Tweeting from the Hallowed Halls

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 6.26.36 AMTwitter. The good news is that scholars and educators world wide have embraced the social media giant with gusto. The bad news is they aren't doing a particularly good job at it. Well, many aren't anyway. There are a few out there who seem to really understand the platform and have used Twitter ways that will have some sort of lasting significance. You may be asking of what I speak. You may also be thinking that I should mind my own business. You may just want me to go to hell. Well, I have been threatening to write a short piece on how Twitter and those in education (not just historians) can make a meaningful splash on Twitter now that so many have waded in neck deep. And yes...people have asked me to do so. So here you go.

The trouble as I see it is that academics and others in education have misunderstood the platform. They have overlooked the "social" part of social media. Academics have largely used Twitter as a broadcasting platform; they have created an environment of endless links to other sites, news stories, announcements, and personal updates with little interaction. In a sense, though not entirely analogous, this is what happens on celebrities' promotional Twitter feeds. Or even's what clumsy salespeople do to awkwardly promote their products and services. In short: it's advertising. And one other thing...(and this applies to Tweeters across the board) what's with all the inspirational quotes? Stop it.

Is broadcasting beneficial? Is it useful? Yes and yes. On both counts - of course it is. My own Twitter regularly broadcasts information about my latest blog posts (it's all automated) and any scholarly activities that I am working on. In addition, I regularly Tweet interesting information that pertains to well, just about anything, but usually relates somehow to history specifically or education in general. But that is only a small fraction of what you will find on my Twitter feed. And ultimately, none of the broadcasting is at the heart of what I am trying to do.

Twitter is about conversations. And this simple notion is unfortunately lost on most users. In academia, these conversations could easily be meaningful and function to serve the greater good - or if you like, build on the (sort of) altruistic activity of adding to the wealth of human knowledge. But let's be honest here, altruism aside, these conversations can serve to build one's personal reputation. While some may want to keep their Tweets private, as it were, most of us don't. And thus, here we have the opportunity (yet unrealized in most cases) to let the world know that we have something to say. And what's even better...we have the platform to listen and engage with others who, not incidentally, might also have something important to say. See how this works? And if Tweeting can somehow be personally beneficial - then all the better. Reality check - there is an element of self-promotion (or brand awareness) infused in every Tweet. Don't try to deny it.

No matter how you slice it, Twitter should be a great virtual gathering spot. It should be the Internet cocktail party, the online post-conference hang out session. It's where we should go to exchange ideas or create new ones. But unfortunately - it's not. The dull broadcasting of information (and little else) offered by academics and educators may be the greatest missed opportunity in modern education.

Case in point: the other day my  University of Virginia Alunmi Association Magazine arrived in the mail. I flipped through and found an interesting article about Allen Groves, the UVA Dean of Students. By all accounts, Dean Groves is a genuinely caring man and an asset to the University. I look forward to meeting him one day.

To illustrate the Dean's popularity, an insert - Ruling the School - proclaims that Groves is popular on social media and has over 6,000 followers on Twitter compared to Duke's dean of students, who has a meager 22. Well, the magazine failed to provide Dean Groves's Twitter handle (well, played, editorial staff) but I did a little digging and sure enough, there is Dean Groves and his 6403 (as of December 2013) followers.

But nothing is really going on. Here is a golden opportunity for Dean Groves to speak directly with a clearly engaged student body and thousands of alumni. And it is just not happening. Instead are a number of Tweets linking away from Twitter, showing campus pictures, congratulating athletes, and forwarding UVA announcements. Let me go on record as saying that this information is perfectly welcome. I would be surprised if someone in his position did not Tweet along these lines. But the crucial element is missing. There is no conversation to speak of. Groves only follows a handful of people (less than 150), which indicates to me that he is not really interested in conversing with his audience at all. I can see no response, no dialogue, no questions, and no answers.

I ask Dean Groves, in the most respectful manner that I can muster, to reconsider how he uses this revolutionary platform. Imagine, if you will, what could be done on this public forum in terms of enhancing the student experience. In the article, the author (Michelle Koidin Jaffee) mentions that you are outspoken in support for students of various backgrounds. Great! Now wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all be involved in a meaningful conversation about this profoundly important topic on Twitter?  Think of what might be accomplished. And let's look beyond that. Consider how such a conversation could bring prestige to the University. Think of what a mutual exchange of ideas could do for our Academical Village in terms of....academics. The potential here is really quite unprecedented.

But most importantly, I extend these thoughts and considerations to everyone involved in education and scholarship (historical or otherwise). What can we do to make Twitter less of a virtual bulletin board and more of a community for interaction, debate, and the simple exchange of ideas?

Your comments are welcome.

With compliments,