Posted tagged ‘Twitter’

Savagery at a distance

September 20, 2016

That today’s social media present certain people with a wonderful tool for agitation is well known. Twitter in particular (of which I am a frequent user) sometimes presents us with the online equivalent of road rage: people who are probably quite normal and decent, finding it necessary to compress their outrage into 140 characters, let rip at anyone not admiring their revelation of pure truth. Many, perhaps most, of these perpetrators operate anonymously, giving them the additional cover perfect for the uninhibited online maniac.

Over the last few days I have followed the exchanges between some UK politicians and their would-be online tormentors. To be impartial, I picked a number of politicians who were involved in current disputes, but selected ones from different parties and different arguments. What became clear very quickly was that politicians of all shades appear to attract hugely aggressive tweeters, who use language that would be totally unacceptable if used in face to face debate. Secondly, an extraordinary number of angry tweeters use anti-semitic taunts, even where there does not appear to be any Jewish presence in the conversation. I am not suggesting that a majority does this, but it is clearly present. I should add that such antisemitism is not confined to those attacking ‘Zionism’. In several tweets I found people using words and expressions hostile in racist terms to Jews that I could not possibly repeat. I should emphasise that the use of such unacceptable and vile epithets was not unique to people of a particular political outlook, though in fairness they were targeted disproportionately at Labour MPs and supporters not backing the party’s leadership. Other forms of racism and xenophobia also made an appearance, here more often used by those hostile to migrants or opposing left wing causes.

What struck me also was that some of the aggressive tweeters were, or appeared to be, academics or students; not a majority or significant minority, but nevertheless an identifiable and visible group. Which brings me to the point that started me on this investigation. University life is now experienced by a very large proportion of the population, at one stage or another in their lives. Furthermore, this experience is shot through with social media – Facebook, snapchat, whatsapp, Twitter are all part of the higher education reality. Already a few years ago it was suggested that 75 per cent of students use social media ‘all the time’. The generation of university staff who avoided computers and wrote everything by hand is gradually leaving the academy, and lecturers too are now of the social media generation. Cyber behaviour and cyberpsychology are now important subjects of analysis.

It is important that universities accept a degree of responsibility for guiding people on how to live their virtual online lives, and how their lifestyle can have a larger impact on others, and more generally on society. For me, online tools and facilities are wonderful; but we all need to understand that what happens online is very real, and not just a game. Savagery, even in what we consider a good cause, is a bad action.

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.