Explaining Twitter

Jumoing_water

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I read with interest that Twitter again topped Jane Hart’s Top 100 Tools for Learning. Twitter is certainly my top tool for learning, but I find it difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t used Twitter what it’s all about. There’s lots written about Twitter as a social network, as a communication tool, as a media outlet and as a learning medium.  When I try and explain Twitter to someone who is thinking about using it, I find it helpful to use two analogies: the river and the party.

The river analogy is that tweets (the bits of information) are like a flowing and abundant river. You can occasionally dip in and get something of use – you learn someone’s opinion, where someone is, get a link to an article or paper or get some breaking news. You can’t really take it all in because it’s a flowing river and it keeps flowing – you can’t be there all the time. But whenever you do dip in, you’ll get something of use. Occasionally, you’ll throw something of use into the river too and that will flow along and someone else might have a dip and benefit from it.

The party analogy is that Twitter is like attending a party. There’s lots of people, all doing their thing, networking, talking, partying. When you enter the party, it’s totally overwhelming but slowly you gravitate to people you have something in common with, and you start to get a feel for what’s happening. You start making connections and people start to form bonds with you. New people enter the party and they also get absorbed in. The party gets bigger. There’s time when you want to huddle with just a few people and you go into a side room to chat. Then you might enter the main party or decide to stay in a smaller group.

The first analogy relates to the information that flows in Twitter. As people tweet and re-tweet (send out information or forward information from their followers) the information or news flows along a timeline. If you are part of Twitter, you’ll get the information in your timeline. You can set searches for certain hashtags that focus on topics you are interested in.  If you don’t check Twitter for a day, you’ll miss any information flows in that timeline. Generally it doesn’t matter. The information river keeps flowing. Your focus for Twitter might be on keeping in touch with trends, follow conference proceedings, get the latest news and follow events. This might be work related or it might be following the cricket score.

The second analogy relates to the connections you can make to people in Twitter. When you join Twitter, you start to follow other Twitter accounts based on their profile, if they have been recommended or if you know them in real life. Some of them might start following you back. When someone you follow tweets something, it appears on your timeline. You might read it. You can also engage with the Tweeter by sending them a tweet about it and start a conversation. You might retweet it which means your followers will get it on their timeline. Occasionally, you might send out a Tweet yourself. There are other ways of having conversations on Twitter. You might take part in a tweet chat. You might directly message someone and have a private one to one conversation. Going back to the party analogy, even though it is a bit chaotic, you can find a way to make it enjoyable for you. Alternatively, you might just find it overwhelming and go home.

So going back to explaining Twitter to someone – at the very least, Twitter can give you access to information, data, news, photographs and opinion that tends to be fresh, ground-breaking and diverse. For that reason alone, it’s well worth getting onto Twitter.

For me, however, Twitter’s strengths also come in the connections and contacts you can make. You can have conversations, interactions, share information with individuals directly and take part in small talk and long talk on Twitter. This can be professional or personal and will probably be a mixture of both. This takes longer – to build the confidence and networks to engage with people, not just information.

When it comes to learning, Twitter works at both the information and connections level. It is possible to use Twitter to push information and perhaps occasionally connect with people. Taking time to nurture connections, take part in Tweet chats and follow Conference hashtags heralds another level of engagement and time. I use Twitter mainly for my personal learning, and it’s at the heart of my personal learning network. I’ve also used it as part of a learning interaction for collaborative and group learning. It’s amazing what can be said and done in 140 characters or less. Enjoy dipping into the river but remember there’s a party going on too.

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