Social Media | Feature

Why Is This CIO on Twitter?

One of Twitter's most prolific CIO users shares his tips for getting the most out of the platform. Plus, 8 other tweeting CIOs weigh in.

As of mid-day May 14, Stephen diFilipo had tweeted 12,600 times in his latest Twitter account. (He's had three accounts since Twitter was launched in July 2006.) So it's no wonder that a blogger for the Huffington Post recognized diFilipo, CIO for Cecil College in Maryland, as one of the "50 most social CIOs on Twitter."

A recent day saw him posting tweets about CIO topics, education topics, technology, Syria, social media, a photo of an unrecognizable dish he was served at a conference, his coffee preference, and the death of film star Deanna Durbin.

Rather than evidence of a short attention span, as some social media observers might suggest, diFilipo prefers to call his wide interests an ability to "connect the dots." "I can see relationships that sometimes I don't think others either see or announce and publish."

To balance his use of Twitter with his leadership role at Cecil, diFilipo follows a handful of unwritten rules to guide his tweeting activities.

Baz Abouelenein, CIO at Kansas City Kansas Community College, tweets a Twitter tip: "Make connections. Lots of [them]! Twitter is about smart conversations with remarkable users in #HigherEd and #CIO."

1) Keep Tweets Neutral

diFilipo doesn't indicate the college where he works in his profile. As a result, "Nothing I say publicly on Twitter should be directly related as a statement about my employer," he explains. On the other hand, it wouldn't be tough to track down where he works currently, so he tries to "be careful" in his tweets.

"When you work in social media, you're putting yourself out there a lot," he says. "There are clearly comments I make that somebody could twist or bend the wrong way if they wanted. I don't think I say anything inappropriate or use language that's inappropriate, in terms of our social norms. I don't say anything political one side or the other, because being in a public institution, I understand the challenges with that. I don't tweet on behalf of the college. I never do; never will."

Also, he doesn't go out of his way to converse with colleagues or students at the college. "I don't prevent them from following me, and I know that a few of them do follow me. But we don't engage on Twitter."

Penny Evans-Plants, CIO of Berry College, tweets on why she uses Twitter: "Connection, Collaboration, Information, Inspiration! It helps connect to peers, collaborate w/them, keep abreast, be inspired."

2) Share Your Interests

Every morning diFilipo rises early on the East Coast and "scours" anywhere from 500 to 600 articles across a multitude of topical areas. Then he'll tweet out "those things I think are valuable for higher education or CIOs or leadership in general." He uses the word "curate" to describe this activity--sharing the best internet coverage he can on topics related to technology, CIOs and CEOs, leadership, and entrepreneurial activities.

"I'm willing to do all that heavy lifting, so nobody else has to wake up in the morning and sift through 600 articles. They can hit my Twitter feed and a few other key places. They've discovered that just like a movie critic, the kinds of things I post typically have some value for them."

How does the death of Deanna Durbin fit into that profile? "I studied film when I was in college and was certainly aware of her name. I tend not to tweet out a lot of things about celebrities that are well known. But somebody off the beaten path--Deanna Durbin was of interest to me."

diFilipo acknowledges that he's not necessarily reading 500 or 600 articles. Content of interest is picked out "visually," by virtue of running through the 1,426 Twitter accounts he's following and looking for the right icons (those postage stamp-sized images that people upload as part of their Twitter profiles).

He says he really only noticed his visual method a few years ago when he was conversing with a colleague out of Australia. "We discovered that there are people who have a visual acuity for things like this, who can literally use visual perception as opposed to reading words to pick out things that are of value to us. When I look through the tweet stream, I'm looking for people's photos. That's how I work Twitter. It's not the words; it's the picture."

Of course, he adds, that practice comes with a built-in obstacle: "If somebody changes their avatar or photo, I'll lose you for a while until I realize you've changed it."

Debra Allison, VP for IT and CIO at Miami University tweets on whether Twitter delivers benefits to ITS at her institution: "Yes...ability to communicate system upgrade status info out to clients; increase transparency; learn from others.

3) Find a Twitter Tool That Fits Your Style

Because of the way diFilipo works, he uses TweetDeck, a kind of dashboard for managing Twitter accounts and usage. Created as a third-party add-on tool and now owned by Twitter, TweetDeck allows diFilipo to follow multiple streams of tweets on different topics. "As I'm scouring through the people I follow or do a keyword search, if I find something that's interesting, but I just don't want to drill down at the moment, I can create a column in the moment and then follow that tweet stream based on that person or account or hashtag or search term," he notes. "In the morning, I can have 10 or 12 columns that I keep open for a period of time. Then I close them out as the day goes on."

diFilipo also likes how the tool allows him to schedule his posts, so that he doesn't have to make them live the moment they're written. "I like the feature set and functionality," he says. "It's easy to use. I've used others; but this is the one I like."

