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If Twitter Can’t Grow Anymore, Is It Worth The Time For Educators?

Twitter ignored how its small, dedicated communities were using its service, and now it’s suffering because of it.

We’re reading it everywhere right now: Twitter is dead.

One of my favorite writers and tweeters is Mathew Ingram, a writer for Fortune and one of those journalists who makes themselves extremely accessible on Twitter. You can usually expect him to respond to your tweets, like a modern journalist does. It makes what you’re reading even that more interactive when you’re able to chat with the author.

This is why I love Twitter.

I follow Mathew on Facebook, but there, Mathew’s profile is not public where just anyone can comment on one of his articles. He clearly favors Twitter as the place for his public conversations. His latest article about Twitter claims that even he wishes the “old Twitter” would come back. I agree. Twitter is not the same place, which is why I’ve put a lot less effort into it lately.

Tech-savvy educators have adopted Twitter over the years as a place to connect with other educators, share lesson plans, teaching strategies, and it held so much promise. Still does. They began #EdChat and numerous other weekly community chats where anyone could simply “lurk,” or join in the conversation on how to tackle some of the toughest problems in the classroom. It was refreshing. As the popularity of these chats grew, at times, chats could usurp your entire Twitter timeline, and make it unintelligible.

The past couple of years, a major shift started with social media. As educators began to adopt Twitter as a de facto messaging service, better more complete messaging services began to arise like Voxer. And WhatsApp. And Snapchat. And Slack. And even Facebook Messenger. I’ve been digging into these new tools, and find that the clutter of Twitter, or the fuzz that I call the Twitter timeline- is gone. It’s calm. It’s controlled. It’s better (for messaging).

But I have 9 years invested in building a Twitter network, or as us educators call it, a Personal Learning Network. I’ve got 8000 followers on two separate Twitter accounts. Not as much as the edu-Twitter elite, but still not horrible. On Twitter, followers may be considered capital (or cache). Marketing companies correlate the amount of followers you have with the amount of influence you might have. As we found from the death of Google+, perhaps those numbers don’t mean as much as we once hoped. One of my G+ pages had 1.4 million followers, which turned out to mean…absolutely nothing. So how is Twitter failing educators? Let’s dig in.

The Retweet is losing its cache.

When Twitter copied Facebook and turned “Favorites” into “Likes,” it put the RT, which used to be the boldest signal another Twitter user could give you- on the shelf. Take a look at Twitter’s users these days, and look at the proportion of likes to retweets and you’ll see what I mean. A retweet meant an endorsement of sorts, because that user was sharing your content to their network. For a user that had 100K followers, it could mean a big deal to your article, your quote, or whatever it was that you were sharing. The like has devalued the RT, and sends this soft “I see you” signal that isn’t anywhere near as important.

In this age of lost attention, Twitter’s change only helps power users and advertisers, not small communities of educators and tech-heads who are trying to stay connected. The voices of educators are getting lost in Twitter’s goals of being this gargantuan company, and even some of my early Twitter mentors are tweeting less and turning to Facebook for more audience engagement. Getting educators interested in Twitter at this point, is a monumental task.

Twitter chats have hamstrung the Timeline.

When #EdChat first became a thing, I used to use it as a hook to get educators interested in building their education networks. It was small enough that you could follow along and not get overwhelmed. As time passed, Twitter growth jumped and more educators jumped in, I started to hear from those new users. Twitter was “overwhelming.” They were abandoning their accounts. #Edchats flew by so fast, that trying to keep up with a mass conversation was nearly impossible for newbies. It was frustrating. For “power users” like myself, we would teach patience and persistence, but I could see why that wasn’t enough.

Twitter still cares too much about celebrities.

The tool of Twitter hasn’t been evolving with its usage. If you sign up for a new Twitter account today, the first thing Twitter still tries to do is get you to follow celebrities, which ignores how millions of educators and small communities are using this tool. I’m over Twitter being a celebrity thing, and want to connect with others in the most friction-free, seamless environment. From what I hear, Twitter is trying to bring on a celebrity to their board of directors, so that they have that “mass market” angle. This is completely the wrong approach for Twitter.

I believe that in the beginning, we all hoped that Twitter (or some social tool) could be the one that united everybody under one roof, in my case, progressive educators. I’m okay though, if Twitter isn’t about that anymore, but about making smaller more meaningful connections with these communities than I could on any other platform. Smaller audiences are the new pink.

Preaching to the choir gets old.

The growth problem is real. From Twitter’s recent earnings call, its users are shrinking. As an educator, and the way that I use Twitter- that’s a problem for me. I don’t want to continue to have these wonderful conversations within an echo chamber. I want to invite new voices. What this evidence tells me, is that not only is the mainstream public not signing up for Twitter, but trying to snare more educators into using this tool for personal learning, is going to be that much harder. I can already hear it now: “isn’t Twitter going away? Isn’t that the dead social network?” Ugh.

There are other tools now that could be much better at accomplishing what the #edchat founders may have hoped for. Instead of using Twitter as a messaging tool, why instead wouldn’t I try using something like Voxer, the voice messaging tool, or Slack, a chat tool created specifically for collaboration? Both of these tools can be so much more powerful as a communication tool, have smoother, less confusing interfaces, and accomplish what educators want to accomplish- connection.

The drawbacks from both of them are 1. they aren’t public and 2. there’s no ego involved. That devalues the one thing that many people like about Twitter: the ego following. I’m okay with that, because I think what we’re seeing is that those numbers don’t really mean as much, unless you’re in a top 1–5% situation.

The mass market is shrinking. As someone who has connected with educators using Classroom 2.0, Ning, Chatzy (remember that?), Google+, Twitter, and Facebook, the lesson I’m learning is that mass market seems to be losing. What we are learning though, with the death of live TV, the birth of binge-watching, the death of radio, the birth of podcasting, is that smaller, more tight-knit communities are where we are succeeding. Our tools need to evolve to help us strengthen the bonds of these smaller communities.

Why not Facebook?

There’s a group of journalists including tech evangelist Robert Scoble, who have adopted Facebook as their complete platform. In fact, Robert has completely ditched his blog in favor of his Facebook profile. The reason for this is: everybody is there. If you’re trying to reach a mass audience, why not share, collaborate, and communicate in a place where almost everyone has an account? This may or may not work for educators, as some folks have rules about using Facebook “only for family.”

I’ve been experimenting with Facebook in a number of ways, and I think it’s possible to play in the same space with work and home. That again, takes user time and effort. I’m not sure everyone has the time to manage (curate) their Facebook feed.

We’re in yet again, another transition it seems with our social tools, but I think that the harshest realization that many of us are going to have to recognize is that truly connecting everybody with these tools, just may not happen.

Making stronger connections with smaller groups of people, might just be more valuable.