I think I’m finally beginning to understand Twitter. It’s taken me over a year….I admit, I’m a slow learner. But, confound it, when I first started using it, I just didn’t get why this application would be necessary. Why would I want to hear that “Kadee” is “finally going to bed at midnight.” or that “Lawer” is “having lunch – ham on rye”? The last thing I need is more useless information and another feed to follow. Besides which, couldn’t this effect be obtained using email?
Since many of the thought leaders I respect seemed entranced by it, I persevered. It was really only after I had honed the list of people I was following that the value of Twitter started to sink in. You see, with Twitter, you choose people to “follow”. Every time someone you’re following posts an update to Twitter (referred to as a “tweet”), you receive it in your Twitter stream. If you’re following 15 people, you receive “tweets” from them in a stream, as they post them (reverse-chronologically, with the most recent at the top). Similarly, other people (or maybe some of the same people) follow you. As often as you like, you can post short, text-only messages (140 characters or less is the rule) and the people who are following you receive them. It’s as simple as that.
What I’m beginning to understand about Twitter is something that Gardner Campbell refers to as the network effect. That is, as I fine-tune the network of people I’m following, the information coming into me is increasingly worthwhile and exponentially useful.
Example #1. I was looking for a good article on people’s attitudes toward their avatars in virtual worlds. I Googled the phrases “avatar personalization” and “avatar embodiment” and got back about 500,000 hits. Oy. Then I put the question out to my Twitter network and got back three, extremely useful and targeted replies within 15 minutes. Because the people I follow on Twitter are very carefully selected (thought leaders in the field of applying new media technology to education), they are extremely useful to me. Because I nurture and feed my twitter stream, some of them are now following me. When I put out a request like that, they know exactly what I’m looking for and we can speak a kind of “short hand” with each other. None of the responses I received were off the mark (say about gaming and avatars); they were all right on the money and just what I needed. So, would I rather sift through 500k Google hits to find an article or look at the three, highly qualified suggestions I received from my Twitter network? It’s like a fine-meshed sieve.
Example #2. I follow Will Richardson on Twitter. Will is a prolific author and blogger on the topic of new media and education. Last week he tweeted about a blog entry he’d just written on transparency and leadership. He included the link to his blog in the tweet because he wanted to alert his followers to an interesting conversation forming around the blog post. I followed the link and read through the 30-some odd comments – it was a very interesting conversation. The comments led me to two other thoughtful bloggers I’d never heard of before (and am now following) and sparked a phone call with another friend of mind who has been grappling with the same issues. Because I indicated that I wanted to receive updates on that conversation, I continued to follow it all week (it’s now up to 71 coments). As result of what I read there, I’ve revised a professional development talk I’m scheduled to give next month and I purchased a copy of Howard Gardner’s, Five Minds for the Future (which was quoted in the blog post). That’s a lot of cream from one, short tweet.
Example #3. To venture from the topic of my own professional development, here’s a more whimsical, food-related Twitter example. Maureen Evans has honed the fine art of communicating recipes via Twitter (twecipes?). Lovely, precise, miniature instructions for creating delicious dishes. Here’s a NYTimes article about her, along with some of her tweeted recipes. Wonderful!
So – all of this to say, I think this application is worth your time. My specific examples might not be relevant to your world but insert your own specifics there and imagine the resulting network effect. What might your students twitter about in biology? But forward the challenge, perhaps, of summarizing a key concept in 140 characters or less for the class? (as usual, with this tools, I recommend using it yourself first, before you bring it into the classroom).
Here are a few tips to get you started. Sign up at Twitter (signing up and building your profile will take about five minutes). I suggest choosing a Twitter ID that is pretty similar to your own name. I made the mistake of picking something silly the first time (amoj) and regret it as people don’t have a clue who I am. Once you’re up and running, you might want to consider a few of specialty extension sites for augmenting your twitter experience. The first tool you’ll need is a url-shortening site. If you’re going to share a web link in a tweet, you’ll use up most of your allotted 140 characters if you don’t shorten those big, hanging urls. I use tinyurl but there are others. TweetDeck is a sort of browser for Twitter – you can post from there, manage who you are following, arrange groupings of people, and access tinyurl right from there. TwitterKarma allows you to see, on one handy page, who you are following and who is following you. Twittervision is a real-time display of tweets around the world, as they are happening. Addictive. Many Eyes has a fabulous visualization of tweets that begin with the phrase “I need to…” intriguing way to take the pulse of the twittering world. Quitter is a tool that allows you to see who has dropped you (stopped following you) – ouch. Tweetscan is an efficient way to search the twitter universe for subjects of interest to you. Since the twitter search engine doesn’t work very reliably you can use Search.Twitter to find people or topics. Twitterbuzz lists, in descending order, the sites that people link to most often in Twitter – a sort of index to what’s hot in the twitterverse. Twitpic allows you to share photos on Twitter. And here’s a very handy link to a printable sheet of twitter commands that will make your tweeting life easier.
Whew. So there you have it in a nutshell. A rather big nutshell. Certainly longer than a 140-character nutshell, but then, as Mark Twain would have said, I would have needed more time to write you a shorter blog post.
I would love to hear what you think of Twitter – does it work for you? What are your examples? How are you using it?