Why use Twitter?
I get asked this frequently when I’m on the road, meeting with teachers and administrators.
On first blush, it seems like a ridiculous waste of time. “Micro-blogging,” a term coined to describe the process of posting in 140 character blasts, invites ridicule: I know, because I made fun of the process for two years before I thought it might be more productive for me to understand its appeal.
The Dumb Stuff
Before I get to what I think Twitter is good for, let me say that I remain unconvinced that having students complete assignments that involve tweeting is a good use of time. What would George Washington have tweeted while crossing the Delaware? Really?
Similarly, the thumb remains turned down on the value of having students tweet in class. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a wet blanket. When I’ve dipped in to see what folks in the audience are tweeting in real time in response to what is being said at the front of the room, I’ve enjoyed being swept along by the snarky asides and the carping. In other words, I’m not against comic relief. But, when I’m teaching, I actually want to have my students’ attention and I want them sharing their responses–snarky ones and carping ones included–out loud with everyone else in the room.
The Good Stuff
It is certainly the case that the world is full of people who are tweeting about the sandwich they just ate and how much they love (or hate) Justin Beiber. But it is also the case that there are thinking people who use this resource to share information: there’s not much that can be said within the 140 character limit (spaces included) for each tweet , but that’s actually plenty of room for pointing others to a link to breaking news or a new development in an area of interest.
So, think of Twitter as a device for pointing.
And then think of the people you follow on Twitter as talented, tireless research assistants who ask nothing from you. You don’t have to respond to their tweets. You don’t have to tweet yourself. You don’t even have to check in regularly. But, when you’re ready, the tweets of the people you’re following will be out there waiting for you.
Though this is sure to seem like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, I went out to see what the folks I follow were up to so I could provide an example here and, implausibly, this was in my stream:
Tweeting about Twitter’s Value for Scholarship
So, I’m sitting here thinking about Twitter and Cathy Davidson, who I’ve never met, but who I follow on Twitter, is “retweeting” tweets from her own stream–so that the people who follow her will be aware of these resources on the value of Twitter for research.
The hashtags (#) make sure that these tweets end up in the twitter streams of everyone who is following the term after the hashtag. So, followers of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) will receive TondaBone’s tweet, as will those who follow the terms “highered” and “research.”
Now the example I’ve provided is insanely self-referential and might give the impression that Twitter is good for those who are doing research on Twitter or are tech geeks, but what if your interests are less contemporary, say the Baroque period? Turns out the word “baroque” is a favorite of tweeters the world over. Halfway down, there’s this:
Not scholarly enough?
I typed in “baroque history” and learned that Samuel Pepys has a Twitter account!
Follow the link and you’re taken to a curated site that has been posting diary entries from Pepys’ diaries daily since January 1st, 2003.
What an amazing teaching resource!
The Riskier Bit: Tweeting
I’ve written at length elsewhere on the perils of tweeting (i.e., The Tweet Heard ‘Round the World and Tweeting Your Crimes). And I have learned firsthand that it’s not a good idea to try to have a discussion via tweet: nuance goes out the window when you’ve only got 140 characters with which to work.
Whatever you tweet is there for the whole world to see. And, even if you delete it afterwards, the tweets remain on the Twitter servers; they may show up in searches even after they’ve been deleted; someone who is following you may have saved the tweet. So, as with everything on the Web, the safest approach is to assume that anything you post will be available to every living person on the earth for all eternity.
With those warnings, you’re doubtless wondering: why bother posting?
Well, posting is a way of participating in the research communities that interest you. Those posts are pretty low risk: if you point folks to interesting material, they may point others to that same material and your involvement in whatever loosely-affiliated research community you’ve joined may increase. And if you point folks in less productive directions, no one’s going to hunt you down. We’re just talking about clicking on links here.
The other reason to tweet is to draw people to your own research. That’s both riskier and, for most teachers and scholars, a harder corner to turn. One risk is that you point and no one comes. But this is a risk that comes with all publishing: you move your work out into a world of potential readers and when there is no response that is painful. The other risk is actually more of a certainty–namely, that you’ll be seen as promoting your own work, which is likely to feel unseemly.
Well, the conventional story about life in the world of ideas is that the work is selfless and that the best work rises of its own accord. You submit your work to a journal or a press for consideration; it is judged impartially by your peers; if accepted, it is moved into the world and promoted by others.
Tweeting about your own work means openly taking responsibility for promoting your research, your writing, your teaching–whatever aspect of your professional life you’re trying to get others to see.
One way to think of this is as digital self-curation: you are the curator of your professional life as it is preserved online. Curation brings with it the visions of multi-chambered spaces: the library; the gallery; the reading room; the lecture hall; the garden; the studio. (It needn’t, in other words, simply be the Hall of Mirrors, say, or the Center for Self-Aggradizement.)
I’ll write more about the promise and the perils of self-curation in the next lesson.