Thursday, July 2, 2009

Getting All A-Twitter

Twitter is a dichotomy. On the one hand it is the most vapid, pointless extrapolation of the useless small talk paradigm ever put into concrete form. On the other hand, it is the most powerful collaboration tool, and passive information retrieval system ever devised.

Say wha?

Simply put, if you are on your computer or your mobile phone, whatever device, you can tap out a small message of up to 140 characters and send it. That is your "Tweet." Your Tweet goes out there into the world, and finds it's place on your little online Tweet page. But, it can also go elsewhere.

Say you have a circle of friends who like to keep in touch or want to know what's up with you, they can follow you on Facebook by adding you as a friend, and/or they can follow you on Twitter. If they choose the latter, then every time you send a Tweet out into the universe, it will pop up on their computer, or phone, or whatever they use, letting them read what you have said.

Basically you broadcast some trivial thought out to the universe, and certain people who are tuned into that station will hear it.

"I just had some great coffee!"

"Gosh I hate being late to work!"

"These jeans make me look fat."

"Our plane is crashing into the Hudson river!...Wait. Sorry, False alarm. Sweet landing, though."

You get the idea.

So what's the big deal? It all sounds so stupid, really. Like, who would care to tap into the stream of consciousness of gads of people? Well, young people for one. Young people really love it, just as they love SMS. In some countries, Japan for instance, the ratio of SMSs to actual calls is higher than 1000:1. It's like passing notes in class, and eternal activity for youth.

But then, if that is what it is, why would adults, or the Guardian (please note the exclusion from the latter group) take this stuff seriously?

Because of the dichotomous nature of the service, and the sudden, overwhelming ubiquity of data rich portable devices like the iPhone, the Blackberry, and Palm's new Treo. Jeez, even the new Nintendo DSi can get in on this action.

On the part of the Guardian, it is an incredibly cheap and effective way of driving up page views. A small tweet with a clever headline and link can drive a lot of traffic to a specific page. On the reader's part, it's like a mobile news wire, so that you get word of a new story the instant it is up. On the part of the newspaper, they can sell ad space linked with stories carried out by this wire at a premium price since the consumer data being returned is so rich. Think about it like a marketer... say you want adults between 30 - 49 earning $75K+. How do you know those people are reading the Guardian (They're not...but this is just for pretend purposes here)? Normally you don't, since dead tree media doesn't tell any tales. Even a home IP won't give them much because there is no identifying demographic information of much use. But, since Twitter is optimized for mobile media usage, people who click on a link in a Tweet to go to a story, will leave behind a very remarkable footprint. First and foremost, The Guardian will be able to tell what type of device was used, and barring that, what OS or browser, which works out to the same thing. Did 60% of the page views come from Blackberries? Well, the correlation between Blackberries and high income earners is very high, so the Guardian can go to the advertisers and jack up ad rates for this service, with this very specific, concrete demographic detail.

But what about for adults?

Here, here is where Twitter gets good. And I mean, really good.

I'm going to tell a little story here. It's a true story, but a longish one. I just wanted to give fair warning...

I was at a conference two weeks ago attending a presentation on the educational uses of Twitter in tertiary institutes. Nice presenter, decent slides, but what she had stumbled upon just blew my mind.

I say stumbled upon because while the presenter was in EdTech, she had only learned of Twitter half a year earlier. But the incredible impact it had had on her teaching practice and professional development was extraordinary.

The way she put it was thus...

With Facebook, you connect with people you know. With Twitter, you connect with people you want to know.

Think about that for a moment. Imagine being that proverbial fly on the wall, and tapping into Einstein's thoughts? Or Hemingway's? Honestly...what would you give for that?

With Twitter this is possible because it's a stream of consciousness service. It's useful only for short messages, and so easy to use anyone can use it almost anywhere. Following someone's Twitter feed is almost like tapping into their stream of consciousness.

There are amazingly brilliant people out there that you or I will never be close to, will never have a chance to get to know, and would never be able to stand next to for long enough to learn the tiniest fraction about what they think. But with Twitter, you can.

This presenter had identified 50 or more colleagues or authorities in the same field who were at the top of their form. They did stellar work, and were well respected, for good reason. Also, they were all on Twitter. So instead of going to a yearly conference to learn the new and amazing things these scholars dug up, she attended a virtual conference every day. A Tweet would pop up on something mind blowing, and would be incorporated into the next day's lesson plan. What's more, by sending a direct message to the poster of a particular Tweet, she was often able to arrange for an impromptu video conference (via Skype) where the researcher could expand on their finding for her class.

Using this paradigm, she was able to transform her whole program, and make it effective in a way that had never happened before. At first she set her graduate students into research groups using Twitter as their key collaborative tool. But it also became the key to getting them to write. To understand this, I'll give a little background.

Her students are from an area where students do not learn how to write in their own language. They learn grammar, sure, and the mechanics of writing, but not "how" to write. That is, in the Arabic world, writing isn't something students really do. They never write any essays, book reports, or what have you, because that has never been a part of the educational model here. In English class they are expected to write, but with no experience at it whatsoever, in their native tongue, attempts at it in a second language are almost always very poor. I face it every day with my students who had never written anything longer than 100 words before going to high school. The presenter I met faced the same problem, and just was not able to drag any substantive writing out of her students. 3000 words? Forget. Even 500? Not a chance! They just wouldn't do it, and school authorities would back the students up on that. So what to do?

It was obvious to her that her students did write, and wrote a heck of a great deal. In fact, her students, as mine are, are inveterate communicators. They are forever posting on bulletin boards, sending IMs, SMSs, emails, and more. Via writing, they communicate more, I daresay, than any generation in human history. But they don't think of it as writing. This is why Twitter was the key.

A limit of 140 characters is not much. Two sentences, three max. She got her students to buy into posting messages to a group Tweet, and responding to posts. As the project wore on, from what she said, it sounded like these students had tapped more words through that one collaboration than at any other point in their career. They were posting gads of messages each day. Back and forth. Posting, commenting on posts, commenting on comments. Every time someone found an interesting link, they posted it, which set off a flurry of other Tweets as the group looked into the information.

The experiment succeeded beyond any of her expectations.

Which leaves us back at the beginning of this post.

Like with Xerox or the VCR, there are good uses and bad uses. Twitter can be trite, but it can also be transformative. Part of the hype around Twitter right now is that many have sensed just how powerful this tool could be. As newspapers die, and media models crumble, there is a mad scramble for the next model, whatever will arise out of the ashes, and Twitter is in very good shape to make a run at that. During the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the world learned through Twitter long before Reuters got wind of it. When that plane went down on the Hudson, word of it was on Twitter even before anyone walking by as it was happening had thought to take notice. Major news wires have reacted by hiring staff who only monitor Twitter, and pick off breaking stories from there.

For writers , I would say that Twitter is a tool we can all use. Most of us share thoughts, findings, and ask questions of each other here, in the spirit of true colleagues. When we graduate, that will be over for us, but it doesn't have to be. The ability to collaborate with talented people in your field, who you respect and admire, is a precious and valuable thing. Even just to be able to get glimpses of what they are thinking and doing can be informative or inspirational. I've learned a great deal in the short time I've been allowed to frequent these boards, and I am sure that in the next few years as I stretch my time in the program to the allowable limit (you know...budget constraints), I will continue to do so. But hopefully, using some other method like Twitter or what replaces it, I'll be able to continue to do so.

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