Thing 7 of 23: if Twitter is the answer, what’s the question?

Thing 7 (Twitter) seems to be dividing the Cambridge 23 Things community substantially. There’s much enthusiasm for it by some regular users, such as Trainee Mermaid, ilk21, Emma, Aidan Baker, Lottie Smith and Andy Priestner. On the other hand, there’s also a growing band of sceptics, and the downright hostile, led by Miss Crail and including evans above and Miriam.

As someone who’s not used Twitter before (though I’ve occasionally looked at people’s Twitter pages), I have been trying to feel enthused about it for this week, and largely failing to do so. It was easy enough to set up my Twitter account (once I’d decided to stick with the current alias and that I was not going to attempt to post via a mobile). And I can see the appeal of Twitter for entertainment or for the long-distance equivalent of commenting to a friend about a TV programme you’re watching together.

It’s how you can use Twitter in a professional role that I have my doubts about. It helps if you have a better interface than the main Twitter one, as N Page has very usefully explained, but that still doesn’t solve the broader question of usefulness. The strengths and limitations of Twitter are its format: it is intended for short public messages that can be sent and received rapidly by people anywhere. It does seem useful for libraries to inform their users about changed hours, events, etc. But a lot of the other suggested uses don’t really appeal to me.

A lot has been made, for example, about the use of Twitter for getting rapid news updates, but I wonder if we’ve truly thought about how quickly we need to know things. How much benefit is there from knowing details about the iPad or the Budget as they are being announced, rather than the next day, or even the next week? I’m even more dubious about the supposed advantages of tweeting from conferences. Andy Priestner talks about how he can ‘interact with those not at the event about the content in real time’. I would suggest that it might be better to focus on interacting with the flesh and blood people actually at the conference. I know some of my other readers have used Twitter at conferences, so I’d be interested to hear their views, but I can’t think of any tweet-based form that would be as useful to a conference non-attender like me as a reflective blog post on a conference session, even if does arrive several weeks (or even more) later.

As a broader point, it’s all too easy to start thinking that our current awareness is somehow improved if we know about something important this minute, rather than later this week. For some situations, that may be the case. But I’m not sure how many occasions there are in most librarians’ professional lives in which they need to use the new thing they’ve learned that very day. I’m increasingly convinced of the potential for using rss feeds as a means of keeping up with a topic (whether it’s medieval history or librarianship) and I’m not sure how much advantage Twitter has over that, especially since many keen Twitterers seem to do a lot of blogging as well. With a feed reader, it’s probably as quick to scan a blog title, or the first few lines of a post, as to read a tweet (especially for those like me who are not used to text-speak), and I suspect there’s less redundancy. In particular, I find it infuriating that tweets giving links to webpages are often very badly written. With a snipped URL and no adequate description, I often only find when I’ve opened a link that it’s to something I’ve already read. Without any easy way of filtering out the useful from the trivial in people’s tweet-streams, I’m left feeling that the noise to signal ratio is just too high most of the time.

It’s not that I can’t see possible uses: crowd-sourcing of queries by your followers does sound helpful. But how much commitment as a Twitter user does it take to build those kind of relationships? My online time is limited (though probably not as limited as it ought to be, for the sake of my family). I’m currently dubious that Twitter is the most effective use of it.

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6 thoughts on “Thing 7 of 23: if Twitter is the answer, what’s the question?

    • That certainly seems to happen, and Eileen Joy at In The Medieval Middle has done a lot with this, but I don’t think it answers Magistra’s point; unless the Twitterer is at the conference solely as a journalist for others, surely this isn’t the best use of their own presence at the conference for them!

      a reflective blog post on a conference session, even if does arrive several weeks (or even more) later

      Um, yes, sorry about that. I have really good reasons for the delay, I assure you.

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  1. I wonder if there’s a difference here between presentations on professional topics (like librarianship) and on academic topics (like medieval history) and that one sort is just easier to tweet. I think papers by librarians tend to be better structured than those by historians, but they also often go at a slower pace and/or have less complex material. To get an immediate full grasp of the significance of a historical paper on an unfamiliar topic is hard: that’s why someone like John Gillingham, who can do that so effectively, is so impressive asking questions.

    Even if you can get to grips instantly with a particular paper, while you can often summarise a point of view into 140 characters quite well (which may be useful for a distant librarian), it’s a lot harder to compress an argument with supporting evidence into that space (which an academic may be more interested in). You can reassemble a PowerPoint style series of bullet points into tweets fairly easily; the story telling aspect of many historical papers really needs the expansiveness of blog posts, or at least conversation.

    BTW: the comments on slow posting of conference reports was a jibe at myself for my backlog on the same, not anyone else’s backlog. But CUP now want 15,000 words off my book text, so the Anglo Saxon shiny objects conference part 2 report is just going to have to stay in the queue for a long while yet.

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  2. I too have reservations about tweeting at conferences – there are positives and negatives and when I get a spare nanosecond I intend to post about them. However, in respect of my Twitter post there was one particular session I attended at a recent conference in Cologne where I was better able to engage because I was tweeting throughout – reading comments from those not at the session who had interesting things to say and even asking questions from non-attendees on their behalf. I have to say I’m a bit surprised at the ferocity of your comments about my duties as a conference attendee. My main reason for attending any conference is to network (read my recent blog posts about the Cologne conference I attended if you’re in any doubt about this as I make this point several times) and I make very full use of the opportunities that breaks provide, however, you can’t interact with other delegates in a presentation session when you’re sat silently in rows (hopefully absorbing what the speaker is saying). However, if you’re tweeting you can interact with other interested parties who cannot attend. And in this particular session it was appropriate to do so as it was about a search tool (it absolutely depends on session content in my opinion) and I know that on this occasion the speaker, the audience and the non-attendees all benefitted as a result of my extra-conference Twitter activity.

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    • Andy,

      You’re right about it being session-dependent. I was automatically thinking when I read your original post about the kind of historical conferences I go to, where the pace of delivery of the papers and the amount of unfamiliar research material presented mean that if you tried to interact with someone else during a presentation you’d miss a vital chunk of the paper. I would see this as disrespectful to a speaker. You’re talking about a very different kind of presentation, (the kind I rarely go to at the moment).

      But if I was ‘ferocious’, it was also from a more general concern that social media use is encouraging us to multi-task without considering whether multi-tasking is really appropriate. Do we need to slow down sometimes and just give attention to one single thing, rather than try and do everything simultaneously? Twittering at conferences somehow seems to me akin to those people who when they’re talking to you are always looking over your shoulder to see if there’s someone more interesting to move on to. One of the things I actually appreciate at conferences is getting away from the ‘noise’ of everyday life and its distractions: Twitter seems to me to be inviting this hubbub back in. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned on this?

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