Everyone talks about Twitter in the newspapers, on the radio and on the TV, yet very few people truly understand it. I was amazed to hear two radio presenters discussing why so many people would be interested in the question “What are you doing?”. Who, they asked, would want to know what the presenters had had for breakfast? Of course, we don’t want to know what everyone has for breakfast, but the people who believe that that is all Twitter is for fundamentally misunderstand the technology.
I made the same mistake, too, until someone emailed me and said, “Please don’t tell me where you are flying off to today, but do tell me of any interesting websites you find at the conference you are going to.” The idea of Twitter is to network with other people who are working in the same area as you. You send “tweets” of interesting articles, websites and the like, and you receive similar tweets from the people you follow. Soon your Twitter account becomes a constant flow of interesting information from people who are plugged into your area.
So how do you create these networks? It’s probably here where most people stumble. The easiest way to build up your contacts is to “piggyback”. You search for well-known people who are working in your area then click on all their followers. You can guess that most of the people who follow them will be interested in similar things to you. Once you start following people, you will find that about 50 per cent of them will follow you in return. You’ll need to piggyback a few times before you really get going. You can also search using the keywords related to your topic area and then follow the people using them.
This is when the fun starts. You will start receiving ideas and articles that you will find useful, and you will want to tweet them to your followers. You can also send out your tweets. If people like your tweets, they will begin to “retweet” them to their own followers, some of whom will choose to follow you, too. In a very short time, you can build up an amazing network of people involved in your area. A tweet I did last week was retweeted by four people (there is software that helps you track your retweets). The total number of followers came to more than 5,000. So my one tweet went out to more than 5,000 people around the world, most of them interested in the same area as me.
Once you begin, you realise how the networks grow. Use the “hash-tag” to show what topics you are writing about (for example #ICT) and this makes it easier for people to find your content. Every week in the field of education learning technology (ELT), on “teacher Tuesday”, people send out a tweet showing their favourite tweeters of the past seven days. So slowly you can build up a refined network of good contacts (although you also get a fair number of spammers who you will soon spot and want to delete).
Universities could embrace this networking potential. Imagine working in ICT and building up a network of contacts. Soon you could be tweeting information about your university conference, talks you have organised, new courses. You might receive tweets about jobs for your students, about good websites or new technology. The marketing and academic potential is amazing. You can easily spot those who have embraced the potential because they often have upwards of 100,000 followers.
I tweet people towards my open educational resources content on www.multimediatrainingvideos.com. This has generated loads of interest in the site, and a few tweeters have inquired about the MSc course that the content is related to. I recently went to a conference for young ICT entrepreneurs. On Twitter I followed the speakers and all their followers. These are all young students interested in multimedia, and thus potential students on multimedia courses. Now I have a huge network of young entrepreneurs, many of whom tweet me back to say how much they like my site.
Institutions cannot create such networks from the top. Such a project needs one strategic person in each subject area, and it requires resources and time. There are tools that can help you search and track the people you want to network with. But if I can build a network of about 2,000 users in just four weeks (I now have three accounts, one each for ICT, ELT and multimedia), imagine what a well-organised strategy could do for a whole university.
Russell Stannard is principal lecturer, University of Westminster, and winner of the Times Higher Education 2008 Award for “Outstanding Initiative in ICT”.