Twitter is quickly becoming a global faculty lounge. Sure, it's easy to waste a lot of time on the Internet-based microblogging service reading mundane details about people's days. But you can also pick up some great higher-education gossip, track down colleagues to collaborate with, or get advice on how to improve your teaching or research.
It is difficult to grasp what Twitter does without trying it firsthand. The service lets you share short quips (or links to information on other Web sites) with people who sign up as your followers, and lets you see updates from people whom you follow. The free service can be found on the Web at http://twitter.com, but it is also possible to use Twitter via cellphone. Once you find a few interesting people to follow, you can order up Twitter anytime and dip into a rich soup of thought.
It's a soup made by short-order cooks. With Twitter, no update can be longer than 140 characters, which, to give you a sense of that limit, is the precise length of this sentence.
The system will not transmit anything longer — forcing even the most long-winded blowhards to boil each point down to its essence. That brevity horrifies some in academe, who see Twitter as further evidence of shrinking attention spans and an erosion of critical and sustained thought. But like it or not, hordes of professors and college administrators have signed up for the service in recent months, and some are downright addicted.
I decided to talk to some of the most active and dedicated Twitter users in higher education to find out what they get out of it. To find them, I turned to The Chronicle's own Twitter feed, which is followed by more than 1,300 people interested in higher-education news. (You can find us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chronicle.) I sent out a Twitter message (or a "tweet") asking our readers to nominate the most active and interesting college users, and I was pointed to dozens of professors and administrators. I found others by searching Twitter's public archives for people discussing education and colleges and by asking the people I follow on Twitter. (You can find me at http://twitter.com/jryoung.)
The final selections are far from scientific, but they do represent a range of disciplines, job titles, and approaches. Not surprisingly, many of these Twitter-happy college folks study new media or the impact of Twitter on education.
So here are 10 college Twitterers worth following, beginning with the most active.
1. Sarah Evans, director of public relations at Elgin Community College. Tweet: "Looking for a job in PR? Follow @PRSAjobcenter and turn on your mobile alerts. Good stuff."
http://twitter.com/PRsarahevans Followers: 18,762. Posts: 10,509.
Many college public-relations offices have set up Twitter accounts, and communication leaders have been enthusiastic tweeters. Ms. Evans set up a feed for Elgin Community College where she posts news about the institution, but she also runs a popular personal feed where she shares her thoughts about the use of social media in public relations. She told me that she regularly pitches stories to journalists via Twitter, and she believes that watching the feeds of journalists helps her build personal relationships with them.
Microblogging can be a way to connect with students as well. "At the beginning of the school year, we had a student who tweeted to our Elgin account worried about her uniform coming in for her culinary class, and I was able to help get it to her," she said. Ms. Evans speaks frequently at public-relations conferences about the use of Facebook and Twitter in her job, and she is a guest blogger for the popular technology blog Mashable, which focuses on social media.
2. Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University. Tweet: "'I had thought of Twitter as a broadcast tool, but it's become far more valuable to me as a listening device.' http://is.gd/pGV2 Exactly."
http://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu Followers: 13,054. Posts: 6,265.
Mr. Rosen posts about 25 times a day, mostly musing on the future of journalism and on how Twitter and other technologies are changing the profession. "It's journalism education for anyone who wants to sign up," he told me in a telephone interview. But the real value of Twitter, he says, is what he learns by watching the other messages coming in — from college students, venture capitalists, journalists, and others he follows. "The fact that they're watching the news for me, scouting the Web for me, and editing the Web in real time — that's the value of it," he said. He started using the service more than a year ago after he was encouraged to do so by his friend, the journalism blogger Jeff Jarvis. Mr. Rosen says it complements his own blog, PressThink, letting him reach new audiences and interact with more people.
3. Howard Rheingold, a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley teaching virtual communities and social media. Tweet: "http://www.stickam.com/ multiple live video chat windows looks interesting, may try with my classes"
http://twitter.com/hrheingold Followers: 8,644. Posts: 6,189.
Mr. Rheingold has been a pioneer in online communities since the 1980s (before most people knew there was such a thing), and he remains on the forefront of social media and networks. He spent most of his career as a writer (his latest book is called Smart Mobs), but he started teaching at colleges a couple of years ago. He was an early user of Twitter, and he says he often turns to it for teaching advice. "As a relatively new teacher, Twitter is really my main connection to other educators who are using Web technologies in their teaching," he told me. "I use it to find suggestions of things to do, and to bounce things off people." He also uses it to have a public conversation about trends in social media. He argues that Twitter isn't for everyone — and that users have to post regularly so that people will be reading you when you want to turn back to seek advice. "I'm not selling it — you have to see whether it works for you," he said. "If you want to share information in small bites with a group of people who share your interest, that's what it's for."
4. Amanda French, an assistant research scholar and digital-curriculum specialist at NYU. Tweet: "I'm planning to Twitter my dissertation, did I tell you? 453,546 characters including spaces & notes=only 3240 tweets."
http://twitter.com/amandafrench Followers: 1,336. Posts: 3,937.
Ms. French starts each day by reading her Twitter account at the breakfast table from her cellphone, in search of what's new with the 200 people she follows. "It has really replaced the newspaper for me, I have to say," she said. She says she developed a large following on the service somewhat by accident. She called in a question to a popular technology podcast in 2007 and mentioned her Twitter name, and suddenly hundreds of people started tracking her. "It's a bit like academia — someone who's prestigious or well read cites you in their book, and that's going to increase the attention to what you've done." She mixes clever comments about her daily life with observations about technology and digital archives, and several people I talked to recommended her feed as one that is useful but also fun.
