Friday, February 29, 2008

All A Twitter

So, one of the things that Paull Young brought up in his talk to my class this past Tuesday, a topic that kept coming up when we went out for dinner afterwards, was Twitter. This wasn't the first I heard of it, my friend and colleague Paul Levinson, who got me started here on Blogger, and over on MySpace, has been mentioning Twitter for a while now, but I didn't see it in action until Paull Young demonstrated it in class, and then continued to interact with it afterwards.

Twitter is a relatively new aspect of social networking, and it has been referred to as microblogging. It's micro, because you only have 140 characters per post. So it's kind of a cross between blogging and instant messaging, kind of an IM that goes out to whoever is subscribed to you.

I suppose the short message format is perfect for short attention spans--it's an ADHD world out there, but more importantly, the format will obviously limit the kind of post that you can put up. So, with Twitter what you tend to get are updates on what people are doing, for example Paull posted that he was going to Fordham to talk to my class. Then, some people who had something to say about Fordham responded (what they said I won't go into).

Or you can post a thought that occurred to you. I subscribed to Howard Rheingold, or as they put it, I'm following him, and yesterday he sent out this message:

Assuming Twitter continues to grow, early adopters have higher chance of becoming hubs in small world network via preferential attachment

Or you can post a URL for an interesting website, blogpost, video, etc.. For example, earlier today, Paull Young sent out a link for this video, which is pretty funny I think, and worth including here for its own sake:

In case that doesn't work, you can go view it directly on the Boing Boing TV site.

I should note that Paull economized in the post by utilizing, a service that gives you a short web address that will connect directly to another, longer one. This seems to be all but indispensable for this new medium. It's also worth noting that the URL came across as a hot link, meaning I could click on it and go to the website, rather than having to copy and paste it into the browser.

What adds to the functionality of twitter is that it works with mobile devices, so for example I have the messages coming in to my cell phone as text messages. You can turn it off, thankfully, but I can see right off the bat that I am going to have to monitor my cell phone's battery more carefully, and recharge it more often. But this does allow you to post to twitter by sending a text message, so you can continue to communicate and interact on the go, without a computer.

Now I can just here my dear old mentor, Neil Postman, saying, "But Lance, to what problem is this twitter a solution?" I can also hear a crowd of his former students noisily echoing that question--be quiet, will you?! I myself have to ask myself, self, is this anything more than a time waster? Do I really need to inform the world of what I'm having for lunch? Or learn when other people are getting up or going to bed? Admittedly, it might be nice for family members to be kept informed of what their loved ones are up to, especially if they are a distance away, but that is quite different from having a number of people who you may or may not know following you, and you in turn following them.

Having been on twitter for all of two days, I think it's a bit premature to offer any kind of extensive assessment. In part, I am just letting you all know that I'm now doing twitter, and in fact I've added a twitter widget to this blog. If you haven't noticed it yet, look over to the right, your right, not mine, under my picture, and the line that says "About Me--Lance Strate," and the one that says, "View my complete profile" and you'll see it: "Twitter Updates," followed by the ten most recent entries. I'm sure it's quite clear that we're dealing with an entirely different kind of animal here, more like a telegraphic dispatch than the epistolatory medium of e-mail, or the weblog form of publication that I am engaged in here.

But, if nothing else, from now on you can get my twitter updates from this site, even if you're not on twitter. And that means that even if I haven't posted a new blog, you can still get some new content when you come to the site. For what that's worth.

Now, I'm sure this post seems altogether a statement of the obvious to anyone already using twitter. Sorry about that folks, but I know I have readers who don't do twitter yet, and may never do it at all. Plus, I have been doing a related form of microblogging for a bit longer--in January I started using the MySpace version of twitter, which involves a combination of posting a short message as a "Status Update" and indicating your "Mood" by choosing from a preset menu that includes many emotions, and also strange entries like blank, crunk, jedi, knighted, ninja, and quixotic. This is a less extensive format, one that's fully integrated into the MySpace environment, with almost no functionality outside of it, but there are enough similarities to give me some additional insight into this mode of communication.

So, I will offer some preliminary reactions and highly tentative thoughts on this medium.

