Twitterati in the academy

Twitter divides opinion, but some scholars view it as a tool that could benefit their work. Jesse Whittock reports

April 30, 2009

Twitter, the social networking service that allows users to send short messages to "followers", is seen by many within academia as an example of dumbing down in society.

However, signs of a cautious but growing take-up of the service have emerged in higher education. For example, the Research Information Network (RIN) joined Twitter last month and has been encouraged by the promotional and networking possibilities it offers.

Sarah Gentleman, an RIN spokeswoman, said the organisation was "open to researchers using technologies that are useful".

Although she added that it was "very unlikely" Twitter would ever become a platform for serious academic discussion, it was well suited to use as a "bookmarking" service.

But some academics in the UK are beginning to see Twitter as a tool that could benefit, and maybe even improve, their work.

Its most obvious applications include linking to other websites, blogs and journals, and creating networks, but according to Chris Brauer, lecturer in online journalism at City University London, its academic uses depend on how active researchers are willing to be.

If they commit to Twitter, he said, they may find it can quickly yield positive results and "help to address one of the great criticisms of academic work - that it is densely written and inaccessible to all but the most specialist audiences".

He said: "In many ways, Twitter is an ideal virtual communication platform for academics as it can be applied to gathering and analysing data, expanding research horizons and promoting work.

"Networks of worldwide specialist interest can form easily between academics, directing each other to interesting ideas and their own research results."

Of particular interest was the opportunity it gave for researchers to communicate with subgroups of like-minded specialists, he said.

Astonishing growth

Last year, use of Twitter grew by an astounding 974 per cent in the UK, according to consumer research company Nielsen Online. Worldwide, the figure was 1,382 per cent.

Mr Brauer said that although UK academics were still a minority among the 7 million British Twitterati, he was in contact with professors who had been learning to use it to their advantage.

Websites such as Mr Brauer's Blogscholar (an academic blogging portal - harness Twitter to feed ideas to academics from around the world through links and blogs.

He added that social media services such as Twitter were now more acceptable research tools, particularly in relation to case studies.

"These things work in cycles, depending on what's popular," Mr Brauer said. "Right now, social media represents the Zeitgeist, particularly tools such as Twitter."

However, participation levels among UK academics remain low, particularly in comparison with their North American peers.

Mr Brauer, who is taking a PhD in sociology and computing, believes this is where British scholars are missing a trick.

"It is important for them to understand that Twitter is not necessarily a final knowledge destination, but it can serve as a very effective signposting service supporting the core academic tenet of spreading ideas," he said.

His view is echoed by Jonathan Baldwin, lecturer in design history, theory and practice at the University of Dundee. He is part of a group of academics who use Twitter to arrange meetings, exchange ideas and contribute to research projects.

"Twitter is more an information-sharing network" than something that can help with practical research, Mr Baldwin said.

Jon Hickman, course convener for Birmingham City University's social media MA - the first of its kind in the UK - called Twitter his "water-cooler space".

He uses it as a platform to expand his list of academic contacts, which shrank after he left the sector for a spell in industry.

In September, the RIN will publish a paper that it hopes will shed light on how online technologies such as Twitter can be incorporated into academic research.

The project will investigate issues such as the demographic characteristics of academics who use Twitter, perceptions of quality in social media and how they are being used in scholarly work.

But, despite the stirrings of approval from the RIN, Twitter has not yet lost its ability to divide academic opinion, as Mr Hickman, who himself has been accused of being a "social media evangelist" by the press, explained. "In some places it is verging on a moral panic. Some people are completely outraged by the banality of what they perceive Twitter is, and yet others are overly excited by it," he said.

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