I got a message from a colleague today on Facebook, in response to one of my status updates. I've integrated my Facebook status with Twitter using an app called Tweeter (the actual Twitter app on Facebook doesn't appear to be entirely reliable). So my Facebook statuses always begin with "Donna tweets:" and then the message.
My colleague asked whether I actually found Twitter useful. It's a timely question, because the way I use Twitter, Facebook, Plurk, and other social networking services has evolved since I wrote about their profusion in my life a few weeks ago.
My students are all on Facebook. On Facebook, status updates are a must, because they show up in your friends' minifeeds, and your friends are reassured that you are around and active. I need to be active on Facebook so that my students can contact me there. I need to be there, and be social there, in order to be part of their lives. The key to effective teaching and mentoring is proximity -- and Facebook gives me proximity, so long as I regularly update and therefore appear on my students' pages.
I resisted Twitter for a long time because (a) it seemed redundant since I was already posting statuses on Facebook, and (b) I didn't know why or to whom I was broadcasting my status on Twitter. I have a reason to be active on Facebook, one related to my job. I have a reason to be active on my blog, one related to my personal goals. Why did I need to be active on Twitter?
Thanks to Noel's entrance into Twitter, which allowed me to piggyback off his following list and add a bunch of far-flung friends, acquaintances, and people I admire, the purpose of Twitter has suddenly become clear to me. Twitter is micro-blogging in a social context. It's the place where the dozens of daily thoughts or happenings that are too minor for a blog post, but that nevertheless are worth communicating, can go. And it's where you stay within the orbit of people in whom you are truly interested. The trick to Twitter is to follow only people whose lives you actually want to keep up with -- because you know them, because they lead interesting lives, because they have something to say that you want to hear. And the trick to twittering is that you aren't doing it for yourself -- you're doing it to be a part of the lives of the people who follow you. Presumably they are following you because they're interested in you. Unlike blogging, which I would argue you do primarily for yourself, with an audience as motivation rather than reason, I believe that you don't twitter for yourself, but for your network. It's freeform communication, an ever-reconfiguring cocktail party where you can wander from conversation to conversation, but where you have an obligation to contribute appropriately -- to be interesting, but not overpowering.
And now that my administrative colleagues have joined Plurk, I'm even starting to make use of it in the way I had hoped to do. I listen in (and sometimes comment) on friends' Plurks, but if I used it for status updates or even link sharing, it would be redundant -- I'm already doing that on Twitter. Instead, I can use the time-stamp and private plurk functions -- not part of the Twitter concept -- to keep notes on decisions made and official activities undertaken. It's a notepad where I jot down what I told a student in an advising session, or what we decided to do about a certain policy in an ad hoc meeting. Since it's searchable, I can quickly find plurks I posted about any given student or any given topic, a must for retrieving records of the hundreds of minor decisions we make every week. What did I tell Student X about her scholarship? Did I promise Student Y he could come back into the program? What did we decide about students taking classes for grade forgiveness? Being able to private-plurk a timeline of decision points means a record that can actually be useful, because I'm living in it continually.
Having a bunch of memberships in sites that ask you to be active by posting what you're up to -- that feels like an obligation, a burden, and if you don't know who you're doing it for or why you're doing it (other than that everyone else seems to be), it won't be useful. Now that some of those questions of why and wherefore and who-for have been sorted out for me, I feel a sense of purpose and value in twittering, plurking, and facebooking.
(Kwipping, though? Haven't quite figured that one out.)