There is no question, on the negative side, that this is a distraction, and no doubt it is a time-waster, and addictive to boot. Of course, that's not unique to twitter, it can be said of most new media today,a nd their older counterparts. I will say that as a form of microblogging, the amount of time spent on this medium is relatively miniscule, much less than the time it is taking to write this blog, for instance, or even to deal with my e-mail. It's the nanosecond culture, an aspect of cybertime at work (as I wrote about in my anthology, Communication and Cyberspace).

What it does provide is a sense of connection. I'm sure the value of feeling like you are never entirely alone is much greater for single people who can feel fairly isolated than it is for busy family types like myself who want nothing more than some peace and quiet and solitude, but I can still see the attraction it would have for everyone. I have observed that on MySpace, when you post your status, sometimes people respond though their own status messages, or by sending a private message. I've had comments when I've quoted lyrics, for example, people saying they like the artist too, and I've seen and participated in the exchange of humorous messages. On MySpace, updates lead to increased online interaction. I would assume that to be the case with twitter as well. And increased online interaction can, in some instances, lead people to interact as well offline, by telephone or in person. My conclusion, then, is twitter means never having to be entirely alone. It also is another means of blurring the distinction between public and private, and undermining privacy, but that's the general thrust of all electronic media, after all.

On MySpace, I've also had people showing concern when I've posted something like I'm not feeling well or I'm aggravated about something. That sense of connection can also provide a feeling of security, the security that accompanies the feeling that you are never quite alone. Maybe no one can rush to your aid, but they could answer a question, offer suggestions, search for information for you, provide comfort and emotional support, etc.

And there there is the power of collaboration to enhance productivity. For example, I tweeted--twitter messages are referred to as tweets, and the verb form, to send a message on twitter, is to tweet--that I was working on a blog about twitter, and received a response from Paull Young which began with a joke and ended with a helpful reference: "Keep it under 140 characters ;) I wrote one on the biz side recently:" and this was followed by the URL to his Converseon blog post, Examples of Twitter Providing Business Benefit. Some of the key points he makes there is that twitter can be used to build a knowledge network--in fact, what I am doing right now in including his suggestion is a fine example of that, as well as a crisis warning system, a method for recruitment, and for beta testing systems, websites, etc. But you can read Paull's post for yourself, after you're done reading this one I hope.

Then, I got a response from Ted Baker, one of my students in my Interactive Media class--see our Interactive Rams blog. Ted is the most computer savvy member of the class, and was already on twitter, so while Paull Young was demonstrating it via computer projection in our class, Ted had located him and sent him a reply message right then and there, which gave me a chuckle I might add. Anyway, Ted replied with, "don't forget to post a link here when you're done" and I answered back, "I'll include the link, but the post itself will be very basic"--exciting stuff, I know. But in all seriousness, Ted's suggestion is worthwhile in that I might not have thought to do it, or might need the reminder.

In truth, I am quite used to promoting various things on MySpace, mainly though their bulletin function, which sends a message that goes to everyone in your network (everyone you are "friends" with), although there are people who don't read their bulletins, or don't keep up with them when they're not logged on. The status updates can be used to promote things too, although you can't add hot links like you can on MySpace bulletins and with twitter, but they can alert people that you've just put a post up. I've also found that updating my status leads to more blog hits in general (they are measured internally, that is, only the number of logged in MySpacers are counted), and more comments left on the blogs, than I would otherwise get. It seems that just reminding people that I exist gets a certain percentage of them to go to my MySpace blog and see what's there.

So, another conclusion is that microblogging can be used to get attention for yourself and whatever you're doing, for publicity and promotion in other words. In semiotic terms, this form of messaging is a sign that points to and directs people to something other than itself, and has a strange sort of indexicality.

I also got a response from Jamie Grefe, who I have never met, although I did have some contact with him prior to twitter--a week ago he sent me an e-mail explaining that he was a graduate of Grand Valley State University in Michigan, having studied with my friend and colleague Corey Anton, was very interested in media ecology, and is now living in Japan. I'm not sure how he found out, but not too long after I signed on to twitter I got a notice that he had started following me (I get notified by e-mail whenever it happens), and I then reciprocated. So anyway, Jamie replied, "looking forward to reading this. Found a Twitter FanWiki:" and this site indeed looks very interesting. I've bookmarked it and I'll explore it more thoroughly in the near future. Thank you, Jamie!

