Terrified of Twitter? Here Is the Cure

A few weeks ago, I could only come up with four social-media tips, when I was trying for five. I promised to stay quiet until I had something else to say.

Well, here is that elusive “fifth tip.” Not quite up there with the Dead Sea Scrolls, but hopefully helpful. This tip is for Twitter beginners, so the rest of you can move on, unless you are interested in a small serving of social-media philosophy.

In my travels to academic conferences in a good many countries, I have heard more trepidation about Twitter than any other form of social media. Some of my own apprehension eased when I heard Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, talk in Doha, Qatar. He was speaking at the 2009 WISE meeting, which aspires to be a kind of a global TED for higher education and is sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. (TED is the nonprofit group most famous for events on the theme of “ideas worth spreading.”)

At WISE, Biz Stone described Twitter as a cross between texting and the Web, a device-agnostic platform where people can answer one simple question: What are you doing now?
“Ultimately we hope Twitter will be a triumph of humanity, not a triumph of technology,” he said at WISE, taking note of Twitter’s early use in pro-democracy protests and responses to disasters.

But what struck me most was his answer to academics who said they felt overwhelmed by social media. He said that people did not have to respond to “tweets.” The founding metaphor for Twitter was a flock of birds that were signaling to each other as they were flying in the same direction. The response to a tweet might be a change in someone’s destination or the ideas they adopted, not a reply. Those already feeling buried under their unanswered e-mail gave a collective sigh of relief upon hearing this explanation.

By the 2010 WISE meeting, though, the zeitgeist had changed. A speaker canceled for a panel I was moderating, and Abdalla Abdalla, a mechanical-engineering student from Oman, studying at the Doha campus of Texas A&M, stepped in as a replacement. He was a big hit, giving specific examples of social-media use, like how students in Qatar had raised $30,000 for flood-stricken Pakistanis using Twitter and other tools. (Tip 5.5: Get students on your social-media panels!)

At the conference as a whole, the style of social media had shifted and the pace of social-media use had picked up. “I’ve been tweeting all day long,” said Abdalla Abdalla. More importantly, tweeting had moved from mere updating and online broadcasting to conversation. Now tweeters were more expected to respond, to retweet (send someone else’s message to their own network of followers) and to, as the clichéd verb would have it, “engage.”

As the two WISE conferences have reflected, the complexity of Twitter has grown over time. That complexity has scared people off. Many people tell me they are interested in Twitter, including university leaders and marketing administrators, but they are afraid of it. They imagine that participating will feel like being pelted with hundreds of tweets daily through their computers and mobile phones until they just can’t get any work done. Yet Twitter, because of its ease of use on mobile, is being used widely in many countries, including developing countries with limited Internet connectivity, making it potentially an important platform.

Here is the answer for those afraid to stick a toe in the Twitter water: Do just that. Open up a Twitter account, and then do nothing with it. Well, almost nothing. Enter your institution’s name in the search function once a day or once a week, and then click on the magnifying glass.

Think of Twitter as a listening post, a wireless microphone you can toss out on the Internet to learn about what people are saying. Yes, perhaps someone will sneer at your “zero tweets.” But let’s pull back for a minute. Technology as a badge of global hipness—aren’t you tired of it? The people who, no matter what social-media platform you say you are on, always respond with one you have never heard of? Are you on hyPerRunCool? Um, no, I’m not.

Let’s face it: We are all running on a technology treadmill that keeps shifting in space. Up, down, sideways. To circle back to a point of “collected wisdom” I already made on social media, first take stock of what you want to do: Stay in touch with friends; extend your professional connections; build a global audience for something you or your institution are trying to communicate. Then put social media to work for those goals. Using social media to listen can be a logical first step.

David Wheeler is an editor at large for The Chronicle. You can find him on Twitter @dwheelerglobal and The Chronicle’s global news feed @GlobalChronicle.

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