Using Twitter for Scholarly Purposes

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Serge Noiret, HEC Information Specialist, EUIBy Serge Noiret, History Information Specialist, EUI Library

Reflections following the Atelier Multimédiain Digital History held by @sergenoiret, (EUI History Information Specialist) on Wednesday 28th of March 2012 for the Max Weber Programme in Villa La Fonte. (The PowerPoint presentation of the course and the PDF of the accompanying slides are available here).

So, you use Facebook and publish your family pictures, or you write about how you feel today, what you saw at the cinema or whether your cat is pretty cool, but Twitter is not for you? 50 million tweets were sent per day in 2010 and as of Twitter’s fifth anniversary in early 2011, about 140 million tweets are created per day.

Experience shows that the micro-blogging software  ‒ 140 characters only available for a post ‒ is not used like Facebook but often for very different purposes. Twitter is also something else and this “something else” is important for communicating today within professional and scientific communities.

Twitter is used widely worldwide to sustain new forms of democratic participation, new information channels and web 2.0 “crowdsourced” new forms of journalism. The immediate involvement of citizens and their participation in the polis and their communities, is analysed in depth today by political scientists and sociologists. Twitter is connected to all possible e-devices, mainly smartphones, to inform “live” on the developments of protests in Middle East and in the Maghreb. Whoever actively participates in the “Arab Spring” is using Twitter. Today you can view online a Google map showing in real time ‒ thanks to Twitter ‒ how the uprising and the repression is affecting Syrian people and Syrian cities. And Barack Obama during his first Presidential campaign in 2008 used Twitter heavily to communicate with the electorate, so there’s nothing strange in finding that Twitter has signed an agreement with the Library of Congress (2009) to be fully archived. This is the first social networking tool for which we have a public archiving procedure, because the network matters to societies.

So, let’s forget about our use of Facebook and instead concentrate on what Twitter is offering in an academic environment. The EUI community ‒ like other academic communities ‒ may use Twitter for very different purposes and in different ways thanks to Twitter’s technology. How can we make the most of this recent social network, created in March 2006 by Jack Dorsey, founder and first CEO of Twitter? Let’s look very briefly here at some possible uses.

Academics are going to visit libraries, research centers, archives and universities and they may wish to know about these institutions online before, during and after their visit. So, first they need to see if a Twitter feed, like the recently created EUI Twitter account @EuropeanUni, is available. This feed will complement the often too static web pages available for universities and their institutional web sites. In our academic community, the @THATCampFirenze account was created at the end of 2010 to follow the March 2011 #THATcamp EUI, the Digital Humanities and Technology Camp at the Badia Fiesolana. Twitter accounts, at the EUI or elsewhere, are indeed a good way to get updates, see highlights of collections, get research tips, ask questions to staff and professors, and follow new and updated information.

In order to do this, the most useful characteristic of Twitter is the so-called Twitter Hashtags #, a combination of the pound sign and text used on Twitter to find connected tweets. The # symbol is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. People also use the symbol # before relevant keywords in their Tweet in order for them to show up more easily within a Twitter Search. Clicking on a “hashtagged” word in any tweet, will show you all other Tweets in that category. The web service is the de facto standard for # information. Hashtags can be very general, like #history or #archives, or #syria or #communism or more specific, like #ncph2012, the annual meeting of American Public Historians in Milwaukee in April, in which I participated. Hashtags are also a way of joining a professional community, like #twitterstorians, created by Katrina Gulliver for all historians willing to use Twitter. If the EUI decides to organize an important event like the State of the Union, a specific # is created ad hoc for us – everybody ‒ to connect eventually our own tweets and/or follow that specific event: #SoU2012. Furthermore using the # of the conference allows everybody ‒ especially in the case of a conference like the State of the Union which is a huge event with many people attending ‒ to directly participate and interact. #s allow speakers or organizers to deal immediately with important queries and comments raised by the public attending the conference on site or those following via the streaming channel. These queries and comments may be shown on a laptop or, during the event, displayed on a large public screen. This is the way tweets are commonly used in a TV channel transmission like the Stream, Al Jazeera’s “aggregator of online sources and discussion”. The Stream uses a Twitter feed for direct interaction between those watching the television broadcasting, the journalists viewing on their own computers, and the Twitter stream itself.

Another extremely useful reason for using Twitter in our academic environment is to share resources and links to these resources. Shortened URLs – web addresses that are shortened by Twitter itself by default in order not to lose character spaces ‒ are often embedded in tweets and allow you to find digitized documents, blogs, interesting articles, new projects, new websites or use the integrated photo or video sharing service.

Useful software includes Tweedeck, a portal which organizes your tweets, messages and hashtags in parallel columns. It allows you also to post your tweets contemporaneously in Twitter and Facebook.

An attractive way to present your Twitter Feed as a blog or, better still, as an online newspaper, is through the Tweeted Times which “aggregates news in your Twitter stream and ranks them by popularity among your friends. … You can create a newspaper for any topic of your interest. Topical newspapers are based on streams produced by Twitter Lists or Twitter search”. Tweeted Times is available also for iPad, nowadays the best place to read an online newspaper.

So are you convinced and thinking about creating a permanent and shared information Feed using Tweeted Times applied to your own Twitter account which would integrate the EUI Twitter account @EuropeanUni ?