Oh, funny. I've been going back and forth to twitter to get the responses from people and just check the updates, and I noticed there was one person who was sending messages much more frequently than anyone else, and the messages themselves didn't make much sense. I was following this person because I had gotten the e-mail saying this person was now following me, and so far I've universally reciprocated (the only person I'm following who isn't following me is Howard Rheingold). But I've been hearing my cell phone alert going off over and over again in the other room where it's charging, and all of the messages from this one person is driving other peoples on to older pages, which I find a little annoying. So, the bottom line is, enough is enough, and I'm no longer following this particular individual.

Okay, back to being serious. In today's e-mail newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education, there was a notice of an article about twitter--what synchronicity! I saw it mentioned and set the link aside knowing I'd be doing this blog post, so let me now read it as I continue writing this entry. The article is entitled
Forget E-Mail: New Messaging Service Has Students and Professors Atwitter--wait a minute, they stole my joke, the one I used in my title, a twitter, well, I guess that's pretty obvious, huh? Well, there's no copyrighting titles, not that mine is the same, it's just what we arrived at the same pun, so I'll leave mine be. Anyway, the article is from the issue dated February 29, 2008 (p. A15) , and the author is Jeffrey R. Young (maybe a relation, Paull?). The article begins with some basic information, which we've already gone over, about what twitter is and how it works. But since reinforcement is educationally sound, here it is:

Anyone who feels overloaded with information from e-mail, blogs, and Web sites probably won't want to read this. But some professors, librarians, and administrators have begun using Twitter, a service that can blast very short notes (up to 140 characters) to select users' cellphones or computer screens.

The practice is often called microblogging because people use it to send out pithy updates about their daily lives. No need to wait until you are back at your computer to let friends know that you loved the latest Paul Thomas Anderson film or that you thought of a new idea for an academic article while waiting in line at the grocery store. Twitter lets you send a text message from your cellphone to a set list of contacts, called followers, who can set the system to receive messages via their cellphones, their instant-message software, or a Web-based program.

Now, with the preliminaries out of the way, the writer moves from twitter in general to its presence on the college campus:

As iPhones and other "smart phones" become more popular on campuses, and as computing becomes even more mobile, it seems that some form of Twitter-like service may become part of student and faculty life. But the technology has potential costs in terms of money and privacy. Some observers, essentially arguing that there is such a thing as too much information, say that Twittering will never catch on the way blogs and e-mail have.

Here we also see some of the negative aspects of the technology being mentioned, much as I did earlier in this post. That continues as we transition into the question of what would be the specific educational applications of this new medium?

David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, says he was reluctant to try the technology. Mr. Parry's first instinct was that Twittering would encourage students to speak in sound bites and self-obsess. But now he calls it "the single thing that changed the classroom dynamics more than anything I've ever done teaching."

Last semester he required the 20 students in his "Introduction to Computer-Mediated Communication" course to sign up for Twitter and to send a few messages each week as part of a writing assignment. He also invited his students to follow his own Twitter feed, in which he sometimes writes several short thoughts — not necessarily profound ones — each day. One morning, for instance, he sent out a message that read: "Reading, prepping for grad class, putting off running until it warms up a bit." The week before, one of his messages included a link to a Web site he wanted his students to check out.

The posts from students also mixed the mundane with the useful. One student Twittered that she just bought a pet rabbit. Another noted that a topic from the class was being discussed on a TV-news report.

The immediacy of the messages helped the students feel more like a community, Mr. Parry says. "It really broke down that barrier between inside the classroom walls and outside the classroom walls."

Now, I think that sense of community is a very powerful and significant effect of all forms of social networking. It doesn't happen automatically, but, as Lynn White, Jr. said of technology, it opens a door. Now, it also seems entirely appropriate to be using twitter in a class on computer-mediated communication, or interactive media, for that matter, where part of the point would be to study the new medium. But how about for any other type of class? Well, the article continues with an example from an English course:

Jason B. Jones, an assistant professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, uses his iPhone to post a message to Twitter after every class session as "a way to jot down a little reflection about the class — how it went, things that were frustrating or worked really well — so that I can remember them later." Students who see the messages often give him a reality check, though. "If I thought something didn't go well, I've had people say, Actually we understood that fine, we were distracted by something else or we were just tired," he says.

