I have been thinking a lot about Twitter recently: it is hardly possible to avoid all of the media hype on the microblogging service these days. I particularly enjoy it when otherwise fusty mainstream newscasters mention their twitter handle in a routine broadcast (ooh, yes, I do want to follow Dan Rather!). Still, with all of the hype, I am trying to see the real value of Twitter, particularly in an academic setting.

One possibility is using Twitter as a research tool: I have found some surprisingly rich information via tweets containing urls. Following a given topic on Twitter might be yet another way to gain content. Of course, there’s no real way of filtering out the garbage, either. One potential solution is the hashtag: teachers or professors can use a hashtag to group interesting content for their students. Students can do the same. I’m thinking about using a hashtag system for my Vampire Literature course this fall. So, whenever I or my students discover a relevant link, we could tweet it for the rest of the class. Like so:

Excited about new Buffy movie that may be coming out . http://bit.ly/NWhGf #vamplit.

The RSS yielded by the hashtag can be incorporated on the course web site or into an RSS reader such as Google Reader. I’ve been working on getting this to fly with Ning with limited success. Of course, students could also search the #vamplit hashtag on Twitter (or a third-party app like Tweetdeck), though this kind of gets away from the “information comes to you” idea.

Presumably, I could pass along course announcements through Twitter, though again, students would have to follow either my main account, thereby receiving updates like “Rozemar is eating Oreos again,” or I would have to create an alternative account, as in “Professor Rozema wants everyone to bring a laptop today.” Seems just a bit artificial to me. My colleague Sean Lancaster has made a similar observation.

Sean pointed me to a list of 50 Ways to Use Twitter in the College Classroom, some of which may be worth pursuing. To be honest, many of the suggestions seem like straw grasping–using Twitter for its own sake and not because it works better than more traditional methods (Practice Brevity reads one such suggestion).

I’ve also been reading the Hubspot State of the Twittersphere 2009 Report. It is longer than 140 characters. And it points to some trends that reinforce a pessimistic view of Twitter’s longevity. Of the Twitter users in the study,

  • 55.50% are not following anyone
  • 54.88% have never tweeted
  • 52.71% have no followers

Granted, many blogs have never been used or have been abandoned shortly after startup. But unlike Twitter, at least, there are direct connections between traditional academic concerns and blogging–namely, writing with purpose, researching a topic, collaborative authorship, writing for an audience, and more. Twitter has to come up with some sort of killer app that will make it more appealing to academic settings, I think. Channels might be a good way to start, allowing users to select which followers receive which tweets. Easier inclusion of images and hotlinks (maybe a WYSIWYG editor) would also be a bonus.

Bah humbug, Twitter. Or maybe I’m just mad because @rozemar only has 17 followers.

Update: I have been following the tag #iranelection the last few days–and that has been pretty amazing. As mainstream media are blacked out in Iran, Twitter users are keeping the rest of the world informed, often at their own peril.