How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live: A Response

Date June 7, 2009

Common Craft Twitter Video. Watch this for a great Twitter overview.

Hi, My name is Devon and I have a problem… No seriously though, I’ve been on Twitter for almost two years now, and yes, when I explain it to others, they look at me like I need a padded room and some Cialis. In part, Twitter began as a simple micro blog that answers “What are you doing right now?” but as simple as that sounds, it’s not anymore.

My timeline (that’s Twitter timeline for you noobs) has been popping off about the new Time article on Twitter: “How Twitter will change the way we live” from June 5, 2009, and as someone who is obsessed as most and about to begin to work on a workshop on Twitter, I have some responses.

As a Composition instructor, I find it interesting to be forced to maintain a response as brief as 140 characters. For high school students whose mentality is that instructors are interested in length (remember when we were in high school and padded pages with 12.5 font and/or 1.1″ margins? I do.), Twitter forces the practice on fighting verbosity in today’s composition. Moreover, Twitter also forces the author to be keenly aware of his or her audience.

Socially, yes, we can simply answer Twitter’s ubiquitous question that we’ve asked each other for decades anyway (how many of you have met up with someone or called and first asked “how’s it going?” before getting down to business?), but there are so many powerful ways to move beyond that “ambience awareness” of one’s day. How often have you been able to see photos (posted on TwitPicNeil Gaiman rolling around in the snow with his husky? Or read about Dave Navarro and his concert going experiences in Jane’s Addiction? Maybe you want to know what Lance Armstrong did today, or what Shaq’s been up to (figuratively).

Neil Gaiman enjoying time outside his home with his dog.

Neil Gaiman enjoying time outside his home with his dog.

In April 2009, Oprah sent her first tweet from her show, and I ironically was wearing my Eat. Sleep. Tweet. shirt. People looked at me like I’d jumped on some bandwagon and I spent my day tweeting about my Twitter experiences over 18 months. Her publicity coupled with Ashton Kutcher’s race with caused an interesting situation to occur for me in the Twittersphere. Before April, I had probably two current high school students want to follow me on Twitter. Both were “cool kids” who I “trusted” with my Tweets, but after that Oprah show, more and more current students began to want to follow me. This really freaked me out because at that time my Twitter audience was not my high school students. (In contrast I made my Facebook profile FOR my students to follow me.) I haven’t really come to a conclusion on the whole student following me on Twitter situation, some I allow and some I don’t, and I ever blocked all updates for a few weeks until things simmered down, but as more and more people jump into Twitter, the more diffused the whole “teacher freak who Twitters with his students” thing becomes.

Posted as part of a Twitter presentation by Chad Richards.

Posted as part of a Twitter presentation by Chad Richards.

With that said, let’s discuss some of the positives education wise that have emerged from this tool. As I mentioned above, there are “experts” in any field who you can find on Twitter every day. You can follow them (and occasionally they even follow you back!), and sometimes communication emerges that would not necessarily from an email inquiry. In my field, I consider people like Intellagirl and Michael Wesch experts (albeit both are specialized within my field), and I follow both and have actually spent time with both in real life, too. Without Twitter that relationship (virtually) would not have occurred.

People tend to gravitate around certain topics of interest. Mine are “social media” and “instructional technology”. I also teach high school English and tweet about teaching Freshman Comp. I sometimes pick up followers just because of my work, or, other times, I join a new NING and people start following me on Twitter because they stumble over my profile there. A (virtual friend) and colleague Liz B Davis, who I’ve never actually met, aggregated a list of “Educators on Twitter” and as of today (June 6, 2009) there are 765 members. No, I don’t follow them all and they do not all follow me, but the contact data I have at my fingertips is powerful in it’s own right. Another person who I know better but I still consider him an “expert” to be mentioned here (although he is too humble to believe this) is Alan Levine from the New Media Consortium. Here’s a post of his on Twitter, and below is the life cycle of a Twitter addict that he adapted from Kathy Sierra. Very fun stuff.

Alan Levine's twitter life cycle.

Alan Levine’s twitter life cycle.

What I would define as a collective intelligence that emerges from these “Twitter trees of experts” is what the Time article called “accumulation of authority”. No matter what we call it, our expert groups moved from the saloons of Dorothy Parker, to the list serves, and now to Twitter groups. Want information on anything at all? Ask on Twitter. Sometimes you get several responses within minutes. It’s like the silly old movies when someone asks for a pen or pencil and everyone in the scene shoves one at the simultaneously.

