaction (Siegel, 2007). It allows for the following of others in the thousands and the ability to be followed by thousands (Johnson-Elie, 2009). As a result, it has the potential for greatness as a mass communication tool, as well as a one-to-one communication, often simultaneously (Johnson-Elie, 2009). While it was first envisioned as a fun way to keep in touch with friends, its ability to meet much more serious needs is being quickly realized (Shropshire, 2009; Antlfinger, 2009). Given the right context, training, and support, it can transform the ways that organizations, businesses, and communities communicate (Robinson, 2009; Ferak, 2009; Antlfinger, 2009). I’ll demonstrate in this paper that Twitter is a yet-undiscovered powerful communication tool for academic staff, faculty and students to connect, share, and grow relationships.
Twitter is a system by which one can send 140 character messages by way of web sites, phones using Short Messaging System (SMS), or bridged systems, such as email (Johnson-Elie, 2008). The 140 character limit is one that appears because of SMS’s precedent limitation of the same number, and is one of the endearing quirks of the system, which allows phones to send and recieve messages over a commonly available system (Conan, 2009). Twitter is comprised entirely of status updates, where people post, or tweet, about what they are doing, thinking, eating, experiencing, or wanting (Bennet, 2009), however, given that you can trigger tweets from data based events, it can even be used to let plants tweet when they need more water subtly or urgently (Ahmed, 2008). An example of a hman tweet might be “Writing a paper for COMM 563 about Twitter” while another might be “On my way to the hospital for baby Jim’s arrival” (Shropshire, 2009). It’s broadcasting worldwide, in real time, whatever you have to say, as long as it’s under 140 characters per tweet (Siegel, 2007). Following is a way of showing that you like someone’s tweets, profile, ideas, or product (Bennet, 2009). You follow by clicking a button that says ‘follow’ on another’s profile, which you find at http://www.twitter.com/username, where username is that user’s chosen name. Very often that username is expressed as @username. On Twitter, I’m known as @lemasney. Once you follow me, you see all of my tweets as part of a default stream of tweets from people you follow (Bennet, 2009).
I found a great deal of relevant and recent literature talking not only about Twitter itself, but very specifically about how it’s being used by organizations to communicate effectively with stakeholders and constituents, though I found that studies and literature on the specific use of Twitter by academic organizations other than Libraries to be lacking. I’ll focus on six organizational use articles here, but please refer to the references section for more articles on effective uses of Twitter for sociological purposes.
Sarah Milstein writes in Twitter FOR Libraries (and Librarians) (2009) about how Libraries are sharing news that patrons want. They help followers discover events such as readings, lectures and book sales. They tweet about new resources and changes in hours. They give tips and tricks on how to find or access information in the Library’s systems. They link to interesting Library or literacy related news stories, or even new posts to their own site.
Milstein argues that since patrons are already using the system, that it provides one more point of contact with patrons. At just a few sentences a day, it is not much of an additional task for librarians to tweet (2009). She reminds us that while the core use of Twitter is as conversation, many libraries use it primarily as a broadcast mechanism, and reminds libraries to keep the conversational aspect in mind by asking followers questions, answering queries from followers, and making deeper connections through interaction (2009).
The article discusses many other ways in which libraries are using Twitter to communicate announcements, collection additions, events, observations, editorial, humor, and laurels such as recently acquired awards. These kinds of tweets go beyond advertising to start conversations about the topics, and potentially deepen connections with patrons (Milstein, 2009).
In Anoka gives Twitter a Try, Alex Robinson (2009) talks about a county that has begun using Twitter to communicate with its residents an other stakeholders. The article discusses how tweeting about county traffic, construction, accidents, and lane closures in order to inform and protect constituents can help to develop deeper relationships with followers, provide service, and create value for Twitter followers.
Martha Weaver, the county’s public information officer, currently uses the system to broadcast information about park and library events. She foresees using the system to tweet about police emergencies, such as kidnappings or robberies (Robinson, 2009).
Robinson notes that because the system is free, and requires no special hardware or software aside from a phone, that there is a low threshold to participation. However, because of Twitter’s reputation as an illegitimate source of information, Weaver has been ridiculed by some for trying to use the service in a legitimate way, despite its potential (2009).
Another civil Twitter account is documented in Ferak’s City of Papillion joins the Twitter Movement (2009). The City of Papillion advertises attractions, events, and also reminds city residents about registration for various upcoming opportunities. The city expects great growth in their followership as the word spreads about their account’s existence. They want to use the account to keep constituents informed about community events and local government. They see it as a way to give more people an opportunity to get their messages.
