Advice on introducing Twitter to academics

Twitter has a definite image problem. It first penetrated the public consciousness in a way which has left it defined by celebrities and, particularly for academics, this is unattractive. If you want to persuade academics to use it, it’s important to illustrate that the academic twittersphere (I hate the term but have yet to come across a better one) has some quite specific characteristics.

Perhaps by demonstrating some of the varied kinds of high-quality interaction you get on there e.g. #phdchat discussions, the feeds of high profile academics who are engaged users, the possibility for crowd-sourcing. 

It’s difficult to convey the point of Twitter. Partly this is a result of the inadequacy of ‘micro-blogging’ as a concept: it doesn’t get across what such a service is, how it can be used or what value these uses have. If you want to persuade academics to use it, your account has to be framed in practical terms. However this is difficult because much of the terminology, interface and minutiae of Twitter are inherently confusing and probably always will be.

Therefore it’s important to convey that you really do have to try it properly (i.e. fill out your profile, add a picture, find relevant people to follow, have some conversations, explore a hashtag and do some retweeting) before you’re in a position to make an informed decision. They may subsequently decide it’s not for them but it’s important to get across that everyone finds it quite bewildering from the outside or when they first sign up. Hence the prevalence of the “I’m not sure what the point of Twitter is” opening tweet. 

The steep learning curve isn’t a very attractive proposition to academics.

Hence as well as being framed by examples of high-quality intellectual interaction, sessions should be framed by an account of the different uses to which you can put Twitter and how these fit into, as well as enhance, existing aspects of academic practice e.g. connecting at conferences, promoting your work. People just aren’t going to be bothered to persist with a slightly bewildering service unless they’re confident that (a) it leads somewhere (b) that ‘somewhere’ is a place they’re going to benefit from being, given who they are and what they do. 

There’s a difficult balance to strike between the technical aspects of doing workshops about Twitter and the more conceptual aspects relating to how people conceive of and engage with Twitter. People will have technical questions and they should feel free, if at all possible, to ask these as and when during training workshops. Technical questions left unanswered will hinder, perhaps fatally, people’s ability to relate Twitter to them. But the main focus of such a workshop should be on the conceptual questions, as the aim should be to allow potential academic Twitter users to be able to construe the service, as well as the uses to which it can be put, in terms of their existing practices, projects and commitments. 

Therefore the core technical training should take place before hand: either in the form of a computer session where everyone signs up, a step-by-step guide distributed before hand to get people up and running or a demonstration at the start on an OHP with a dummy twitter account which can ‘lose its identity’ after each session. This can be supplemented by further resources which are sent after the session (potentially via Twitter? incentivising subsequent use vs alienating those who don’t immediately get round to it) which take the step-by-step training to a higher level. This would allow technical questions to come up and be asked in a free-flowing way which would benefit the ‘thinking through’ process which is a necessary component of a session. But it would also hopefully minimise them so that they don’t interrupt the flow of the session or dominate it. 

Unless people quickly get tied into some sort of network on Twitter they’re unlikely to persist with it.

In part this entails the necessity of getting people to choose followers during a session, as well as demonstrating the various means through which this can be done. But an equally important part of it is getting people in the session to follow and interact with each other. Therefore they’re tied into a network by the time they leave the session and, even if only a smaller number actively engage, their engagements are going to have consequences throughout this initial network (through their RTs and conversations etc) in a way which is going to maximise the chance that disinterested/apathetic participants see interesting stuff in their timeline and feel moved to explore furtherFurthermore follow ups from the facilitators could usefully stimulate this but it must be carefully and conservatively done, otherwise it risks coming across as contrived and/or intrusive. 

Not everyone is going to respond to Twitter in the same way and, if you’re an overly enthusiastic social media geek, it’s easy to forget this. This is ethically problematic, in so far as it can lead you to fail to recognise that some forms of engagement with Twitter (i.e. keeping it as narrowly professional in the capital ‘p’ sense of the term) are grounded in people’s lives and personalities in ways that must not be implied are the ‘wrong’ ways of using Twitter. You’re also likely to, at best, fail to connect with workshop participants and, at worst, alienate them if you fail to explicitly recognise the human diversity which leads to the diversity of ways in which one can engage with Twitter.

Therefore “there’s no right or wrong way, it’s a case of trying it and figuring out how you want to use it” should be a running motif through trainings sessions, there should be allotted time for group discussion of core issues (e.g. professional vs private online identity) with the facilitators taking a back-seat to gently steer discussion and answer technical questions. 


Categories: Higher Education

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