Twitter Literacy: Knowing How To Use It is Key
Twitter is one of a growing breed of part-technological, part-social communication media that require some skills to use productively. Sure, Twitter is banal and trivial, full of self-promotion and outright spam. So is the Internet. The difference between seeing Twitter as a waste of time or as a powerful new community amplifier depends entirely on how you look at it — on knowing how to look at it.
When I started requiring digital journalism students to learn how to use Twitter, I didn’t have the list of journalistic uses for Twitter that I have compiled by now. So I logged onto the service and broadcast a request. “I have a classroom full of graduate students in journalism who don’t know who to follow. Does anybody have a suggestion?” Within ten minutes, we had a list of journalists to follow, including one who was boarding Air Force One at that moment, joining the White House press corps accompanying the President to Africa.
One of my students asked me online why I use Twitter. I replied off the top of my head. Sometimes, that’s better than taking longer to compose something more elaborately thought out (which is one of the reasons I like to Twitter — it’s a great way to start my wordflow for the day with something short and lightweight) My reasons:
Openness — anyone can join, and anyone can follow anyone else (unless they restrict access to friends who request access).
Immediacy — it is a rolling present. You won’t get the sense of Twitter if you just check in once a week. You need to hang out for minutes and hours, every day, to get in the groove.
Variety — political or technical argument, gossip, scientific info, news flashes, poetry, social arrangements, classrooms, repartee, scholarly references, bantering with friends. And I’m in control of deciding how much of each flavor I want in my flow. I don’t have to listen to noise, but filtering it out requires attention. You are responsible for whoever else’s babble you are going to direct into your awareness.
Reciprocity — people give and ask freely for information they need (this doesn’t necessarily scale or last forever, but right now it’s possible to tune your list — and to contribute to it — to include a high degree of reciprocation; more on this in a moment).
A channel to multiple publics — I’m a communicator and have a following that I want to grow and feed. I can get the word out about a new book or vlog post in seconds — and each of the people who follow me might also feed my memes to their own networks. I used to just paint. Now I document my painting at each stage of the process, upload pix to flickr or flicks to blip.tv, then drop a tinyurl into Twitter. Who needs a gallery or a distributor? You don’t have to be a professional writer to think about publics. Anyone who publishes a blog knows that they are not simply broadcasting to a passive audience — blog readers can comment, can link back, can criticize and analyze, and in many instances, can join the blogger in some form of collective action in the physical world.
Asymmetry — very interesting, because nobody sees the same sample of the Twitter population. Few people follow exactly the same people who follow them. There is no social obligation to follow people simply because they follow me. I tell them that I follow people who inform or amuse me, and I hope to do the same for people who follow me.
A way to meet new people — it happens every day. Connecting with people who share interests has been the most powerful social driver of the Internet since day one. I follow people I don’t know otherwise but who share enthusiasm for educational technology, DIY video, online activism. creativity, social media, journalism, Burning Man and public art, teaching and learning, compost, Catalunya, the public sphere, mass collaboration, Amsterdam — the list is as long as my list of interests. Developing the ability to know how much attention and trust to devote to someone met online is a vitally important corollary skill. Personal learning networks are not a numbers game. They are a quality game.
A window on what is happening in multiple worlds, some of which I am familiar with, and others that are new to me.
Community-forming — Twitter is not a community, but it’s an ecology in which communities can emerge. That’s where the banal chit-chat comes in: idle talk about news, weather, and sports is a kind of social glue that can adhere the networks of trust and norms of reciprocity from which community and social capital can grow.
A platform for mass collaboration: I forgive the cute name of Twestival because this online charity event has raised over a quarter of a million dollars via Twitter, funding 55 clean water projects for 17,000 people in Ethiopia, Uganda, and India. If I wanted to tweet a request, I could offer another dozen examples.
Searchability — the ability to follow searches for phrases like “swine flu” or “Howard Rheingold” in real time provides a kind of ambient information radar on topics that interest me. Twitter users developed the convention of adding a tag with a hash sign in front of it — like #hashtag — that enable them to label specific topics and events. When I recently participated in a live discussion onstage, we projected in real time the tweets that included a hashtag for the event, an act that blended the people in the audience together with the people on the panel in a much more interactive way than standard Q&A sessions at the end of the panel. After years as a public speaker and panelist, I found it fascinating and useful to have a window on what my previously silent audience was thinking while I was talking. You have to be sure enough about what you are saying onstage to keep from being distracted or thrown by the realtime feedback. Backchannel twitterers have been to virtually mob speakers they felt were wasting their attention.
