The following was written for Birmingham City University’s alumni magazine, Aspire.
If you’ve followed recent media coverage of Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a website where people talk about what they’re eating, or stalk minor celebrities.
It’s not. So I’d like you to do a favour for me at this point: forget everything you think you know about Twitter.
Twitter is, fundamentally, a communications channel – like the telephone, but more public. Like a blog, but more social. Like email, but more succinct.
Here’s how it works: you sign up for an account at Twitter.com and start ‘following’ people. You can follow me, for example, at twitter.com/paulbradshaw – or Jay Rosen at New York University at twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu – or the academic Howard Rheingold at twitter.com/hrheingold.
Whatever field you work in, you’ll find dozens of interesting people in that field who are using Twitter: one good way to find them is to use a Twitter directory like Twellow.com or Twittgroups.com.
Once you are following people, when you login to Twitter.com, you will be able see their updates, most recent top.
Thankfully these are limited to 140 characters (the length of a text message), so it’s easy to scan-read them for anything useful.
And useful they often are. In particular, Twitter can be a great way to come across links to relevant articles in your field, mentions of events and meetups, and references to experts you might not have come across. Most useful of all are the questions that people post to Twitter – and the answers that come back.
For example, I was recently invited for an interview about Twitter on local radio. As an experiment I decided to ask people following me on Twitter to predict what questions would be asked – and supply their answers. The resulting twitter messages produced a more insightful and succinct ‘interview’ than the local radio station managed (you can read the questions and answers at http://bit.ly/hWGoc).
Other examples have seen me turn to Twitter followers for research into media consumption, for examples of online investigative journalism, for technical help, and even advice on a new mobile phone.
How to tweet
I’ve been using Twitter since early 2007, and teaching journalism students how to use Twitter since February 2008. A number of experiences have taught me not only that Twitter is invaluable for journalists, but that it is very useful indeed for educators too.
Journalistically, Twitter has made the headlines on dozens of occasions – from providing information about the spread of the California wildfires, to the Chinese earthquake, the Mumbai attacks, and the Hudson River aeroplane crash.
Twitter updates – ‘tweets’ – can also be roughly mapped, making it easier to find potential witnesses ‘on the ground’. And messages are searchable, making it possible to find people writing about particular events, products, people or interests.
Of course this makes it a very public form of communication – it is known as ‘microblogging – so you choose what you make public. But you can also send direct (private) messages if someone is following you.
Pedagogically, Twitter is a wonderful way of putting students in touch with experts. For example, when I introduced journalism students to Twitter this year I assigned each one to a Twitter ‘mentor’ (I’d previously put the call out on Twitter for anyone willing to volunteer to help in such a way). These included the Head of Multimedia at Trinity Mirror; the Manchester Evening News’ Head of Online Editorial; and the Assistant Editor of the Liverpool Post.
Now those are the kind of mentors you want your students to have!
However, you will not get much out of Twitter if you only listen to what other people are saying. You get out of Twitter what you put in.
What do you write about?
- If you find a useful article online, tweet about it – with a link (you can use services like tinyurl.com to shorten links).
- If you’ve published something, tweet about it
- If you’re at a conference or event, post updates to Twitter – you can even do this by text message
- If you read an interesting tweet by someone else, ‘retweet’ it (RT for short)
- If someone has asked a question, tweet a useful reply (begin the message with @ and their username – for example, a message directed at me would start @paulbradshaw)