Next, Blackboard is brought up. For those not familiar with it, Blackboard is educational computing software that schools purchase, that automatically create a private site on the school's computer system for each class, with the students enrolled in the class also signed into the class. You can post your syllabi, handouts, and assignments there, send e-mail to all the students at once, and have online discussions. It's not that different from systems ranging from the old America Online and Compuserve sites and other bulletin boards, to Yahoo! with its groups, Google, and MySpace, Facebook, etc. Blackboard isn't as good as the contemporary social networking sites, but it exists within the university's computer system, behind its firewall, it's purchased and the content owned by the school, and it offers a measure of privacy. Now, here's what the article says:

Blackboard plans to add a Twitter-like messaging tool to its course-management system, which is used at hundreds of colleges around the country. The company recently announced plans to acquire NTI Group, a company that sells text-message notification systems to colleges for use in emergencies. NTI's systems don't have all the features of Twitter, but they could be used in similar ways.

"We're going to incorporate that technology at the classroom level," says Michael L. Chasen, president of Blackboard. For instance, he says, "Professors could send a message to their entire class to let them know that class has been canceled this week."

After all, Mr. Chasen says, many students now communicate primarily using their cellphones. "Having the ability to do mass messaging is becoming more important on a campus," he says.

Now, back to the downside. You gotta love how these articles swing back and forth in this way, fair and balanced, objective reporting, at least in style if not substance. In this case, the problem is that when it comes to cell phones, texting can cost money:

But not every student is excited to see a professor's message on his or her cellphone. It can cost money, for one thing, since many cellphone plans charge a few cents for each text message received. (Companies also offer flat rates for unlimited text messaging, and students who are frequent texters often have such plans already).

I know I have to get on an unlimited plan now. Then there's the problem of transparency. Unlike e-mail or text messages which are sent to a specific recipient so that others have at least some difficulty accessing them, twitter is an open medium:

Twittering also creates a public record of every message sent — at least on the service's default settings — because all Twitter users get Web pages where archives of their messages are posted. So students and professors should be careful what thoughts they share.
Of course, the same is true of Facebook and MySpace profiles, pictures and videos posted to social media sites, and even for e-mail messages which can be intercepted, read by administrators, and forwarded inadvertently or intentionally.

Anyway, now it's back to that sense of community, and in this instance, professional collegiality:

Some college officials are using Twitter to keep in touch with colleagues at other universities. For Laura J. Little, the instructional technologist at Marietta College, that means following the Twitter feeds of people she knows as well as people she's never met.

"I like skydaddy," she says, referring to the Twitter nickname of Corrie Bergeron, an instructional designer at Lakeland Community College who frequently posts links and thoughts. "It's probably really relevant to folks who are isolated in their field," says Ms. Little, noting that she is the only instructional technologist at her college.

Or, as Mr. Bergeron puts it, "It's like a hallway conversation at a conference."

And there is the added benefit of collaborative learning, and immediate consultation:

Twitter can be a much faster way to get help from colleagues than sending an e-mail message to a list or posting a question on a blog, says Ms. Little. Once when she was preparing a presentation, she posted a question to her contacts on Twitter and got an answer in just a few minutes. "If I had posted that on a blog post, it would have taken three hours."

Finally, we have the example of twitter being used by university libraries:

Kenley E. Neufeld, library director at Santa Barbara City College, recently set up a Twitter feed for his library, and he posts announcements about closing times and encouragements to visit the library.

Other libraries and groups are also blasting out updates via Twitter. At a recent conference in Philadelphia, the American Library Association set up a conference Twitter feed, says Mr. Neufeld.

I found this a bit disappointing, as this seems fairly trivial. I would imagine that a more valuable use would be to function as a virtual helpdesk, to get a librarian's aid and advice when you are in the middle of researching something. Sure, we can access Google, but sometimes we need help knowing what to ask, or which of the many answers we get from a search is worth our attention, or where else we should be looking.