Police department use of Twitter is documented in Carrie Antlfinger’s Police forces all a-Twitter to get the word out. An example of a police tweet is “Latest homicide in the city is NOT a random act. Male, 33, shot in 1500 block N. 39. More details as we have them (2009).” There is a danger in this kind of official use of an informal tool, in that anyone can sign up as “Austin PD” and stick an official city seal on their account (2009). Other police uses for Twitter are to alert people to traffic disruptions, explain police presence in neighborhoods, or offer crime prevention tips. Some tweet about bomb scares, wildfires, lockdowns, or evacuations (2009). Police cite the same reasons that these other organizations are using the system: They are trying to connect with people where they already are.
Sports teams are also using Twitter to connect with fans, as explained in Tatalay’s Sports World Embracing Twitter (2009). Sports teams allow follower fans to get score updates, stadium parking tips, injury news, ticket sales numbers, last minute promotions, and free gifts. I see immediate connections and parallels to the ways in which these methods could be used for academic purposes, especially in regards to event tickets, text book sales, parking lot updates, and faculty sick day tweets.
As a final entry in this fun if not thorough literary review, we look at a food establishment’s use of Twitter. Raasch explains in Local restaurant’s ‘Twitter Tuesday’ draws social networking fans (2008) how by advertising 25% off meals on Twitter Tuesday that they are connecting with customers, giving them something extra for using the system, and rewarding followership with a monetary reward. It is not very clearly stated in the article, but one can assume that the restaurant tweets out a catchphrase in order to get 25% off their meal. Those who follow on Twitter get the discount, while those who don’t pay an extra 25% for their meal.
Given the Literary Review, I wanted to ask some questions that I think are important, but not addressed in the literature. I also wanted to ask questions that I could answer by personal research or by secondary research, since primary longitudinal or survey based research was impossible here.
Question one: Can Twitter be used to follow a select group of people, such as members of a particular University? This is a concern because the Public Timeline (a list of everyone’s tweets) is wild with activity from everyone, which can be counterproductive if you’re only looking for things regarding your constituents. Since Twitter’s Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are open and publically available, better tools (than the website itself) can be built by developers in order to interact with the system (Silverman, 2009).
TweetDeck, one of these third party tools, makes for better Twitter management, because it allows for the management of groups of tweeters (by school groups, classes, or cohorts, for example) as well as filtering of streams of tweets by keywords or communicated hashtags. For example, we all might all agree (as a result of concentrated communication to do so) as members of a Yourtown University to add the hashtag “#yourtownu” to our tweets in order to allow people to follow conversations that concern Yourtown University. If we want to follow tweets of users who used #yourtownu all the time, we might create groups in TweetDeck based on that hashtag, so that all Yourtown University tweets show up in a single stream.
Question two: How might Twitter make for an effective classroom tool? There are situations in the classroom where you might want to poll the students in order to discover what the general feeling is towards a question, such as “Is A or B the correct answer?” or “What was the way that the main character died?” in order to do a quick assessment of understanding. With Twitter, everyone could answer simultaneously, and you could get a real-time assessment of understanding. There are even tools for doing these kinds of Twitter based assessments, such as the one found at http://twtpoll.com in which you can create the question and answers, then tweet the link to the poll.
Given the hashtag methodology on Twitter, you could easily follow a class discussion by asking students to use a common hashtag related to the class when tweeting about class topics. This class might have used #comm563. For instance, I might tweet tonight that I’m “finishing up my final paper of the semester – yay #comm563 #yourtownu09” in order to keep both classmates, teachers, and cohorts informed of my progress. With Twitter, I can commit to continuous distant learning through the sharing of links, reference material, and current related topics as either student or teacher.
Question three: How might twitter make for an effective student services tool? Student Financial Services could tweet about deadlines and opportunities in addition to other communications like some of the other organizations we read about in the literature. Career services could tweet about upcoming resume and etiquette events. Campus activities could remind students to offer suggestions for movies, outings, and parties. Academic Departments could tweet about the availability of electronic registration for their most popular classes as soon as they become available.
