This week I attended a conference about professional development in Scotland. The participants were Community Learning and Development workers (CLD). I was there to show how the various ways in which a SMARTboard could be used for teaching, training and groupwork. There was also a focus on the use of ‘social media’ as a professional development tool and a way of engaging with individuals.
What struck me most forcefully is the way in which ‘social media’ (mostly defined as Facebook and Twitter), polarised the audience, with strong emotions on both sides. Many were strongly in favour of these engagements, but others felt ‘social media’ is more of a force for harm than good. Many of the debates were about using social media to connect with young and vulnerable people, a topic which does require sensitivity, and which is not the focus of this blog post. Instead I choose to focus on social media as a tool of professional development, an aspect which I think the conference neglected.
During the debate, I chatted to a participant who said: ‘you don’t do that twitter, do you?’ I felt a bit like the man who was asked ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’. The question felt very leading, and the questioner was fully expecting me to confirm that whilst ‘cruelty to animals’, ‘being a Jedward fan’ and ‘parking in disabled spaces’ were all little vices of mine I was happy to admit to, I would not be caught dead sending a tweet. Awkward. I shrugged and admitted that I did go on a twitter ‘a little bit’, which got me a very disappointed look.
But I can totally understand hostility to twitter, especially when its use is brought up within the context of a professional community with a vague but palpable notion lurking in the background that people should really get an account and start tweeting.
Twitter is opaque in the extreme to the outsider; a welter of unfathomable terms and a clique of weird rituals. Evoking religious metaphors is not completely out of place here. Just as believers wrap themselves in a cloak of flim-flammery which makes it hard for neophytes to penetrate, so twitter users appear as a ‘cult of the initiated’ in which newcomers are bound to make fools of themselves. And twitter is very like Marmite, most people have a sufficient taste of it and declare themselves to love it or hate it. Paradoxically for the social network which appears the most ephemeral (140 characters shot out into the ether), twitter requires hard-work and a strange dedication for it to work, and this contributes to the ‘love it, or hate it’ vibe.
Twitter can be a fantastic professional development tool though. I can think of no other way to find people working in your own area so quickly and have such a direct contact with them. They will tweet links and articles and thoughts which will be immediately useful to you. It’s like duplicating yourself many times over. The slight time penalty of checking your timeline should be more than paid off with your enhanced view of what is happening in your area right now. And the paradox is that you can do this without ever sending a single tweet. Simply follow people who tweet about stuff you are interested in and these benefits will accrue immediately. Some will follow you back, some won’t. But you get to earwig the conversation like a bystander at a cocktail party. Once you start to tweet, your following should increase quickly and you’ll be drawn into the virtuous circle of sharing, debating and conversation which is twitter at its best.
But explaining the power of twitter to those who have not tweeted is a little like forcing toast and marmite into the mouths of your breakfast companions whilst shouting: ‘taste this you bastard, it’s bloody gorgeous!’
In other words, not the done thing.