Posted tagged ‘Twitter’

Throwing stones at a trend

January 4, 2013

In the 1960s there was a famous sign in a London park that had only this written on it: ‘It is forbidden to throw stones at this notice.’  I always wanted to take a photograph of the sign but never got the chance.

I was reminded of it yesterday, however, when I had a look at what was ‘trending’ on Twitter. Sometimes the list throws up items of popular culture that one might want to know about. Anyway, one trending item was ‘Página 4 de 365′. This seemed to me to be a curious thing to have become famous, and so I checked out the tweets containing these words. It is totally clear that the expression is indeed trending: from the point at which I began writing this post to the moment in which I have reached this part of it, no fewer than 189 tweets have been posted referring to the mysterious page 4. But none of the tweets I could read (or could be bothered to read)  explained what it was; instead, they all either asked what ‘Página 4 de 365′ was all about, or expressed irritation that it was trending. It seems to be trending only because nobody knows what it is.

The internet is a mysterious place. Let’s not throw stones at it.

So how are we coping with social media?

October 16, 2012

I tend to be an early adopter of new technology and all things online. But when it comes to the social media, I was a late developer. I first became aware of the whole scene when, as President of Dublin City University, I was approached by a colleague who wanted to block access by students to Bebo. You may not even remember Bebo now, it’s so very 2007. But in that year it was suddenly all the rage, and students were hogging access to library workstations while chatting to their online friends.

The early lead enjoyed by Bebo was, as we all know, wiped out by the all-conquering Facebook. And along came Twitter also. One of the perhaps unexpected consequences of the social networking revolution was that older online vehicles began to fade. From about 2008 you could see students gradually abandoning the use of email, as their virtual interaction moved to Facebook. Twitter, which was not initially popular with students but was more influential amongst more mature internet users, eventually also caught on and brought the culture of mobile phone texting to internet communications and commentary.

But it has to be said, the academy was nonplussed. It simply could not understand what this was all about. Academics are, in terms of social trends, not always at the cutting edge, and Facebook and Twitter just seemed alien to many of them. Even now, more than half a decade after social networking really took off, most academics have no social networking presence at all; and while universities in their corporate sense do, most have absolutely no idea how to use it. Indeed the risk is that the university world will finally come to grips with Facebook and Twitter just as the online world is moving on to something else.

I recently had a long conversation with an old friend who is a very senior professor in another university. For him, the social media represent a flight from intellectual discourse to ephemeral trivia; a whole generation of young people turning their backs on scholarship in favour of gossip.

For me, it is very different. I suspect some find the social media so difficult because they make directly visible the conversations that previously took place privately in the pub or in a student residence. But this interaction always took place; what’s new is that it is now on the same platforms that also support, or could support, academic conversations. We must not only get used to this, we must be anxious to have some of our scholarship in the places where students, and others, actually want to be. We must look again at how we communicate what we do, and how we engage our partners in the educational journey. And maybe we should remember that pretty much the same reservations were voiced about the printing press when it first emerged.

As for me, I joined Bebo, Facebook and Twitter in 2007. I have no regrets. It is time to harness social networking, and not resist it.

Is it a trend?

November 1, 2011

So what did the late Colonel Gadaffi of Libya never achieve, even as his régime was collapsing all around him and the eyes of the world were on the endgame there? Well, he never managed to ‘trend’ on Twitter. Actually it is likely that the reasons for this absence from the list was due to the large number of competing spellings the international media use for his name. Here I have called him Gadaffi, but other common versions have him as Gadafi, Gadaffy, Ghadafi, Gadhafi, and Qaddafi. Clearly if no two people could agree on the spelling of his name, then he’s not going to pick up the number of mentions in any one version that would allow him to start trending.

But what is trending? How some of the Twitter trends emerge is mysterious. For a few days last week the leading global topic was ‘#dontsupport‘, which allowed people simply to list things they didn’t like and find a global audience for their negative preferences. One person for example urged us all not to support ‘companies that support outsourcing’ (which at any rate is a serious proposition, though probably misguided); but mostly the guidance was rather more trivial. Then yesterday a trending topic was ‘#6HOURS‘, which baffled me until I saw that this was in some way connected with Justin Bieber; and there I have to say that despite my normal desire to be informed about whatever is in fashion, I have managed to avoid knowing anything about the said Mr Bieber except his name.

It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Justin Bieber – whatever it is he does – will out-trend Colonel Gadaffi. But then again, popular culture tells us something about ourselves and is itself worth knowing. We don’t need to find out about world events that way – there are other ways of doing that reliably – but we can learn a little more about what is exercising what politicians sometimes describe as ‘ordinary people’. By the way, right now they are concerned about ‘April Pratt’. I must find out who that is.

Twitter: universities beware?

September 17, 2011

The University if Iowa in the noted States recently apologised to Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann for a tweet that was made from a university-based Twitter account referring to her as a ‘cougar’ (a term suggesting she is an older woman dating younger men).

