Institutional tweets

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.

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44 Comments on “Institutional tweets”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Aaah, I don’t know about all that. Here’s one from Galway. ‘NUI Galway Students hold the Sixth Annual Teddy Bear Hospital’.

    • Vincent Says:

      Another from this morning;
      Fair Ireland Forum Dialogue Series at NUI Galway – Asylum seekers experiences’ of Ireland’s Direct Provision SystemN…
      Both say it, and one seems fun.

  2. John Says:

    Ferdy, you’re posturing again. A more pertinent criticism would be of bloggers who have nothing to say.

    • Sally Says:

      That’s a little unfair John. He’s just self-actualizing. They can’t touch you for it. But I have to agree that making a stand on the inconsequential for the sake of maintaining a web ‘presence’ can be a turn-off. But at least he’s ‘fresh’. Wanna follow johncarter2000 on Twitter?

  3. conorjh Says:

    I think Ireland’s best institutional Twitter is the National Gallery, @ngireland, the Unversities could do worse than learn from them.

  4. jfryar Says:

    I think our new ‘media’, from facebook to twitter, operate under some IT form of the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle – the actual purpose and function of the medium remains uncertain until the users, over many years, interact with it and settle it into its final state.

    Twitter is relatively new and, I’ll be honest, I don’t get it. I don’t see the point, I don’t subscribe and I have no intention of doing so. But those who are twits, or whatever the new term is for one who tweets (birds?), will mould and shape it into what they want or need it to be.

    So I don’t think we can be critical of universities not quite getting what Twitter is for. If you ask ten different people you’ll probably get ten different answers. But I agree that if you don’t know what its for, or what you want out of it, why bother to have a presence?

  5. anna notaro Says:

    The only interesting aspect re twitter and academia is for the potential teaching and learning outcomes ( and otherwise it is simply a futile exercise and yes it is true as jfryar says that ‘the actual purpose and function of the medium remains uncertain until the users, over many years, interact with it and settle it into its final state’, texting is a good example since it is a function whose success was due to the creativity of mobile phone users and not envisaged by the companies..this example connects to the issue re the collective aspect of knowledge/technological innovation mentioned in the Apple post (see C. Leadbeater We-think: Mass innovation, not mass production: The Power of Mass Creativity [2008]

  6. Sally Says:

    Learning outcomes? Learning is an outcome. It’s something that may happen.

    As for Twitter, it’s the first thing, after the weather perhaps, that I look at in the morning. Find out what the people you follow (including your chosen News sources from around the world) are saying. (Papers and morning radio and TV will only give you yesterday’s news.) Then answer back.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Sally, in principle I would agree with you on learning being an outcome, I’m in the middle of a teaching review, hence the use of module writing jargon, more importantly though the terminology demonstrates how increasingly, universities are adopting the learning outcomes approach (student-centred) in preference to the aims and objectives approach (teacher-centred). Also, as much as I enjoy some tweets (Fry is one of the few worth following) I feel I would not dismiss papers and morning radio and TV because they offer yesterday’s news, as you put it, even in the contemporary media landscape there is plenty of room for ‘old’ media to play a meaningful role..

      • John Says:

        “universities are adopting the learning outcomes approach (student-centred) in preference to the aims and objectives approach (teacher-centred).”

        Yes, but what a conceptual and terminological muddle!

        An aim IS an objective.

        If there are 30 students in a class, are there to be 30 ‘centres’? The real ‘centre’ is the subject itself.

        Learning a subject is an outcome. How successful that outcome has been is measured by an examination. The syllabus shows what’s in the subject and the examination reflects that.

        When I have to fill in a ‘learning outcome’ for a new subject, I just put ‘Demonstrate a mastery of ‘ for each item in the subject.

  7. Have you published your data of your analysis of 50 Universities? I have recently published a blog post on Institutional Use of Twitter by Russell Group Universities which provides comments and statistics on how 20 high profile Universities in the UK are using Twitter.

    I have to say that I have found my University’s Twitter feed useful, especially announcements last year on when the University was closed due to bad weather.

    I don’t know how many Universities there are in Ireland, but perhaps an open comparison with the approaches being take in some UK Universities would be useful.