Twitter works best when it is used to start or continue a conversation (Milstein, 2009), and I see it as a way to have a conversation about campus and institutional culture (Milstein, 2009). One of the cultural phenomenons at Yourtown University, let’s say, is that on Mondays everyone wears Maroon as a way of celebrating the school color, and the way that this translates to Twitter is that on Mondays, Yourtown University Tweeters might tweet what they love about the University and add the hashtag #maroonmondays (Raasch, 2008). Baker (2008) tells us of a third party Twitter based site called twitstori.com in which the public timetine is filtered to show only what people are wishing, feeling, and thinking. This could easily be modified to show only respondents from a particular university, especially if they are using hashtags in conjunction with the phrase “I feel.” (Baker, 2008)
Twitter is bottom-up media in that it is participated in by anyone who meets the minimum technology of inclusion, a phone or an internet connection (Siegel, 2007). The numbers of people using Twitter to add to the collective conversation is staggering. A series of Pew surveys from February 2008 showed that 11% of online adults used Twitter and similar services, up from 9% in November 2007, up from 6% in May of 2007 (Horowitz, 2009). $15 to $20 million was raised in capital for the company in 2008 (Baker, 2008) and apparently $500 million was offered by Facebook, a rival social network, and was turned down (Johnson-Elie, 2008). In 2008, Baker found that “estimates for the Twittering masses range between half a million and one million active users” (2008). Topper reports that “according to Nielsen Online, Twitter recorded 2.3 million visitors in August 2008 in the U.S., an increase of 422% from the same period in 2007” (2009). Since all of those people are adding their own small bits of conversation, we can clearly see this as consumer driven, bottom-up, social media, as opposed to monolithic, top-down, conglomerate driven media.
Because of its search tools, filtering capabilities, grouping and hashtags, and 3rd party information gathering tools, Twitter is a prime example of a way to tap into collective intelligence. If we can learn to use tools like Tweetdeck, Twitscoop, Twistori, and http://search.twitter.com effectively, we can begin to determine answers to questions by thousands of people who didn’t even necessarily hear the question (Milstein, 2009). If we want to know what people are wishing, thinking, feeling, we can use tools like Twistori which are already filtering for those phrases (Baker, 2008). If we want to know what the most popular food is for dinner, we might do a search on Twitter for the phrase “for dinner tonight” or on the hashtag #dinner. As a result, we’ll likely see a stream of tweets about what people are thinking about having for dinner, with the potential bonus of connecting with those people to get more information, like recipes, cooking methods, restaurant suggestions, or favorite dishes (Milstein, 2009; Baker, 2008).
Twitter exemplifies the glitch aesthetic in that the tweets themselves often take on a broken, condensed, and illiterate look in order to meet the needs of the 140 character limit, while still conveying a great deal of information. There is also a great difference between the beauty of the content of the message and the way in which it’s delivered. For instance, I might be limited to the 140 characters “rly njoyd nite out w/ gr8 frenz in Ytown tvrn go2chkthe pix http://snip.it/gfhr #yourtownu #maroonmonday lets do it agin asap plz chezbrgrs” but this would translate to “I really enjoyed the night out last night with my great friends in Yourtown Tavern. Please go take a look at the pictures I took available at http://myphotosite.com/long/url/needs/shortening/pictures.html. I go to Yourtown University, and I’m very proud of it. Let’s all do it again very soon, please. Next time we’ll have cheeseburgers!”. One appears more elegant than the other, but the content of the message is interchangeable.
Because Twitter is able to be interfaced with from phones, internet web sites, and other methods, it gives me flexibility with which to interact with it. Because the system allows me to send people to text, photos, videos and other media, it gives me flexibility with regards to the kinds of media I share. Because it allows me to connect, share, interact, and respond to others, it offers me flexibility in my communication needs. Because it allows for self-publishing and the selective collection of others’ publication, it offers me the flexibility of production and consumption of media. Because it has technology, social, industrial, and production layers, it offers me flexibility in regards to the ways in which I connect with others. It is an ideal exemplar of the concept of convergence.
Twitter is a not yet fully discovered tool for making “ambient intimacy” connections in academic circles outside those of cohorts, friends, and classmates (Salas, 2009). The no-cost entry, ease of use, and casual methodology are welcoming to all levels of technology user. It allows for an effective broadcast of ideas into a public stream of consciousness which can be filtered, searched, and analyzed for relevant content.
Libraries are using Twitter to connect and converse with patrons. Counties and cities are connecting with their residents, announcing events, sharing information. Police departments are making the public aware of threats, reminding parents of best practices in safety, and relaying traffic information. Sports teams are connecting with fans, sharing scores, injury updates, and other news.
How will academia begin using this tool to connect students, parents, administrators, staffers, community representatives, event planners, technology workers and other higher education stakeholders. We begin by signing up, by not being fearful of the unknown and unwritten rules. We begin sharing what we love about our piece and place of academia. We begin to build our vocabulary, hashtag by hashtag and follow by follow. We retweet the best parts, share links to concept related sites, tweet photos of our athletes winning and our students succeeding. We take our strategic plans, community values statements and best outcomes and share them with the world, 140 characters at a time.
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