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Life is ATwitter

The news has fads, and Twitter has grabbed headlines for weeks. A deputy national security advisor proposes that the founders of Twitter get the Nobel Peace prize because of their role in Iran.This proposal is a culmination of the Twitter-mania of the past month. But Twitter is more than the latest fad; it is affecting people's lives. Who is Tweeting about you as you teach your class and what are they saying? And, is Twitter for you?

At one point in the early 20th century, there were hundreds of automobile companies. Can you imagine trying to choose a car then? Now, trying to choose which social network to join, especially if you don't have time to fritter away, is almost impossible. A few years ago, it was relatively easy for academics to dismiss social networks as entertainment and irrelevant to higher education. No longer. If Twitter can help seed a social movement in Iran, and if China is anxiously shutting down Twitter and its cousins in Western China, these social networks are hardly irrelevant.

And, as an example of the importance of Twitter to my own work, here are three tweets I picked up just a few minutes ago when I checked my Twitter account:

  - "Lack of faculty involvement in project design as #1 reason for portfolio project failure...Many nods from the workshop #Sakai09"

  - "Data reveals increase in the perceived pedagogical value of clickers over the course of the semester"

  - "New postat Long tail of social networking"

Aren't these tantalizing? I am "following" (that is, I see these people's tweets as soon as they are posted; tweets are limited to 140 characters) people who are looking for the same kinds of information I am. They are graciously summarizing for me ideas that I can then follow up on if I am interested. Finding the group of people who I follow has taken some time, of course, but I'm at the point now that I have to check Twitter regularly or lose these tidbits.

One person who I follow has 4,011 followers. She is a newspaper. She follows over 2,000 people herself. How to process that much information? Is it even important to see it all? Part of today's experience is the super-abundance of information. But, for me, Twitter seems more a solution than part of the problem. I see tweets from people I trust and who have similar interests as I do and their posts are by definition very concise because of the140-character limit.

Developing a collegial set of people you follow can be like attending a professional conference everyday and catching the hallway schmoozing. Talking to friends and colleagues in the halls between conference sessions can often be the most energizing parts of the conference. Being in touch this way keeps me up on the latest new ideas in my field.

So, should you finally try Twitter? I first got a Twitter account in February, 2008. I did not put much effort into Twitter for a year. But, just recently, I reached a kind of tipping point where enough of those who I was following led me to other Tweeters so that I'm now learning from Twitter. I don't know that it would take others as long to develop a good network on Twitter. Still, unlike Facebook, your network does not seem to grow organically, so my experience may not be unique.

All of those I Twitter with are academic colleagues in one way or another. I don't see families talking on Twitter; it does not seem like that kind of space. It is also much more difficult to figure out than Facebook.

As I write this, I'm about to attend the Sakai09 Conference in Boston, and on Twitter there is a group you can follow, #Sakai. I can see what the people who are already there in Boston are saying. Somehow, seeing off-the-cuff tweets gives one little snippets, little pictures, of what's going on. Many conferences over the years have tried to create a conversation before the conference and afterwards but have had to resort to formal kinds of posts. I never thought the effort was worth it. On the other hand, the completely arbitrary and autonomous tweets from this conference create for me a sense of real life there.

Twitter is not a fad, though it may not always be in the headlines. I have come to think of it as a valuable network for researchers and collaborators. There is one problem, however: Twitter offers only a very limited archiving ability. You can use your phone to see your Tweets, of course, but texting charges may build up on your phone. So, for now, it is a collaborative tool for when you are paying attention. This is an issue with many social sites--posts are there for a day and then start disappearing. Thankfully, that does not apply to Twitter itself.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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