However, he points out, TweetDeck doesn't have analytics. For users who want to "get serious in terms of metrics," he recommends a product such as HootSuite, which manages and measures multiple social networks.

Brian Miller, CIO and VP for ITS at Davenport University, shares his favorite Twitter tools: "I use Twitter, @TweetDeck and @HootSuite."

At times diFilipo uses the original interface, Twitter.com itself. His usage depends on what the device is that he's using at the moment and the environment in which he's working. A fan of Mac OS and iOS, but a user of Windows on the job, he notes that sometimes he'll have his PC running for spreadsheet or other work, and he'll have his iPad and iPhone close by for notifying him on his online activities. "It's all about convenience and arm's reach," he says. "I could be doing something fairly interesting on my iPad, which requires me to be pretty deep into an app. Something will come up, and I'll just flip to my PC on my desktop or my laptop if I'm at home. It really depends on where I'm at."

David J. Hinson, Executive Vice President and CIO at Hendrix College, tweets on what Twitter tool he likes for managing his twitter account: "I like @tweepi."

4) Don't Force the Use of Twitter

Cecil College has about 2,650 students and between 200 and 250 staff and faculty members. The IT organization consists of about 15 people, diFilipo says. So Twitter isn't a tool that's used for intra-departmental communication. "We choose to not use it because we're a small operation," he explains. When he finds something of value that he thinks his staff will be interested in, he e-mails a link to his group. Or, he notes, "All of the core people who need to stay in touch with each other are literally in the same hallway. We keep our doors open and we yell at each other."

That said, he adds that if he were working at a "big university," he'd probably use something like Yammer, which he describes as a "chat for internal Twitter streams," for help-desk support and "staying connected."

Joanna Young, CIO at University of New Hampshire, tweets on how Twitter helps her as a #CampusCIO: "#social allows for succinct, speedy connections & dialogue with customers, partners, colleagues. Supports time to idea/market."

While diFilipo won't force Twitter on the structure of IT, neither would he ever go to executives within his college and suggest they use Twitter.

In the case of Cecil President Stephen Pannill, says diFilipo, "He's an incredibly public person. He represents the college incredibly well in the public. He has great social presence, and he has accomplished an incredible amount for Cecil College because of his presence in committee work, at the state level, regional level, local level. He's always out there in the public space. But it's not his inclination to be mediated. He's more social interactively and interpersonally."

Then, there are people such as Newark, NJ mayor Cory Booker, who has a "natural instinct" for Twitter, observes diFilipo. "He's got a holistic view of it. It's not just that he tweets a lot. He's out in the community and very engaged. He used Twitter during Superstorm Sandy and some of the winter storms. He's been very active, using Twitter to communicate with his constituency."

The bottom line, diFilipo declares: "Never force Twitter on someone who isn't comfortable or doesn't have a natural skillset for it."

Raechelle Clemmons, CIO at St. Norbert College, tweets on why she uses Twitter: "Stay up-to-date w/ profession, communicate w/ constituents, develop personal brand...all reasons to use Twitter as #CampusCIO."

5) Avoid the "Creepy Treehouse"

diFilipo offers two final pieces of advice to CIOs, educators, and others who decide to exploit Twitter for its positive aspects:

First, he says, study how Twitter fits into the social media realm. "Understand what you're getting involved in before you step off the curb. I suggest everybody take that initial step to see how heavy the traffic is, but understand it's not for everybody. Understand the ecosystem and understand how you can use it to be beneficial in higher ed and technology. There are huge upsides."

Second, keep your personal persona separate from your professional one. "In education, there's the "creepy treehouse syndrome," which cropped up when Facebook grew popular with students, diFilipo says. "If you want to use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, for your classes, if you're an educator, or you want to use it for your department, if you have an IT department, create an account just for that. Don't use your personal account. Keep your personal stuff separate."

diFilipo will be conducting a seminar on campus this June for staff who are interested in learning more about Twitter. But he wasn't his first choice as speaker. He would have preferred the event organizers bring in somebody from the outside. Schedules precluded that from happening, so he's putting together his talk. A big part of that will be to provide context for attendees: how social media is being used by people in various demographics, how the various social media services vary, and how to avoid jumping in too quick before the users understand "what the currents look like." Then, if there's time left, he'll help those who don't have a Twitter account get one set up.

But even then, this prolific user of the service plans to share both the upsides and downsides of Twitter usage, the instant notifications of pending danger along with rumor-mongering, anonymous bullying, and mean-spirited tweets. "The reality is that Twitter is nothing more than an exaggerated and amplified, much more noisy world than we have in our regular day-to-day world."

Paul Stokes, CIO at University of Victoria, tweets on why he uses Twitter: "Because social is the way."

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