On the Utility of Twitter

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As many of my readers know, I am very active on Twitter and Facebook; Facebook doesn’t seem to get a reaction from people any more, but people often wonder what the point of Twitter is. When I do tell people I’m on Twitter, the “I really don’t care what you had for breakfast” reaction is pretty common. Twitter still suffers from a bit of an image problem, but there is quite a large number of Classicists — professional, rogue, amateur, and lapsed — and plenty of folks in related disciplines on Twitter who are sharing some incredible things. Over the past couple of days, e.g., a group (who have all given me permission to post this) has been engaged in a rather interesting discussion which can serve to highlight why more folks might find Twitter to be useful for their purposes.

For background, Dr Penny Goodman was giving a talk at the British Museum as part of a program Lead the Way: Teaching Classics Through Material Culture. After giving her talk, she was tweeting about the other talks which were going on, in particular, one by Ray Laurence about Children in the Roman City. Here’s what spun out of that over the past couple of days (most of these are in order; some seem out of order temporally, but they don’t really offend the flow of the conversation):



… the conversation will likely continue a bit, but hopefully one can see the potential utility of Twitter in a scholarly situation. Here we witness an excellent use of Twitter in ‘real time’ to discuss/clarify what might be a minor point in the grand scheme of things but is the sort of thing one might definitely want to file away/make note of for later. Some might suggest this is the same sort of thing one might get on, say, the Classics list, and to an extent that is true. But Twitter offers features which one tends not to find in more formal situations like the Classics list. First and foremost is the immediacy — where people might check their email a few times a day, folks seem to be on Twitter almost constantly. This is likely because Twitter is much more convenient to use on handheld devices which are pretty much omnipresent these days (yes, I know you can do email on your Blackberry, but it’s a bit of a pain). A spinoff of this is that queries tend to be answered within hours (if not minutes)  because folks don’t need to wait to ‘get back to the office’ to respond. I’m not sure if it’s a general statement, but people also seem much less likely to be a ‘lurker’ in a Twitter conversation if they ‘know something’ than they might be on a list (i.e. Twitter is less ‘intimidating’). Also worth mentioning is the fact that Twitter limits the length of replies to 140 characters also tends to keep everyone ‘on topic’.

One disadvantage which emerged as I was doing this post is the fact that Twitter doesn’t thread conversations like your email program or even Usenet might. If the conversation is short — say, four or five replies — it’s not a big deal, as Twitter seems to keep that many together in ‘conversation view’. But once it gets beyond five or so, it seems to have problems and one has to dig, which can be a problem depending on how many people one is following. Of course, that’s only a problem with longer conversations such as this one, and really should not detract from the obvious utility of using Twitter as yet another scholarly tool. Again, I (probably naively) foresee a day when folks not attending a conference (such as the APA or CAC) can get a feel for what’s going on because others are sharing via Twitter.

UPDATE (the next day): The conversation did continue a bit … I’ve added a few Tweets to give it ‘closure’ … Liz Gloyn has also written her view of the conversation

UPDATE (later the next day): see now also H. Niyazi (a.k.a. 3pipenet): From Pompeii to Cyberspace – Transcending barriers with Twitter

5 thoughts on “On the Utility of Twitter

  1. I’m feeling a bit guilty that my only contribution to this conversation was to joke that I would be in trouble with the graffitti author for my dislike of Cicero… (in my defense, I have a job interview next week and spent this weekend at a hen do so haven’t had a chance to get into Lewis and Short!). Absolutely agree with the post, though – Twitter really does have its own specific usefulness and is a great way to connect for anyone who prefers Facebook to be a bit more private.

    1. Thanks for this post – I wanted to run something similar over on my blog, but as I don’t have my own installation of WordPress, I can’t use Blackbird Pie!

      Speaking personally, I actually tweet from my laptop as I have an aversion to all things smartphone-shaped, but I agree that it would be wonderful to have the APA and CA live-tweeted. The time will come!

  2. Another point this illustrated for me is a sometimes neglected feature of Twitter as portrayed in other places: because most people’s accounts are public, and following is asymmetrical, it’s an excellent place to be introduced to people in one’s areas of interest with whom one is not otherwise in contact. All of my fellow participants in this conversation are people whose accounts I began to follow after retweets or mentions by others I already knew or followed.

    Of course, this would have been much easier to follow with a hashtag, which is standard practice for conference and similar tweeting.

  3. Thanks for the round-up of what was a very enjoyable conversation to participate in! I agree with Terrence that a hash-tag would have made life easier (which I believe 3pipenet also suggested), but of course none of us knew how extensive the conversation was going to become when we started out. All the same, though, it is indeed a lovely example of the sort of crowd-sourcing, tossing-ideas-around potential which Twitter has. And I don’t think it’s at all naive to foresee the tweeting of Classical conferences in the near future. It is already common established practice for political conferences and fan conventions (both of which are generally attended by large numbers of active Tweeters), and happened to some extent with this year’s Classical Association conference, using the #ClassAss2011 hash-tag. As more Classicists are drawn to and find one another on Twitter, and speakers begin to understand that people in the audience holding mobile phones may be tweeting, rather than boredly texting their friends, I’m sure it will grow.

  4. Twitter is absolutely useful, and I agree with you that most people who don’t use it still seem to be unable to get past the idea that it’s all about what Ashton Kutcher had for lunch. It’s all down to who you follow as to how useful it can be.

    One tool that you might like to investigate is ThinkUp. It’s a bit hard to explain, but here’s a post I wrote on it recently http://chrisbetcher.com/2011/04/mining-for-meaning-with-thinkup/

    Actually, there’s another post I wrote recently that you might find useful in helping your non-Twittering friends to see some of the benefits at http://chrisbetcher.com/2011/04/1483/

    Thanks for the post.

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