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August 10, 2010 / Cameron Campbell

Twitter, tweeting, the fail whale and you.

In the last few months, there has been a lot of talk about Twitter, which seems to have hit its cultural pinnacle. Newscasts reference it, celebrities have flocked to it, and many large organizations have twitter accounts that they use in a variety of different ways.

Here’s a simple explanation of Twitter:

This video, while capturing the basics of twitter, partially misses the point. While it’s sure that people do use twitter to post random “I’m doing such and such” updates, the real power of twitter comes to a fore around twitter search, hashtags and events or ideas.

Within twitter you can search for terms that you’re interested in to see if anyone else is talking about it; the same interface shows you what’s “trending.” Trending happens when topics are being discussed by many twitter users. When the All Whites were playing in the World Cup or when the Haitian earthquake happened, for example, these topics trended in twitter.

A better, more precise way to follow events or activities on twitter is via hashtags, which are tags that enable you to organize your own tweets or find those of others on a specific topic easily. People generate their own (when I was riding the bus back and forth to Dunedin every weekend, all my random thoughts from the bus were tagged with #BusToDunedin), political events  (#auselection for example) wind up with hashtags and many conferences or other events publicise “official” hashtags (The DEANZ conference used #DEANZ2010, ASCILITE used #ascilite09). The beauty of conference hashtags is that you can follow what people are saying in the conference sessions, even if you’re not there. If you are going to a conference, using and searching for the official hashtag gives you an opportunity to meet other people who are going as well.

Here’s a video about twitter search and the use of hashtags:

If, at this point, I’ve still got your attention and you haven’t run away from this post shrieking, now might be a good time for you to go away and review some basic Twitter terms, I’ll wait right here for you.

Back? Right. So what does all of this have to do with education? Quite a lot. Or nothing at all. See, the thing about Twitter is that most of its conventions, beyond the syntax of a person’s name (@LincolnUniNZ, @LincolnULibrary or @FLILincolnUniNZ)  and how to direct message them (a private message between twitter users) were user generated. So, hashtags, how to retweet (the act of forwarding a tweet), how to reply to someone, as well as the concept of Follow Friday (#FF – a twitter tradition where one suggests interesting people for friends to follow) were all generated by users. This means that how you use it is limited to the tools and uses you or others build or dream up.

Speaking of tools, the fact that Twitter released an API means there are hundreds of other tools out there that allow you to manipulate and display data from twitter in any number of ways. (A great list of twitter based tools can be found here).

In education terms we often speak of the concept of “Communities of Practice“, as a social networking tool Twitter excels at helping you construct your very own distributed (globally) CoP based on your interests. By searching around for people to follow who are interested in the same things as you are you can get access to experts and fellow practitioners. In my life, Twitter often functions as a sort of autonomous research tool. People I follow recommend articles or sites that I would never have found on my own and vice-versa.

That said, rather than suggesting you go rushing off into the twittersphere potentially reinventing the wheel, there are a bunch of resources out there about using Twitter in, or as an extension of, the classroom.

Why not start by looking at this presentation?

Now, lest you think I’m some rabid Twitter booster who can’t  imagine a downside to its uses, let’s all take a deep breath and go and read Teaching With Twitter: Not for the Faint of Heart, a cautionary tale that was printed last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

An article from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Journal Sentinel looks at ways that professors in that part of the US are using Twitter in and out of the classroom as does Twitter goes to college from U.S. News & World Report.

These articles just begin to scratch the surface, though the 50 Ways To Use Twitter In The Classroom list goes a long way towards giving you other ideas. As well, danah boyd maintains a very useful and interesting Bibliography of Research on Twitter & Microblogging.

Twitter for Business (and perhaps research)

An interesting side effect of twitter has been its commercialisation.  Companies and other organisations realised that they were suddenly afforded a rare way to both monitor what people were saying about them and their services, as well as a way to talk to them and answer questions or criticisms. We’re lucky in that some of the best examples of this happen to be here in New Zealand: Vodafone, Air New Zealand, Whittakers, Sirocco Kakapo (the DOC spokesbird), TelcomNZ. Another person that comes up in any discussion of brands on twitter is the personal brand of Neemia Tialata.

Want to give it a go?

If you’re interested in setting up a Twitter account please feel to get in touch with me via email or by phone. I’d be happy to come and help you get started. Or, if you’re comfortable with setting it up yourself but are wondering who to follow why not start with @LincolnUniNZ@LincolnULibrary or @FLILincolnUniNZ (the Uni’s, the Library’s and FLI’s official Twitter accounts)?

If you’re wondering about following some other educators here’s a list of NZ educators on Twitter.

Oh, and if you’re thinking to yourself “That’s all good Cameron, but what about some fun or mb some information?”  You can follow the All Blacks, Black Caps, NZ Herald, TVNZ, or perhaps you can find someone interesting on this list. If you want to see how Twitter can be managed with a huge number of followers check out Stephen Fry or Roger Ebert (if you’re not familiar with him, Ebert has been a film critic in the US for years and years – a few years ago, due to cancer, he lost the ability to speak – Twitter has afforded him a new way to reach out to his audience). On a professorial front, Professor Snarky says the things about your students that you sometimes wish you could. PhD Comics lets you know when a new comic comes out. WeFollow is the biggest list of people on Twitter, divided up into different categories, it should be a first stop for anyone dipping their toes into the Twitter waters…

Oh, about the fail whale…

You can read all about it here

This is hardly an exhaustive (though it was exhausting) trip through what you can do with Twitter, but it should be enough to get you going.

All of the links in this post that are specific to education were suggested to me by Andrew Long  who is a Lecturer for the Department of Information Science in the School of Business at the University of Otago (follow him @socialspace).


One Comment

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  1. mauricefli / Aug 11 2010 1:00 pm

    Thanks Cameron, for an incisive intro. to Twittering. Nope I guess that should be ‘Tweeting’?

    I’ve had few goes myself but not done and hash tagging as yet, that and the trend stuff is clearly where I need to focus more attention.


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