Twitter: for the birds?

This spring, my research collaborators and I interviewed more than 50 people about (among other things) their Twitter use. This was on the heels of spending 3 days in two high school classrooms last year interacting with teens about their social media use and attitudes (including Twitter). And now I find myself once again with 35 of my own students in a course focused on social media, in which I alternately introduce my students to, reunite them with, or simply play alongside them on Twitter. All of this is to say that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about how people perceive and use Twitter. And tonight I’m thinking a lot about how to discuss Twitter — and why/how some people use it and others don’t — with my students.

My bracketing statement, before I go any further:

I am primarily a situational Twitter user, and I tweet mostly on topics related to my profession, although occasionally share something that amuses me or that is more personal. Mostly I tweet during events, such as conferences. I also tweet each summer when I teach my social media class. (Full disclosure, I also tweet with a class during the school year, but not from my personal account so I’m not really counting that. It’s a very deliberate and scheduled act then, not at all naturalistic or exploratory.) Passively, I use Twitter sporadically (sometimes I go a month without logging on). If I’m killing time, I’ll open the app and see if there’s anything interesting to read. If a ‘news event’ is unfolding, especially something local, I may go on Twitter to try to figure out what is going on. Hurricane Hermine (hiding in my basement while 2 huge trees fell on my house) and the shooting at the FSU Library (I heard the many sirens) would be two such instances. So, who do I follow? A collection of local places, thought leaders, professional organizations, colleagues, media outlets/magazines, and some random accounts that amuse me. Put that all together, and that’s my Twitter experience. Oh, and let’s not forget that I’m American. Although I follow people in various countries, I know my perspective is an American one and the people with whom I’ve discussed Twitter recently are either American or living/studying in the United States.

So, what have I learned?

Among the high school students, one theme comes through strongly: Non-users believe that Twitter is, essentially, an alternate to Facebook (which they generally use, but don’t want to admit to using – but that is another post altogether). Basically, they see it as a place where people follow other people who they already know for the purpose of providing updates. These updates are judged to be often mundane or without purpose, and occasionally instigate fights or tensions, dubbed “Twitter wars” (although Instagram posts and comments can do the same). These Twitter wars are generally known to all, even the non-users, and can span across high schools. The non-users also believe Twitter to be a technology whose time has come and gone, indicating that they didn’t get into it a few years ago and now it’s irrelevant. Some of the teens actually use Twitter, and they shared that they aren’t following and interacting with friends on there so much as following sports teams, celebrities, and vloggers. In other words, they’re using Twitter to follow and not interact, and their interests are usually entertainment-related.

I see these same sentiments echoed among some adults, both users and non-users, who say that they already have Facebook accounts and don’t really need two such online networks.  Two subthemes emerge, both related to perceived Twitter content: The non-users typically share that they won’t bother with Twitter because (1) they aren’t interested in the minutiae that people are posting there (frequent examples are that people are posting what they ate for lunch or what they plan to do that night), and/or (2) Twitter has become a highly negative place. This latter perspective is not unfounded, given the current state of politics in the United States that partly plays out on and through Twitter and media coverage of Twitter. Much like the non-users, the people who have but rarely use their Twitter accounts comment about not being interested in seeing either the random tweets of friends’ daily lives or the tensions of the current political scene.

A second theme related to non-use is that Twitter is confusing. This theme comes from the adults, not the high school students. There’s a sense of “I signed up, now what?” which makes a lot of sense. They make comments like “I have nothing to share” and “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing.” Having a Twitter account is just the first step. For Twitter use to be worthwhile, users need to have a purpose (or multiple purposes) for using Twitter and they need to have a network on Twitter that will help support achieving that purpose. Building a network takes time and effort, as does learning the conventions (of Twitter in general as well as those used by the people with whom they wish to interact).

With this in mind, who is using Twitter and how do they use it? I don’t claim to have done a systematic study of Twitter users and their purpose, but among the active individual users who I know I see a lot of people who are engaged in some form of activism, who are sharing and discussing online resources related to a particular (often professional) topic with a selected network of peers, and who are promoting their own intellectual and academic work (the writers, artists, and researchers in my feed). Finally, the people I know who are on Twitter a lot, but who rarely tweet themselves, are highly interested in following specific news and sports feeds.

Armed with these observations, and thinking about what to say to some of my current students who are still wondering what all of the fuss is about Twitter, I offer the argument that Twitter uses and Twitter feeds are as diverse as everyone’s individual networks (and the Twitter algorithm helps ensure that), but the common things shared by active Twitter users is a clear sense of purpose and a network that supports that purpose. The people I know who are using Twitter in some capacity on a semi-regular basis (or more) are those who have cultivated a network and a feed that somehow enriches their life. Twitter satisfies their needs to keep up-to-date on certain topics, to interact with others who share their interests, to share their knowledge … and sometimes just to vent, or laugh, or procrastinate for a while.

There’s lots to not love about Twitter: the bots, the signal-to-noise ratio, the sense of missing out on something as your feed moves quickly by (if you’re a FOMO kind of person), and the incivility that is not everywhere on Twitter but nonetheless is present. But there are some benefits for people who want to use Twitter to support informal learning, professional development, and a general sense of being in the know about something.

What do you think? Does any of this resonate with your experiences or observations?

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