    Note that I would question your statement that a standard University will “have 2,369 followers, and have published 786 tweets” and suggest that this pattern is typical in the English-speaking world. Oxford and Cambridge Universities each have over 11,000 followers. And the metric on the numbers of tweets and observations on interaction with institutional Twitter accounts is surely dependent on the purpose of the service – I am happy for my institution to be using Twitter as a news system, especially when I receive tweets on my iPod Touch while in bed telling me that the university is closed šŸ™‚

    • Yes, I’ve seen your piece – which actually pretty much supports my own analysis. There is no evidence in any of these Twitter pages that anyone is interacting with them. Weather reports are much better handled on web home pages, as tweets will only reach the followers, many of whom are alumni who have no interest in them.

    • Diane Says:

      Why rely on twitter? Your University could text you if the message is that important so that all students receive it. Policy would be important so that they only used this method of communications when it was an important message such as closure and nothing else!

  8. Chris Says:

    An example of a Uni twitter that is trying to engage with followers and answer enquiries?


  9. jobadge Says:

    You are right to think that most institutional twitter feeds are being used as broadcast systems for news and not as interactive accounts in the way that the majority of people use them. However, I’m quite used to this sort of twitter account, all the major newspapers have them, and they all broadcast rather than interact. A better place to look for interaction is the student focussed services within universities, at Leicester we have @uolsd (student development) see for how this has been thought-through carefully on how to communicate properly through twitter. There is publicity and response by other social media too

  10. Jennifer Vinopal Says:

    Why be so prescriptive about how people should or shouldn’t use twitter (“what it’s for,” as you say)? Some may use it for interactive communication (replies, retweets, etc.). But some use it to get announcements. And some use it for both. Just because no one is replying to a U’s tweets or vice versa doesn’t mean they’re using it incorrectly. Twitter is a tool, for goodness sake, there’s no right or wrong in it’s use.

    • It’s only useful if it’s finding an audience and is serving a purpose. Mostly this is not the case.

      • Matt Says:

        Of course it’s finding an audience. You mentioned that 2,000 odd people are following these announcements. Surely if they didn’t find them useful they wouldn’t have followed in the first place, or have unfollowed by now.

        I agree that there is no right or wrong way to use social media, it’s simply communication.

        • No, just because someone is a ‘follower’ doesn’t mean they are reading the tweets. Typically you know you have readers if you have replies/mentions, and universities have almost none.

    • anna notaro Says:

      ‘Twitter is just a tool’, if only I had a penny for the times I heard that technology is just that, a tool! This view of technology is naive to say the least,and terribly wrong because it leads us to a fundamental misunderstanding of its
      significance in social, political and economic change, hence there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ dimension (i.e. ethical) to its use.(PS. I would be equally filthy rich if I had a penny for the times I see mispellings like it’s in place of its, as in comment above, cannot help noticing maybe because I learnt English as a 2nd language and still care about grammar:)

      • vinopal Says:

        Regarding the distinction between “its” and “it’s,” the former is the possessive, the latter is the contraction of “it is” and is correctly spelled with an apostrophe.

  11. SK Says:

    Sorry but this post is neither stimulating, interesting, nor amusing. Thanks for wasting my time. I better go back to studying lizard sex now.

    More seriously, why are you defining twitter so narrowly? The beauty of web 2.0 is flexibility and adaptability. If some users want to exploit twitter as a broadcasting tool so be it.

    • There is no point broadcasting unless someone is tuning in.

      • SK Says:

        If you follow someone on twitter that implies you are tuned in. Duh! They’re broadcasting to their followers- that’s the concept.

        • No, that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s not untypical to see people following over 1,000 twitterers, and it’s inconceivable they are actually reading all the tweets. To get attention, you need to know how to broadcast on Twitter. ‘Dry’ news announcements generally fall flat.

  12. db10s Says:

    How do you measure that someone is tuning in? If tweets are being bounced through to different mediums and websites, then the number of followers is not an accurate measurement of the entire audience.

    • One way of measuring is to see how many university tweeds are re-tweeted. Almost none.

      • SK Says:

        In my experience based on emails and comments I hear from colleagues, many are reading tweets without even signing in to twitter. So yes it is an issue to actually measure the impact and it probably goes beyond number of followers and RTs.

  13. Laurie Says:

    I came across this blog post and it really quite interested me. I’m currently attending an internship in the Alumni Affairs & Development office at the University of Guelph. I’m a recent business school graduate and pretty familiar with Twitter and other similar medium. We are employing the use of Twitter here primarily for the connections and relationships we can create with our followers by using this tool. Having only started a little over a month ago, so far we’ve had success. We’ve been connecting with students, alumni and community organizations who employ alumni.