We are not all experts on all topics, but we have experiences and we have ways of collecting information. Sometimes that information includes links. Maybe we see something we want to share, so we post a link. Perhaps someone we follow on Twitter made a profound statement on the world of politics, a new musical, or a must read book. We “reTweet” these, which is a direct attribution and verbatim quote to the original poster (sometimes 2-3 people deep). Other times we don’t want to tell everyone what we have to say, so we send a Direct Message (d twitterid msg). (Sometimes people need to do this more often!) I’d like to point out what Steve Johnson already said about this in the Time article through his metaphor of the toaster oven and microwave. Neither Biz Stone nor Evan Williams, the founders of Twitter, (did you know they are friends with Will Wheaton?) came up with retweets, direct messages, or @ replies? As Johson said in the article, Ev & Biz gave the community the toaster and we made it into a microwave.

I’d like to talk at the idea of the @ sign for a moment here. In my tech circles, the @ID becomes users identity more and more. People don’t know who Sarah Robbins is as much as they know @intellagirl. Cropping up across the USA and into the UK are “Tweetups” where people gather corporeally outside of their meeting on Twitter. No longer do people introduce themselves as, for example, “hi, I am Heather Herr.” But now, when I met her, it clicked faster when she corrected herself, “On Twitter I am @msherr.” THAT person I KNEW! Her real name meant nothing, as for me, some people have no idea who Devon Adams is, but they have seen @nooccar on Twitter. A colleague, Shelley Rodrigo, (@rrodrigo for those of you playing at home), and I have signed entire presentations as devoncadams@gmail and, rather than writing our names more traditionally. Guess what goes on our presentation IDS? You guessed it, just our @IDs. Companies like Tweetup Badges, will even make your group badges for when meeting in public and in person.

365-129 (May 9)

We all know the power of Google searches that has continued to gain momentum over the last decade, but have you searched Twitter? Johnson points out that the value of searching within your extended networks may “start to rival Google’s approach to the search”. Now, we will see if Twitter search can ever truly do that, and I am of the opinion that Google will eat Twitter before that happens, but two strong search examples Johnson points out is his article are worth mentioning. “If you’re looking for information on Benjamin Franklin, an essay shared by one of your favorite historians might well be more valuable than the top result on Google; if you’re looking for advice on sibling rivalry, an article recommended by a friend of a friend might well be the best place to start.”

The power of Twitter is that it’s real time. It’s the here and now. I heard about David Carradine’s and Heath Ledger’s death on Twitter within minutes of them being found. I remember when the plane went down in the Hudson River, TwitPic’s were posted of the ferry going to rescue people within minutes (can you even imagine what it would have been like if we had Twitter on April 20, 1999 or September 11, 2001?) According to Johnson, in May 2009 an “anticommunist uprising in Moldova was organized via Twitter. Twitter has become so widely used among political activists in China that the government recently blocked access to it, in an attempt to censor discussion of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.” Also, Twitter is used by CDC like organizations to track flu and health epidemics in urban cities.

As end users, some of us build the better mouse trap by making Twitter more power. We find extraordinary uses for Twitter and many times those uses are by our ME Generation. The innovative ways in which user play and work with Twitter will continually change. The value of the tool mutates, and it’s less about this tool BEING TWITTER than about the key elements of the platform–follower structure (including the @ symbol which has bled out of Twitter into other social media sites), link-sharing and real-time searching. It is like Marc Prensky said at the National Council for Teachers of English keynote in November 2008 in San Antonio, it’s less the noun that matters than the verb. What are the concepts where, rather than the content. Beyond Twitter for the fun of tweeting and calling our followers and friends tweeple or, more courageously, twits, what is the true purpose? Yes, some times it’s cool to see who is doing what, other times you spend more time tweeting than checking your gmail. Even other times, you run across fun tools like “Historic tweets,” which essentially sends out fake tweets from famous situations.

Lincoln asks followers for speechwriting help

Lincoln asks followers for speechwriting help

But other times, this matters. We, as users, are the, as MIT prof Eric von Hippel puts it, “end-user innovation” where we, as consumers, modify these social networking tools for our own needs. Twitter and the like mutate and change as we find ways to engage the tool to make meaning in our own lives, through our own needs, and within our education