I still hang out on Twitter (I am found there as @hrheingold), but it’s clear that many of the people I talk to about it just don’t get why anyone wastes their time doing anything with the name “tweeting.”So I tell them that to me, successful use of Twitter comes down to tuning and feeding. And by successful, I mean that I gain value — useful information, answers to questions, new friends and colleagues — and that the people who follow me gain value in the form of entertainment, useful information, and some kind of ongoing relationship with me.
To oversimplify, I think successful use of Twitter means knowing how to tune the network of people you follow, and how to feed the network of people who follow you.
You have to tune who you follow. I mix friends who I know IRL (“in real life”) and whose whereabouts and doings interest me, people who are knowledgeable about a field that interests me, people who regularly produce URLs that prove useful, extraordinary educators, the few who are wise or funny. When I became interested in video, Drupal, and educational uses of technology and student-centric teaching, I looked for people who know about those subjects, and followed them. I learned from master educators on Twitter that growing and tuning a “personal learning network” of authoritative sources and credible co-learners is one of the strategies for success in a world of digital networks.
When it comes to feeding my network, that comes down to putting out the right mixture of personal tweets (while I don’t really talk about what I had for lunch, the cycles of my garden, the plums falling from my tree, my obsession with compost and shoepainting do feature in my tweetstream), informational tidbits (when I find really great URLs, that’s when Twitter is truly a “microblog” for me to share my find), self promotion (when I post a new video to my vlog share the URL — but I do NOT automatically post everything I blog on smartmobs.com), socializing, and answering questions. It’s particularly important to respond to people who follow me and who send @hrheingold messages to my attention. I can’t always respond to every single one, but I try. I also try to be a little entertaining once in a while, when something amuses me and I think it might amuse others.
Everyone has a different mix of these elements, which is part of the charm of Twitter. My personal opinion is that I need to keep some personal element going, but not to overdo it. I am careful to not crank up the self-promotion too much. I don’t ask questions often, but when I do, I always get a huge payoff. I needed an authoritative guide to Spanish-language online publications about social media for a course I was designing to be taught at the (online) Open University of Catalunya. I got five. In five minutes.
If it isn’t fun, it won’t be useful. If you don’t put out, you don’t get back. But you have to spend some time tuning and feeding if Twitter is going to be more than an idle amusement to you and your followers (and idle amusement is a perfectly legit use of the medium).
Returning to my use of the word literacy to describe both a set of skills for encoding and decoding as well as the community to which those skills provide entrance, I see that the use of Twitter to build personal learning networks, communities of practice, tuned information radars involves more than one literacy. The business about tuning and feeding, trust and reciprocity, and social capital is a form of network literacy that we discuss in my classes. Knowing that Twitter is a flow, not a queue like your email inbox, to be sampled judiciously is only one part of the attention literacy I started to blog about — knowing that it takes ten to twenty minutes to regain full focus when returning to a task that requires concentrated attention, learning to recognize what to pluck from the flow right now because it is valuable enough to pay attention to now, what to open in a new tab for later today, what to bookmark and get out of my way, and what to pass over with no more than a glance, are all other aspects of attention literacy that effective use of Twitter requires. My students who learn about the presentation of self and construction of identity in the psychology and sociology literature see the theories they are reading come to life on the Twitter stage every day — an essential foundation for participatory media literacy.
If you think “literacy” is too fancy, then just remember to use the word “social” in reasonable proximity to your mention of encoding and decoding skills needed in the mobile and multimedia milieu. It’s not just about knowing how. It’s about knowing how and knowing who and knowing who knows who knows what. Whatever you call this blend of craft and community, one of the most important challenges posed by the real-time, ubiquitous, wireless, always-on, often alienating interwebs are the skills required for the use of media to be productive and to foster authentic interpersonal connection, rather than waste of time and attention on phony, banal, alienated pseudo-communication. Know-how is where the difference lies.