Sunday, October 24, 2010

Technology and Research, Part 2: Tweeting and Blogging

Continuing my little discussion of the ways in which I've most recently been using online technologies in my daily research and writing habits, today I'm moving on to the complementary combo of Twitter and Blogger.

Since one of my goals over the past six to eight months has been to interact more with people who share my research/academic interests (outside of my graduate program), I've been doing more social media exploration than usual. A relatively recent major change to my online habits has been my increasing use of Twitter as a way of connecting with strangers and keeping up with news.

I operate with a kind of minimalism when it comes to technological tools--as I mentioned in a previous post, I tend to want only the tools I need, and only the tools that work. It's for that reason that I (and others) didn't start using Twitter until quite a while after I first looked at the site and logged on to create an account. I simply couldn't see any point; like so many people, at first I thought of Twitter as a useless stream of trivial chatter that would only further clutter my already-limited field of attention.

In spite of my own skepticism, at some point earlier this year I decided to try "tweeting" a bit more in earnest. Since that time I've decided that there are "two Twitters": the banal barrage of idiotic celebrity gossip and predictably dreary/melodramatic personal updates, yes, that Twitter does exist (of course!). But the flip side of it is a fascinating and wide-reaching series of exchanges, often with people I'd never have encountered otherwise; it's a stream of useful news and links that I couldn't possibly have rounded up on my own; and it's a means of responding to those things, and sharing my own, in such a way that the conversation continues and expands.

But it does take time to learn how to use Twitter effectively as a tool--assuming you know what you want to accomplish with it. At first, without a list of "followers" and with no sense of who else was using this tool and what they might be doing, I felt as if I was sending messages into the aether with little idea of "audience", tone, or purpose. Fortunately I had a few friends already tweeting busily, who helped set an example for me in terms of Twitterquette.

Among the more important things I learned was that while it's more or less true that the more accounts you add to your own list, the more "followers" you're likely to gain, the best way to get the most out of Twitter is by participating actively. For example, a means of navigating Twitter is through using "hashtags", or words/terms attached to a tweet with a # sign: e.g. #CdnPSE for "Canadian post-secondary education". You can "meet" other followers by using tags, and interact with them by "replying" to their tweets or by "re-tweeting" them (passing their content around). A system of crediting others is integral to all this; another aspect is that of suggesting users to other users (often with the tag "FollowFriday or #FF). I found that one of the biggest challenges here was feeling confident to interact with strangers, but once I was over that hurdle things became much more rewarding.

To sum up: I like using Twitter because it affords a form of participation in an ongoing conversation, but it's one that isn't limited to--for example--my Facebook contacts, who are an entirely different group. While on Facebook I keep things generally quite private, on Twitter I'm happy to see strangers adding me to their lists--unless they're bots or marketers. (Now the only thing I can't find, or haven't found yet, is the perfect Twitter client. But that's a whole different blog post...)

Tweeting got just a little bit easier a couple of months ago when (as mentioned in the previous post) also linked to the site, so now you can bookmark, tag, and send a link to Twitter--with a comment--all in the same pop-up window within your web browser (for Firefox, anyway). The other way I access the daily news is through Google Reader, so now I have a Reader-->>Twitter process that works pretty well for finding and reading relevant news, saving articles for later, and sharing them with people who are likely to want to read them.

And lastly, there's the blog. Even as an ex-zinester I've never felt comfortable writing blogs; the required regularity felt somehow journal-like, and I'm terrible at keeping journals. So I began, in fact, with a photo-blog that was at first a daily affair but eventually became weekly as the posts grew longer and often incorporated multiple pictures. A year later, after I'd managed to maintain Panoptikal and even pick up a few "viewers", I decided to incorporate my academic interests and my new Twitter habit by starting an education-oriented blog (the one you're currently reading), with the goal of practicing writing outside a formal academic context.

I've found that the blog is a great place to say something shorter and less formal than I would in an academic paper or presentation. It's a place to brainstorm without pressure, a venue for painting a small picture of my own views and for developing them further, and conversing with others about the issues raised. It's also something expressly public, so it's accessible for those who can't view journal articles or even private web sites where such conversations might happen in a more regulated environment (for example, Facebook). For anyone considering becoming an academic, the public nature of blogs can be a means of reaching a broader audience, of "engaging" multiple publics in the conversation about your research--and seeing immediate commentary. To keep building on that conversation, I embedded my Twitter feed and a list of links from into the blog's format.

At this stage you may be thinking--this sounds like a lot of effort; what's the point of all this reading and commenting and tweeting? The interesting thing is that I wasn't sure myself, for quite some time, why I was "doing all this". But I got more of an idea this past Friday when I got to sit in on a workshop run by Alex Sévigny, a friend who also happens to be a successful professor, a professional communicator, and a prolific blogger and social media buff.

The overall event, organised by Hamilton's Cossart Exchange, was ostensibly for graduate students who are interested in developing non-academic careers. But I think Alex's message was valid beyond its immediate context. His point was that for those people operating outside of existing/rigid employment structures, the process of "self-branding" (as unpleasant as it may sound) has become an integral part of professional success. Before social media, this was more difficult; but now that so many of us have access to social media tools, the opportunities have expanded dramatically. Development of an online "identity" or "face" helps you to make yourself known to potential employers and collaborators, and helps you connect better with those you've already met.

So it turns out that maybe there has been a use for all my blogging and tweeting, one beyond the immediate gratification of chatting with strangers about the things that interest me most. And here's the lesson for grad students: so many of us are spending too much time online anyway, we should really learn how to channel those efforts and make them count towards career-building (!).

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