An old friend of mine from graduate school in Texas wrote to me today to let me know that he had finally become a tenured professor (in Colorado). He was now looking forward to writing another book and, as he put it, professin'. Leaving aside the issues of tenuredom and academic freedom, the question I wanted to ask him, especially given that his area covers communications, was, Why don't you use twitter? He sends out daily emails of broad interest to a large number of people he knows, so why not share the love more widely? His answer was: give me some reasons to bother with twitter and maybe I'll try (again). This is my attempt to justify his bothering with twitter.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, twitter offers what is sometimes called ambient awareness. It's more like the sensation one has of being in a village or other community, and say bumping into someone on the street and having a three sentence conversation, or chatting to someone in a shopping queue or seeing someone in the park or seeing another parent when meeting your children from school. In Italy and Spain these kinds of events can happen in the piazza as well as elsewhere. In Britain we still have some pubs (public houses) remaining, which are actually designed to create accidental and one might hope felicitous rendezvous.
The kinds of conversations and interactions that are engendered by meeting accidentally are, I believe, actually of profound importance however they happen. It seems as if there is a part of the brain that actually needs and attaches special value to aleatoric (throw of the dice) or serendipitous meetings and messages. These events serve to reinforce existing message streams or introduce new ones and sometimes, perhaps surprisingly often, act as the capstone to action. That is, they are the final trigger that causes you to read that book, go to that cafe, ring that old friend etc. Even without the capstone tendency, any single tweet on its own is unlikely to be of overwhelming significance, but in context they start to add up and reinforce the virtual, physical and ideational worlds.
One of the reasons why twitter acts to build up social resonance is the act of retweeting, in which you rebroadcast a message to your circle of 'followers' that you have seen in a message from somebody else, either that you are following or that you have discovered by a search or seen in a hashtag web page (see below for more on hashtags). Even if the person you are 'retweeting' is not following you, they will see just that message and therefore will know that you are favouring their message. Sometimes that may cause that person to start following you, which is always pleasant.
I find that twitter works particularly well in concert with physical meetings. In fact, i would say that a lot of the meetings and events I now attend are the direct result of information and recommendations that come to me via twitter. In addition, because many people are happy to reveal their locations, via their iPhones (or similar) you can tell when someone you know is coming to town. Even if they don't enable that feature or don't tweet from a mobile (or cell) phone, many people announce that they are in a certain place or visiting something well known, such as the Louvre. If you are nearby and you spot this, you may be able to arrange a meeting.
Another vital feature of twitter allows you easily to find new interesting people and then see whom they find interesting, or at least whom they have decided to follow. Because you don't have to have permission to follow someone, it's a very fluid and effortless way of building an affinity circle. Thus it becomes an extraordinary way of finding ideas, books, thoughts, events that there is almost no chance of discovering on your own, especially as one may increasingly follow writers and doers of increasing eminence and also see the conversations they have (the ones they have on twitter, at least). Twitter also has the potential to make it easier for people with talent to get the attention of the world.
With twitter, it is much easier to help groups of like-minded people get together, either occasionally to create 'tweetups', or more regularly, such as the #Tuttle gathering in London, which meets every Friday to discuss in small ad hoc groups social media and anything else that catches the breeze.
Another interesting matter is that the twitter demographic is apparently mostly over 35 years old. If you are generally interested in serious discussions, especially about democracy, politics and philosophy, then given that research tends to show that in English-speaking cultures at the moment, people tend to become more engagé in the second half of their lives, then twitter is likely to be an increasingly happy hunting ground. Reinforcing this, it would also appear that twitter users are more likely to be progressive, which is likely to match the profile of many academics, including the one I am trying to persuade with this epistle.
Yet another way of finding information and people to follow is by looking at #hashtags web pages. These allow you to see messages from anyone who uses that hashtag, whether you are following them or not. For instance #reith2009 (http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23reith2009) collects all the comments of those who are listening to this year's Reith lectures by American political philosopher Michael Sandel. Most of the comments are careful and thoughtful; some are even profound.
As further evidence against the case that twitter is merely trivial, it played a seminal role in the recent Iranian election and has surely proven the significance of microblogging. Twitter may not have actually changed the final outcome in Iran, but my goodness, it has got the attention of those in or around power all round the world, including, for instance, @GideonRachman, the Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator, former Economist writer, and not an easy nut to crack.
In these ways and more, twitter has created access to an extraordinary and interactive body of people and knowledge. So I have asked my professor friend give twitter another try. To him I would say try letting your followers know what you are writing or reading, and if possible, say why (in my opinion, you can use more than one tweet for this kind of thing - there are no rules against chain tweeting).
My friend is a Dewey scholar and pragmatist, and I would like to think that pragmatists will appreciate twitter's practical value. Be that as it may, my twitter moniker is @juliandarley and I become further convinced of twitter's value with each passing day. I am also convinced that the sooner the academic world embraces the twitterverse and shares its wisdom more widely and easily, the better the state of knowledge of will be.