5. David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas. Tweet: "Someone just told me to look in the Sunday newspaper ... uh what's that? can I get that on my iPhone?"
http://twitter.com/academicdave Followers: 1,701. Posts: 3,891.
Mr. Parry was one of the first to try Twitter as a teaching tool — we wrote about his experiments last year (The Chronicle, February 29, 2008). He has gained many followers of his Twitter feed, where he shares his experiences using technology for teaching and research.
He led a panel about microblogging at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association in December, which he organized via Twitter. "Rather than giving the standard 15or 20-minute papers, we actually limited each speaker's paper to like five to seven minutes and had respondents in the audience ask questions, but we didn't let them ask long-winded questions that sometimes happen at conferences," he said. "The idea of Twitter is there are very strict limits, so you naturally have to converse instead of monologue."
6. Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Tweet: "It's good to finally see some interest in digital humanities at Yale: http://is.gd/pooB"
http://twitter.com/dancohen Followers: 849. Posts 1,484.
When I called Mr. Cohen in his office the other day, he was reading through the printed conference proceedings from an event held by the Smithsonian Institution about the impact of the Web on museums. He said he felt like he got a better record of what went on at the event by reading Twitter messages posted by people who attended. "You get conversation among the attendees and questions from people outside the conference," he said. Twitter is becoming more popular at academic conferences, where if you are sitting in a boring session, you can look at Twitter and see if anyone is raving about another session that they are in. "You can get up and leave the boring panel where someone is just reading off their paper, and go to that interesting one," he said. "A killer application of Twitter is conferences and conference reporting."
7. Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. Tweet: "My avatar's interview in Second Life--about the evolution of social media--full video http://blip.tv/file/475397"
http://twitter.com/paullev Followers: 822. Posts: 1,477.
Mr. Levinson not only studies social media, he lives the digital lifestyle he studies. "I have four podcasts and three blogs and who knows what else going," he told me, adding that he has about 2,000 friends on Facebook. Oh yeah, and he's writing a book about Twitter and other social media. "I am fascinated by the evolution of media and how media in my view has been evolving for a long time into greater human expression," he said. "What Twitter does is it humanizes our existence by keeping us in touch with people who we're interested in."
8. Scott McLeod, an associate professor at Iowa State University and director of the university's Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education. Tweet: "College students are online more AND reading more? http://snipurl.com/eko4k"
http://twitter.com/mcleod Followers: 1,307. Posts: 1,190.
Mr. McLeod argues that professors have been too slow to adopt Twitter. Academic discussions online often take place on closed e-mail lists, he says, when they should be happening in public forums like Twitter, so that a diverse group of outsiders can join in. "I think academics are actually missing a lot by not being involved in more of these social tools," he told me. "There are a lot of academics who think, 'If it's not coming from some other academic it's not worth a damn,' and that's not right."
He admits that some of the messages on Twitter are banal, such as people describing what they had for lunch that day, but he said such notes are part of what makes Twitter such a powerful way to feel connected to far-flung colleagues. "It's like those daily interactions you have with your neighbor — sometimes they're highbrow and sometimes they're lowbrow, but after a while you really get to know the person."
9. Michael L. Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. Tweet: "CBS Sunday Morning setting up shop in my office for an interview about YouTube"
http://twitter.com/mwesch Followers: 2,958. Posts: 257.
Several people told me I should follow Michael Wesch, who has become something of a rock star in the world of academic technology. He's best known for his creative YouTube videos. One of them, "The Machine Is Us/ing Us," has been viewed on YouTube nearly a million times, stylishly showing the promise of social networking. Mr. Wesch won a Wired magazine Rave Award in 2007, and he was recently named a professor of the year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. On Twitter, he often highlights his favorite multimedia and points to other interesting posts he has seen on the service. "I don't use it for broadcasting my daily life, but for sharing interesting links, knowledge, and ideas," he wrote me via e-mail. "This is great for studying or following events as they unfold, but it is also useful for more traditional research if you can form or tap into a good network."
10. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University. Tweet: "Preparing for commencement tomorrow. Our graduates are full of promise and ingenuity, and we are launching them into the world just in time."
http://twitter.com/presidentgee Followers: 528. Posts: 25.
The only college president we could find on Twitter was Mr. Gee, one of the nation's best-known (and best-paid) college administrators. He has only been posting for a couple of weeks, but he said he is enjoying it so far. I caught up with him by cellphone this month — he was posting a message to Twitter while on a layover at the airport. He said he joined Twitter hoping that it would help him demystify the job of college president by sharing details from his daily life. "It shows that you're not just living in a big house and begging" for money, he quipped. "You do get out and work."
He has posted about alumni events he has attended, about being eager to hear students' spring-break stories, about the university's recent commencement, and of course, cheers and best wishes for the university's basketball teams as they played in the NCAA tournament. He said he's not worried that posting about his comings and goings and thoughts will invade his privacy. "When you're president of a large university, you have no privacy anyway, so why not?" He has signed up to follow the Twitter feeds of Lance Armstrong, whom he knows personally, and some of his favorite writers, including Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas L. Friedman.
College 2.0 explores how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org
http://chronicle.com Section: Information Technology Volume 55, Issue 31, Page A10