I got asked this week to do some work with an FE college on formulating a Social Media policy, including how the college is going to use Twitter. As I was thinking about this I started to reflect on my own use of twitter over the years.
I do find twitter incredibly useful, and addictive, and indulgent, all at once. Tweeting is a strange activity, and to be honest twitter should never have caught on. Sending updates out into the ether of just 140 characters and hoping that people will follow you, seriously what is that all about? When someone first showed me twitter I remembered thinking it was preposterous and would never work. 3 years later I have changed my mind, and I’m eating my words, literally, and in bite sized chunks of 140 characters at a time.
Some people in the education world make grand claims for their twitter followers calling them a ‘personal learning network’ or PLN. This concept is coupled with some big claims about how important it is for teachers to use Twitter. I don’t buy this big story because a lot of my twitter activity is far too random to have a grand title like PLN attached to it. But of course it is presumptuous to judge how much benefit others get from Twitter, so I don’t feel the PLN advocates are necessarily wrong. I feel that Twitter can be a very useful tool for teachers and educators, and works well as a wider tool of social engagement. But using Twitter for these ends is an acquired social practice, so I thought I’d lay down in this blog entry what I have learned so far. I am by no means an expert on Twitter or even its educational uses, so this is not an exhaustive guide. Some people however will find it useful.
So here are some top tips
1. Have no expectations of Twitter
When you start tweeting don’t expect great things to happen overnight. Your first tweet will be like the feeble cheeping of a baby bird carried away by a stiff morning breeze. Nobody will care about, fewer still will read it, nothing whatsoever will happen. If you begin tweeting with expectations that you are going to get an immediate payoff, then you are using the wrong tool. You simply have to trust people, like myself, that being on twitter is worthwhile, but the pay off will take time.
2. Prepare to stick at it
This is closely related to tip number 1. Just as your first tweet will not change the world, your 100th tweet may not either. But to get any value out of twitter you have to be persistent. That persistence needs to take two forms. Firstly keep on tweeting. It is perfectly OK to tweet about what you are having to eat, or what you are reading, or any of that kind of trivia. People who don’t tweet can easily satirise twitter as boring indulgent updates from people which mean nothing, but the real people you are looking to engage with will know that tweets like ‘I just ate a donut and feel a bit sick’ are perfectly OK. In fact they demonstrate that you understand some of the key features of Twitter. Don’t think your tweets have to be witty or engaging or profound. If you can manage any of these things in a tweet, then excellent, but mundane is good too. Twitter is about authenticity, so don’t sweat the small stuff, tweet about it! And keep on tweeting for two reasons. Firstly because you get into the habit of sending tweets, and secondly because your timeline will be populated with content and people are more likely to follow you if you tweet regularly. I only follow people who have tweeted within the last couple of days, if they haven’t I assume their account is dormant so there is no value in following them. If they are just taking a break from twitter as many of us do from time to time (holiday, illness, bit of cold turkey), then when they start tweeting again the usual mechanisms outlined below will bring them to your attention and you can follow them at this later stage.
3. Build your following, carefully
You can follow anybody on Twitter and anyone can follow you. This democratic principle is no doubt related to its success. And when you first start tweeting there is a strong temptation to follow lots of people, which in itself is no bad thing. The more people you follow, the more tweets you read and the more idea you get of how Twitter works. You can only really learn twitter by tweeting and reading the tweets of others. But if you are looking to use Twitter as an educator and as a developmental tool, you need to be a bit more selective about how you build a following or you may have one too many curly-toed weirdoes in your PLN. Take the time to click through to the timeline of people you are intending to follow and ask yourself if they look interesting and if they are tweeting about things which interest you. You can then follow them. But don’t be too strict about this rule, I follow people who are quite random sometimes just to add some spice. If I only followed people interested in just the things I am interested in, then I would be restricting my horizons pointlessly.
4. When you find a good tweeter, follow who they follow
Early in your twitter journey you will find some tweeters who you realise are tweeting good stuff. They may tweet lots of interesting links, or pose interesting questions or appear just to be interesting and engaging. They will almost certainly be tweeters who regularly reply to other tweeters. Spend a little bit of time in their timeline and start following the people they are bantering with. People on twitter band together in clumps of likemindedness, so this strategy shortcuts you into those networks.
5. Never compare your stats with other tweeters
This is a crucial tip, it should really have been number 1. There will always be people on twitter who have more followers than you, and have tweeted more than you. By the same token you will see people with fewer followers (once you pick up about 10 or so), and fewer tweets (once you break the 100 barrier). Comparisons with others are largely meaningless. Number of followers means nothing unless you are a celebrity, in which case, why are you reading this article. If you are an educator then you may have just 100 followers, and be following just 100 people but get huge amounts of value out of twitter. Define the size of your followers and following by the value you get from it, rather than any external goals. Likewise if you follow someone with over 100,000 tweets, don’t think that you need to strive to reach that number. Keep tweeting, keep it regular and stay engaged, but stats alone are no measure of what twitter can do for you.
So what do you get for all of this effort?
This article so far has been rather quiet on the direct benefits of using Twitter if you are an educator. If this was dragon’s den and I was pitching Twitter to the dragons as a ‘must have’ tool for educators I would already have been humiliated and sent (probably pushed) down the stairs and Evan Davis’ baldy bonce would be bouncing around with excitement as he interviewed me on what had gone wrong. So let’s put that right, let’s look at what you get.
For building up a following of likeminded people on Twitter and contributing to this from your tweets, you will get: lots of excellent links to websites delivered directly to you; lots of interesting and provocative ideas delivered in a very concentrated format (Twitter is like ideas espresso); answers to questions you pose from very generous people who are willing to help you; instant notification of trends and hot topics so you get well ahead of the curve; some good laughs from tweeters who can compress wit, insight and style into 140 characters; encouragement and sympathy if things do get a bit much; useful strategies on how other cope. And lots of other stuff besides, but you will have to go and find this out for yourself. Please don’t take my tweet for it.
I have a follow up to this posting in draft with some more advanced tips once you have started on twitter and are starting to get addicted.