    I do agree with your view; our institution’s catchall Twitter feed is mostly announcements and research articles that may not be very engaging to students and potential students. Not that we’re pro tweeters yet, but we’ve put a lot of effort into doing it right. We were clear on the reasons WHY we wanted to tweet and so far it’s been working. You can check out our work with @BetterPlanetUoG @UoGuelphOAC @UoGuelphCoA

  14. Robin Schmid Says:


    I found your article very interesting, I work for a college/university. I tweet with a purpose, to inform student, faculty, staff on all different types of software tips and tricks, articles to help students to use social media to land a job, etc. To be honest I don a lot of RTweeting– but try to make it vauable to my end users. I would be curious to see what you think of my tweets and if you have any suggestions for improving my tweets. Follow me-@ robinschmid

  15. Late one night I noticed the official Twitter account of my University was still tweeting. I jokingly replied with a tweet asking ‘what time do learning institutions go to bed?’ The point is that university tweets are almost certainly written by one person with a strict brief and very little or no time allocated to it. Most universities use their official accounts on Twitter in the same way they use them on other social media (Facebook, YouTube etc.); as a non-interactive, broadcast medium, primarily to publicise their institution to a demographic that traditional media may not reach. Dig a little deeper – to faculty and departmental levels – and there are examples of much richer and creative use.

  16. DrB Says:

    All of our research to date shows very few undergraduates or pre-university students use twitter so it makes little sense using Twitter to target this audience. Some institutions appear to be successfully harnessing it to promote research and links with industry as well as another channel that may attract further media attention to a press release.

    Twitter may not really be that well suited to HE. Other solutions to getting the message out to important contacts exist e.g.

  17. I’m still not convinced that universities posting news items, even recycled items via RSS to Twitter tools, is such a bad thing.

    Twitter isn’t a mono-purpose tool. Sure, someone may use their personal Twitter account in a more conversational fashion, engaging with colleagues in their professional discipline, exchanging tweets with friends and relatives, or some combo of the two.

    But that doesn’t mean a business/university Twitter account (or Facebook Page, for that matter) that reposts news items is bad. In the case of universities, it gives current students, staff, alumni, etc., another way to see what is going on at the university.

    In most cases your constituents aren’t visiting your institutional Web site daily to read the latest news about the university. If a piece of software reposting those news items to Twitter and Facebook helps more people see those news items, that seems like a benefit with very little additional time and effort involved.

    Could these accounts get a higher level of engagement with more time and effort put into them? Certainly. Is that time and effort best put into building greater engagement on Facebook and Twitter than put into other efforts? That is the question.

    That these Twitter and Facebook accounts have followers implies that followers find some degree of value in following. And if follower numbers seem low for a given institution, that likely has more to do with the lack of (effective) promotion that these accounts exist than anything else.

    For the record, I’m all for building engagement via social networking in very targeted ways to targeted segments of constituents. But I disagree with the idea that automated news reposts to Twitter and Facebook are always a bad thing.

  18. Sandra Pickles Says:

    I can see your point. However, I think most university PR/News staff don’t want to seem like they’re trying to be down with the kids, hence the ‘imparting knowledge’ approach. And there’s also the worry of uninformed management thinking they’re pissing about instead of working.

  19. PM Says:

    I like to think that our Twitter account, @UMNews (U of Minn.) does a decent job of broadcasting and interacting — it’s a news account, so it is meant to inform, but we spread around the topics and try to keep it interesting/relevant.

    And obviously follower counts don’t mean everything (I happen to think they don’t mean that much at all), but with almost 8500 of them, obviously somebody is listening.

  20. Graeme Fowler Says:

    Universities hoping to recruit via Twitter might be looking at things slightly skew-wiff; the demographic of Twitter users is largely a bit older than the prospective student they might be aiming at. I have no evidence to back that up, mind you!

    That said, research-based universities seem to use Twitter as another method of saying “look at the cool things we do”. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s one of the reasons many followers are alumni, keeping up with what their Alma Mater is up to.

    Remember that it took many UK universities a long time to “get” Facebook, too; many still haven’t.

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  22. John Says:

    The IT I work at has set up a Facebook site. It looks so sterile. Just one student has commented, saying the IT ‘rocks’. I’m tempted to jazz it up with a few impious and irreverent comments, but these ‘institutional’ things are so rule / convention / management – bound, they always look like a holiday brochure for Bulgaria, written by the Central Committee. In the West we don’t have that; we have ‘image’ and ‘public relations’, both of which are expensive and equally dull. Even the student union magazine looks like it was written by a Catholic travel agent.

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