Friday, August 12, 2011

Walking the Walk and Tweeting the Talk

According to a new survey released this week, web search engines and email are the most popular forms of digital media among the US adult population: some 92 percent of us use them, 60 percent of us, daily. Nearly half of us use social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook. What is interesting is not just the increase in overall use of SNS (nearly doubled from 2008 to 2010), but also the changing demographic: both older and more gender-balanced. The average age of the social network site user has risen from 33 to 38, with half over 35. And, at 56 percent, women's participation now slightly outnumbers that of men. However, only 13 percent of us are on Twitter (though world-wide, we are 200-million strong).

Is Twitter, as so many acquaintances dismissively say, a faddish and foolish exercise in narcissism—a sort of metaphorical modern mashup of the twentieth-century "pet rock" and vanity license plate—or, as others maintain, a valuable social, intellectual, and marketing tool?  As an inveterate tweeter, I of course incline toward the latter opinion. The usage statistic alone, absent more granular data, could support either view. If it's a fad, though, it's certainly restricted to a relatively small population, but which: the proverbial "early adapters"? (if so, what is the profile?) gen-Xers? And just how do they use it? One of my "tweeps" (to you non-users: a Twitter friend, someone I "follow" or who "follows" me) perfectly summarized the competing views last month in a nice little blogpost entitled, "How to Use Twitter (and Why It’s Not a Waste of Time." There, she lovingly and originally characterized Twitter as: "the semi-colon of social media – people have an idea of your existence but many have not fully grasped your usefulness and beauty."

We are only beginning to study the significance of new social media, and Twitter is arguably the least-studied and least-understood among them. To be sure, there have been some rather silly pieces about use of Twitter in the classroom (spare me, please; I'd be happy if my students used spellcheck intelligently), but relatively few rigorous studies of its real value in the academic and cultural sphere, proper. I hope to address that question eventually. In the meantime, I instead wanted to do something much more modest, namely: share one example of how my colleagues and I recently employed Twitter for both academic and social purposes.

As I mentioned in my brief post on the SHARP conference on the book in art and science, social media are coming to play an increasingly important role in our gatherings, and not just in a trivial or recreational way. Last year, in Helsinki, we made full use of a variety of media. For example, we live-streamed some of the main events, such as keynotes and plenaries. Most novel, however, was our use of Twitter. Several of us began to tweet coverage of the events, simply because we tweet all the time. Several people who could not attend said that this coverage not only allowed them to experience the events from a distance, but even inspired them to join the organization. We could not have hoped for a more encouraging result.

This year, as an experiment, we decided to make tweeting an official activity. Many officers on the Executive Council—the President, Vice President, Treasurer ("That, uh, that, that would be me," as Bob Newhart used to say), Recording Secretary, and Membership Secretary—are already individually active (to varying degrees) on Twitter, and there is in addition a general SHARP Twitter account as well as a special one for this conference. "Official" here meant: explicitly endorsed and encouraged from above. In order to lend some material incentive to that moral exhortation, we even offered a prize—in the form of copies of the winner of the annual Book Award—to the ten top tweeters. (Among other things, that meant putting our money where our mouth was—and your Treasurer, I can assure you, does not disburse your funds lightly). We generated over 2000 tweets, archived here.

There were many pleasures, chief among them, the rewarding feeling of belonging to a community within a community (which is to say, as far as I was concerned, a more intimate alliance rather than any form of snobbery), and the excitement at the prospect of finally meeting at the conference, or at a separate "tweet-up" after hours, face to face, people whom one knew only by their usernames, and via 140-character snippets of conversation.

In the course of our (real-life as well as virtual) conversations, SHARP Board member George Williams, by day a professor of English at the University of South Carolina Upstate, who at night dons the cape and tights of heroic editor of the "ProfHacker" blog on at the Chronicle of Higher Education, asked the more active tweeters to write up brief reflections on their use of this social networking tool at the conference for his column.

Here's the beginning of my contribution:
To tweet or not to tweet? If I do not tweet for myself, who will tweet for me? If I tweet only for myself, what am I? Twitter, as one of my non-SHARP “tweeps” says, is the most misunderstood of social media. To wary outsiders, for whom it represents an exercise in egotism, I gently explain that it all depends on what you are looking for and whom you choose to follow. In the 4 years I’ve been on Twitter, it has become one of my most valuable research and networking tools. Frankly, I am much more interested in what total strangers on Twitter are reading than what my Facebook friends had for lunch or their kids did at the birthday party. . . .
George's introduction and the rest of the individual contributions can be found here.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

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