Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Twitter Literacy

from a post by Howard Rheingold

One of my students asked me online why I use Twitter. I replied off the top of my head.

Openness - anyone can join, and anyone can follow anyone else (unless they restrict access to friends who request access).

Immediacy it is a rolling present. You wont get the sense of Twitter if you just check in once a week. You need to hang out for minutes and hours, every day, to get in the groove.

Variety - political or technical argument, gossip, scientific info, news flashes, poetry, social arrangements, classrooms, repartee, scholarly references, bantering with friends. And I'm in control of deciding how much of each flavor I want in my flow. I don't have to listen to noise, but filtering it out requires attention. You are responsible for whoever else's babble you are going to direct into your awareness.

Reciprocity - people give and ask freely for information they need (this doesn't necessarily scale or last forever, but right now its possible to tune your list - and to contribute to it and to include a high degree of reciprocation; more on this in a moment).

A channel to multiple publics - I'm a communicator and have a following that I want to grow and feed. I can get the word out about a new book or vlog post in seconds - and each of the people who follow me might also feed my memes to their own networks. I used to just paint. Now I document my painting at each stage of the process, upload pix to flickr or flicks to blip.tv, then drop a tinyurl into Twitter. Who needs a gallery or a distributor? You don't have to be a professional writer to think about publics. Anyone who publishes a blog knows that they are not simply broadcasting to a passive audience all blog readers can comment, can link back, can criticize and analyze, and in many instances, can join the blogger in some form of collective action in the physical world.

Asymmetry - very interesting, because nobody sees the same sample of the Twitter population. Few people follow exactly the same people who follow them. There is no social obligation to follow people simply because they follow me. I tell them that I follow people who inform or amuse me, and I hope to do the same for people who follow me.

A way to meet new people - it happens every day. Connecting with people who share interests has been the most powerful social driver of the Internet since day one. I follow people I donĂ¢€™t know otherwise but who share enthusiasm for educational technology, DIY video, online activism. creativity, social media, journalism, Burning Man and public art, teaching and learning, compost, Catalunya, the public sphere, mass collaboration, Amsterdam - the list is as long as my list of interests. Developing the ability to know how much attention and trust to devote to someone met online is a vitally important corollary skill. Personal learning networks are not a numbers game. They are a quality game.

A window on what is happening in multiple worlds, some of which I am familiar with, and others that are new to me.

Community-forming - Twitter is not a community, but it's an ecology in which communities can emerge. That's where the banal chit-chat comes in: idle talk about news, weather, and sports is a kind of social glue that can adhere the networks of trust and norms of reciprocity from which community and social capital can grow.

A platform for mass collaboration: I forgive the cute name of Twestival because this online charity event has raised over a quarter of a million dollars via Twitter, funding 55 clean water projects for 17,000 people in Ethiopia, Uganda, and India. If I wanted to tweet a request, I could offer another dozen examples.

Searchability - the ability to follow searches for phrases like "swine flu" or "Howard Rheingold" in real time provides a kind of ambient information radar on topics that interest me. Twitter users developed the convention of adding a tag with a hash sign in front of it like #hashtag that enable them to label specific topics and events. When I recently participated in a live discussion onstage, we projected in real time the tweets that included a hashtag for the event, an act that blended the people in the audience together with the people on the panel in a much more interactive way than standard Q&A sessions at the end of the panel. After years as a public speaker and panelist, I found it fascinating and useful to have a window on what my previously silent audience was thinking while I was talking. You have to be sure enough about what you are saying onstage to keep from being distracted or thrown by the realtime feedback. Backchannel twitterers have been to virtually mob speakers they felt were wasting their attention.

I still hang out on Twitter (I am found there as @hrheingold), but it's clear that many of the people I talk to about it just don't get why anyone wastes their time doing anything with the name "tweeting."So I tell them that to me, successful use of Twitter comes down to tuning and feeding. And by successful, I mean that I gain value - useful information, answers to questions, new friends and colleagues - and that the people who follow me gain value in the form of entertainment, useful information, and some kind of ongoing relationship with me.

To oversimplify, I think successful use of Twitter means knowing how to tune the network of people you follow, and how to feed the network of people who follow you.

You have to tune who you follow. I mix friends who I know IRL ("in real life") and whose whereabouts and doings interest me, people who are knowledgeable about a field that interests me, people who regularly produce URLs that prove useful, extraordinary educators, the few who are wise or funny. When I became interested in video, Drupal, and educational uses of technology and student-centric teaching, I looked for people who know about those subjects, and followed them. I learned from master educators on Twitter that growing and tuning a "personal learning network" of authoritative sources and credible co-learners is one of the strategies for success in a world of digital networks.

When it comes to feeding my network, that comes down to putting out the right mixture of personal tweets (while I don't really talk about what I had for lunch, the cycles of my garden, the plums falling from my tree, my obsession with compost and shoepainting do feature in my tweetstream), informational tidbits (when I find really great URLs, that's when Twitter is truly a "microblog" for me to share my find), self promotion (when I post a new video to my vlog share the URL - but I do NOT automatically post everything I blog on smartmobs.com), socializing, and answering questions. It's particularly important to respond to people who follow me and who send @hrheingold messages to my attention. I can't always respond to every single one, but I try. I also try to be a little entertaining once in a while, when something amuses me and I think it might amuse others.

Everyone has a different mix of these elements, which is part of the charm of Twitter. My personal opinion is that I need to keep some personal element going, but not to overdo it. I am careful to not crank up the self-promotion too much. I don't ask questions often, but when I do, I always get a huge payoff. I needed an authoritative guide to Spanish-language online publications about social media for a course I was designing to be taught at the (online) Open University of Catalunya. I got five. In five minutes.

If it isn't fun, it won't be useful. If you don't put out, you don't get back. But you have to spend some time tuning and feeding if Twitter is going to be more than an idle amusement to you and your followers (and idle amusement is a perfectly legit use of the medium).


No comments:

Post a Comment