Anyway, the article ends on a mixed note:

Still, Mr. Parry, of Dallas, admits that he's seen many colleagues try Twitter and drop it in frustration.

"I think people see it as too noisy," he said.

In other words, it's not for everybody. Maybe not, maybe not, but right now it's all right with me.


shyloh said...

welcome to blogspot. Been a member here forever ha.

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I've been using Twitter for many moons, and the specific service it provides is that I keep up with certain friends who are otherwise not very communicative. It's a way to know if they're sick or broken-hearted or anything. And when one who is local went on an overseas holiday it was an easy way of knowing what was happening for him. Easy for him too, to let me know that way (and perhaps other friends).

And likewise people can find out what's going on with me, either by joining Twitter or looking at the Twitter updates on my blogs.

But I'm not the least interested in the rest of it. If strangers want to follow me, they're welcome though I can't imagine why they would. I however don't follow them. I did briefly follow one woman writer who sounded interesting, but she was like your guy with the many messages in a short space of time, crowding out those I really cared about. I ditched her quick. I only follow six people and am only followed by 10 (so, only four strangers). I think some follow me for a while and then get sick of it and opt out .. but I haven't taken that much notice.

I use my mobile (cell phone) only for emergencies, so I only tweet on computer. I'm lucky if I remember to do it once a week, and the friends I wanted to keep in touch with are even worse; they sometimes let months go by. That can have me feeling a bit lonely for a moment! But we are all on MySpace, and now that we have Status Updates there, Twitter seems a bit superfluous. I now keep it mainly for friends who can look at it on my Blogger blogs. I do still have Twitter windows on my MySpace profiles, as the information is somewhat different from the Status Updates - and I often forget to do that too.

I can't imagine how people have the time to interact electronically to the degree that they obviously do!

And don't even get me started on the absolute peurility of Facebook.

Mike said...

Everybody has its own view and way of thinking. Some think that they can make good friends via these sites and some think that they have to meet face to face with a person to make friends.

Mike Plugh said...

I've been aware of it since hearing Dr. Levinson speak of it some months ago and I've frequently come across it on blogs and such. I never saw the point in the service and frankly still don't.

The benefits you've described in the post here seem to be offset by the loss of attention to lengthier and more comprehensive dialog. For example, if you reduce communication to the text message/Twitter form you essentially reduce the letter to the Post-It note. The result of this transition is inevitably the loss of patience in reading anything more than a few truncated sentences.

Those people in the text generation who are growing accustomed to this form of abbreviated discourse will surely be less likely to engage in extended interaction of any kind. Less conversation. Less patience for reading books. Heck, less patience for reading a magazine article for that matter.

A friend who recently re-entered the dating scene told me that in the 2.5 years since last being single a lot has changed. Her recent interaction with a young man was strictly text messaging to her surprise. After meeting in person, rather than the traditional phone call to set up the first date there was a text. This went on until they actually met for the 2nd time. Even after the date the texting was the sole form of interaction until she decided that she'd had enough and called him on her own.

What does this say for the future of human interaction? Are we losing the last vestiges of our corporeality? The disembodied voice still retains part of our physical identity, but the text or the Twitter is a pure digital form with only a trace of interpretable representation of the person on the other side of the communication.

In some ways, we like the safety of the vagueness in electronic communication because we no longer have to give up any part of ourselves to the other party. Our tone of voice won't betray us. Our gestures, posture, or facial expressions are safely hidden. All there is now is abbreviated "twitters" of our whole selves. We're disappearing into electricity completely.

Kenley Neufeld said...

Thanks for continuing the conversation about Twitter. It has been fun over the past year to test out the application and possible uses of Twitter in an academic environment.

Though I agree with you, on some level, that what I'm doing in the library is "fairly trivial," the idea was to explore the medium and determine the possibilities. We already offer virtual reference services via meebo on the Luria Library web site and are definitely open to new applications and new ideas. I will take your comments to heart and explore the possibilities. At this point, we only have one follower on the Luria Library Twitter account but perhaps that will change too so that new value can be found.