It is not clear whether the university thought that it needed to apologise for reasons of common courtesy, or for reasons of political discretion, or because it might be thought that there was a legal liability risk for libel. But the event indicates that universities may feel a responsibility for what gets said from their servers on Twitter. And as Twitter is not exactly a tightly controlled environment, this may raise all sorts of other questions about a university presence on social networking sites.

The sexist comment about Bachmann (about whom many other more legitimate things could be said) should not be condoned. But is it really sensible to self-censor on Twitter? Or necessary?

Coaxing university leaders into the social media

August 31, 2011

I spent yesterday at the annual conference of CASE Europe – the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on blogging and tweeting by university heads. That, I might say, is a space I am used to being in on my own. When I was in Ireland I was, as far as I ever discovered, the only blogging and tweeting university president, and I am now the only university principal in Scotland doing so. There are some in England (including one of my fellow panelists yesterday), and there are by now a good few in America, but none in Scotland apart from me, and I think none at all now in Ireland.

In the course of the discussion one of my fellow panelists (not the university head) suggested that it was enough for a university head to come to understand the potential of social networking; they didn’t need to grasp the techniques in any detail or become active themselves. However to be frank, I am not sure about this. Universities are in the business of communicating, whether through teaching or through research, and it seems curious to me to suggest that presidents or principals – or for that matter lecturers – should be able to stay away from today’s channels of popular communication. We really should not be quite as other-worldly as that. Universities are not historical theme parks; they need to engage with contemporary society.

It is my view, therefore, that university heads should dip their toes into this particular water, and should try out forms of communication that will make them seem less remote to others. And we should welcome their efforts when they do.

The English fees debate on Twitter

February 21, 2011

Speaking of Twitter, if you want some lively and often sarcastic commentary on current higher education events, it’s a good place to go. Here are two tweets from yesterday on the argument about whether English universities should be discouraged from charging the top end £9,000 tuition fees.

The first is by someone pretending to be UK Prime Minister David Cameron:

‘We hope universities wont overcharge, just like we hope bankers won’t pay themselves huge bonuses. They’ll look jolly well silly if they do.’

And here’s the second one:

‘Dear Government, please stop acting shocked when those universities that you told could charge 9k fees start charging 9k fees.’

What occurs to me in reading threads on Twitter about higher education is that the governments and the universities need to get better at having their say in this medium. When I say ‘get better’, I actually mean they need to make a start by participating in the major conversations, not just making news announcements.

The Twitter revolution

February 21, 2011

What do TCD Provost candidate Colm Kearney and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have in common? They are both aware of the potential of the social media in winning hearts and minds. Kearney was first out of the gate in the campaign for Trinity College’s top post and had a well prepared machine up and running immediately, of which his Twitter account was perhaps the most innovative element. He also has a Facebook account, but I don’t think he has yet put that to work, and indeed may not yet know how to do so.

And Hillary Clinton? Well, she has let it be known that she wants the State Department to use the social media to create a channel of communication with young people in the current areas of turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Whether either of them will use Twitter to practical effect remains to be seen, but it is interesting that both understand the significance of the medium. For anyone following the events right now in the Arab world, doing it via Twitter is a disturbingly different experience. Someone recently suggested to me that getting your news from the BBC is like having afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel, brought to you on a trolley with a table cloth and in a silver kettle. Getting the news from Twitter is like drinking from a street fountain. It’s different, and you need to know how to do it, but you get something that is both more pure and at the same time less refined.

So for example, I have been following events in Libya on Twitter over the past 20 minutes. During the few minutes it has taken me to write this post up to here, a total of 420 tweets have come in about Libya. Some are sarcastic comments (one suggesting for example that the speech by Gaddafi’s son Saif was scripted by US far right columnist Glenn Beck), some are heartbreaking pleas by Libyan exiles hoping for news of loved ones, some are apparent comments from the current trouble spots, some are short pieces of analysis by news reporters, some are announcements by governments and agencies. Is it accurate? Well, the Twitter world is saying right now that Gaddafi has fled, perhaps to Venezuela. The major news sites seem to know nothing of that. By the time you may be reading this you’ll know, perhaps, what is true. So you cannot be sure about the precise accuracy of what you are reading, but you are getting the full force of the news, rumours and arguments swirling round the system. And you keep an eye on the source of what you are reading.

So what about the TCD election? Yes, it has its hashtag, but so far it lacks the sense of immediacy or the excitement that this should generate. Statements there are genteel rather than challenging, and in so far as the candidates are turning up (and not all of them are) they are massaging their voters rather than challenging them to think. But it’s a start, and it would be churlish of me not to say that I am quite impressed that Colm Kearney has gone out there and tried it. Maybe it’s a good sign and we can hope for a communications revolution in Irish higher education. That is what I have wanted to start, and someone needs to take it forward.

Institutional tweets

January 19, 2011

Do universities that maintain Twitter pages know what they are doing, or why they are doing it? As Twitter has become a serious force on the internet, universities have, almost without exception, established a presence there. As I am currently looking at the impact of Twitter in higher education, I spent some of yesterday perusing the twitterings of about 50 universities, across several countries. I have come to the conclusion that they are, all of them, completely wasting their time, because they have no idea what Twitter is for. Not one of them.

First of all, the standard university’s Twitter profile is interesting. They all have 2,369 followers, and have published 786 tweets. Seriously, it is extraordinary how similar the metrics are for all universities across the English speaking world. And if that’s the number of followers, what does that tell us? For a start, it tells us that actual and potential students aren’t going there, or the numbers would be much greater. So who are they? Probably a small number of current students, no student applicants, and a number of graduates. Secondly, almost no tweets are replies to anyone’s questions or comments., so it is probable that whatever it is they are publishing is not meeting any interest out there. In fact, almost all tweets are in the form of announcements, either of some research project or other or of something the university wants to sell. Or sometimes they are just opaque. For example, a world famous university recently tweeted:

‘Sex changing lizards match their offspring to the climate’

OK, fair enough. But what on earth is this tweet supposed to do, and how is it helping anyone in the university in question? Unless they are trying to help Stephen Fry get questions for QI.

For me, Twitter has become an unexpectedly vital tool. Having worked out who is likely to give me early and accurate information, or who is likely to stimulate me with an interesting question, or who is likely to amuse me, I have assembled some twitterers to follow and I am better informed, stimulated and entertained as a result. When I look at university tweets I am almost immediately overcome with a massive desire to take a nap. What is clear is that the universities don’t know whom they are addressing, and in consequence don’t know what they should be saying. They should stop what they are doing – all of them – and do some proper analysis of how a Twitter presence might help them. And they should stop boring me.

At the cutting edge

January 9, 2011

Is this part of your day: do you switch on your PC some time in the morning, log in and check your email? Do you perhaps access a news site to catch up with the latest developments? Do you Google something you want to find? Do you send some emails, and work on a document in Microsoft Word or a similar program?

Is that you? You do know, I hope, that you are a complete and utter dinosaur. Much worse, you are so last year. The kids on the street make jokes about the likes of you.

Seriously, the online word is changing at an extraordinary pace, and those of us whose task it is to teach the young are often seriously out of step. The intercultural boundaries between the young and the slightly-older are constantly being redefined, and create barriers with serious implications.

Last week I attended a workshop in the United States in which we were told that young people, including students, no longer much bother with ‘the internet’. For them going online means going on Facebook via their iPhones. If they need anything else, it will be on one of Twitter, Wikipedia or youtube. Some are toying with Foursquare. But the very idea of messing around in the undefined prairies of various dot.coms and whatever it is you do on Outlook or Thunderbird strikes them as totally bizarre, and nerdy in a pipe-and-cardigan-and-slippers sort of way. Owning a PC, to many of them, is like owning a steam threshing machine, and laptops are rapidly going that way also. It’s all on the iPad or other tablet, or their smartphone; or it’s nowhere.

The impact of technology change and convergence is something we now seriously under-estimate. Many institutions are busily trying to upgrade from the day-before-yesterday’s technology to yesterday’s, and the gap may be widening. It’s not just the cost of constant changes, but getting into the mindset of how all this develops.

We can still insist on the use of certain technologies for students. In fact, two US academics at the workshop argued that professors need to lay down the ground rules, and that students ned to deliver their work accordingly. But if our ground rules seem wholly out-of-date as far as the students are concerned, it has implications. For better or for worse, we ned to keep pace with the world in which our students move, and we need to engage with it even when we think it’s going backwards.

It is indeed not always easy to see how intellectual inquiry can thrive in the Facebook world. But in the end, Facebook is just a medium, not a message, and we need to adapt to its idiom. In fact, we must stop always just catching up; we need to be ahead of the curve.

Court briefs

December 21, 2010

Here’s a development I most certainly would not have predicted: the Lord Chief Justice of England (the very aptly named Lord Judge) has ruled that the use in court of Twitter on mobile devices is acceptable ‘as long as the judge believed it would not interfere with the administration of justice’. The matter had come up earlier in the proceedings involving WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, where the judge had taken a similar approach.

Reporting of court hearings will of course be changed dramatically as a result, even if what we will hear will be limited to 140 characters. But it is part of what may turn out to be a significant modernisation of the judicial system in England, and maybe also elsewhere. It may also help to build up a picture of the courts as an institution more in tune with the age on which they are required to issue judgement. Most courts still have a ‘look and feel’ of a place where the telephone is only barely known, never mind Twitter. It is important not to confuse dignity with antiquity, and this is a step in the right direction.

I don’t anticipate that judgements will now be published in 140 characters, but it may be that they will not contain puzzled queries about the meaning of online social networking.


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