Twitter and Social Media
If the Learning Management System (LMS) represents the dominant educational technology, then Twitter is the behemoth of third-party tech that has been adopted in education. There’s too much that can be said about Twitter to do the subject justice in a short chapter, and most people will have their own views on its role in education, but it would be remiss to leave it out of any historical account. Founded in 2006, Twitter had moved well beyond the tech-enthusiast bubble by 2009 but had yet to become the pervasive tool of today. Not long ago I passed a highway sign signalling some road work; the sign stated that updates could be searched by using the hashtag of the highway number. While this wouldn’t just be on Twitter, the use of hashtags as the most effective way to convey public information indicated that, since 2009, Twitter has gone onto to become, like the highway network, part of the infrastructure. In this transformation, it has also become a tool for wreaking political mayhem, populated by trolls, bots, and the far right, where daily outrages and generally toxic behaviour have become the most significant aspect of its usage. Given this, it is difficult to recall the optimism that we once held for Twitter as well as for Facebook. In 2009, though, the ability to make global connections, to easily cross disciplines, and to engage in meaningful discussion — all before breakfast — was revolutionary.
There was also a democratizing effect: formal academic status was not significant since users were judged on the value of their contributions to the network. In educational terms, social media has done much to change the nature of the relationship between academics, students, and the institution. It remains a means of creating a valuable and rewarding network for scholars that brings real benefits. How, then, are we to resolve this quandary of benefit and damage? For some, the benefits are no longer significant enough and they have quit social media, while others have moved to other sites, such as Mastadon, in an attempt to create communities from scratch that conform to more acceptable norms. One way of approaching Twitter and related social media is to view them as paradoxes, where opposing outcomes are both simultaneously true. This approach at least allows users to avoid the extremes of wholesale acceptance or rejection and attempt to find strategies that can, as the song says, accentuate the positive.
Strategies to Offset the Paradoxes
What follows are examples of strategies that can offset the paradoxes.
DEMOCRATIZATION VERSUS MARGINALIZATION
Twitter can practically democratize the academic space; for instance, many of the conferences I have been to over the past two or three years have featured keynote speakers who are not eminent professors with a substantial list of publications but people who have established an online identity. They have interesting things to say online, have established powerful networks and communities and often give the best keynotes. Social media is a democratized, open space where traditional hierarchies don’t carry as much value. But the opposite is also simultaneously true in that the same sort of groups who are marginalized in real life are marginalized online. Thus, the experience of a white, middle-aged male online will be very different to that of, say, a young woman of colour, and particularly if that woman is writing about subjects that attract trolls, such as feminism, climate change, technology, and so on. Therefore, when universities encourage academics to develop profiles in spaces such as Twitter, they may be reinforcing existing privilege because, for some groups, this will be a more positive experience than others. In addition, if a person has real-life influence and an existing network, these can be transferred to their online network, regardless of the content they produce, as seen with celebrities. The Matthew effect posits that power will accrue more to someone who already has power, and a version of this is in evidence in social media, where a person with 100K followers will gain more simply through their presence in the network, rather than through merit.
REWARD VERSUS PUNISHMENT
In The Battle for Open (Weller, 2014), I argued that open approaches, such as developing an online identity, establishing a community, and sharing resources and ideas through Twitter are an effective means to engage in many scholarly activities. For instance, papers that are tweeted and blogged tend to get cited more, and Twitter can be a very time efficient means of finding answers to specific queries. There is a high degree of reward, often in very practical terms for using Twitter. At the same time, however, there are significant risks, such as the type of online abuse mentioned previously, the loss of employment or the receipt of disciplinary action through an injudicious tweet, or being subject to formal complaints by a group taking offence to something controversial (a political statement, for example). Given the diversity of interests and passions involved on Twitter, this can arise more quickly than we might like to think.
INFORMED VERSUS MISINFORMED
Twitter can be a site for detailed and meaningful discussion. For example, the “Learning and Teaching in Higher Education” chat (https://lthechat.com/) is a successful weekly discussion around the hashtag #LTHEchat that is held every Wednesday, focuses on a different topic, with readings provided before the session. Similarly, the #PHDchat offers a regular discussion community for PhD researchers that “is a legitimate organizational structure situated around a core group of users that share resources, offer advice, and provide social and emotional support to each other” (Ford, Veletsianos, & Resta, 2014, p. 1). But we also know social media to be a space and culture that at times seems positively hostile to education and informed debate. Twitter conversations on many subjects often descend into little more than name-calling, but this is made worse by bots and trolls that specifically target keywords to spread misinformation.
SUPPORTIVE VERSUS DANGEROUS
Social media can be a genuinely welcoming, supportive place for academics. For instance, it creates a social bond with people such that attendance at conferences can be a less isolating experience. Often, fellow academics can help someone think through a tentative idea, offering suggestions. These connections are not inferior to the types of relationships that exist at work or friendships that exist in real life; they represent valuable, significant connections. But, as discussed already, it can also be an unpleasant space, and a positively dangerous one. Threats of physical violence, as well as sustained campaigns of abuse, have very significant impacts on the lives of those who suffer them. Universities, therefore, have a duty of care when they promote the use of social media to both staff and students.
SOCIAL MEDIA IN LEARNING
Educators, then, are faced with having to negotiate these complex paradoxes for both themselves and often on behalf of their students. There are no correct or single solutions to these puzzles, and appropriate strategies will depend on the individual, their context, the institution, and the motivation for adopting social media. On this latter point, there are several potential uses for social media in teaching and learning, which I will frame as a set of hypotheses. These are not guaranteed findings, but rather potential impacts for which there are some tentative reasons to propose them. By considering these possible impacts for social media, it is possible to determine the preferred use and, thus, the appropriate approach to take. By framing them as hypotheses it also stresses the need to evaluate the evidence that supports or contradicts them.
Social Media Increases Student Recruitment
The use of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media by universities, students, and staff provides potential students with a good insight into student life and can act as an effective marketing tool (Constantinides & Zinck Stagno, 2011).
Social Media Increases Student Engagement
The use of social media helps blur boundaries between study and other aspects of life and provides an element that can be fitted in-between other activities in a way that more concentrated study activities cannot.
Social Media Increases Student Retention
Students who make social connections tend to stay with their studies (Astleitner, 2000). Conventionally, this is realized through societies and social functions. Social media provides a further means to enhance these bonds, and particularly for distance or part-time students.
Higher Education Has a Duty to Develop Expertise in Fake News and Misinformation
Mike Caulfield (2017a), who has done much of the work in exploring the impact of misinformation, has developed an online book and a wide range of activities to help develop these skills. They are likely to become increasingly significant as the quality of fake videos and sophisticated targeting improve. If 50% of 18- to 22-year-olds enter higher education, then developing these skills helps improve the cogency of the network overall.
What these hypotheses (and you can undoubtedly think of more) illustrate is that if we think of social media as a form of social infrastructure, then there are a variety of uses it can be put to, just as a network roadways can be used by different people with different goals. To extend this metaphor, the effectiveness of it to realize any of those goals will be dependent on many related factors. Using the roadways metaphor, it will depend on traffic conditions, other motorists, types of vehicles, fuel, and road networks. Whereas for social media, these factors will depend on expertise in using the network, engagement from others, the tone of the debate, and time.
ACHIEVING SUCH SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE IS NO ACCIDENT
Achieving infrastructure-like status is the primary goal for Internet giants such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. For instance, for a significant number of users, Facebook is viewed as the entirety of the Internet. Reporting on surveys in Indonesia and Nigeria, Farrell (2015) stated that “large numbers of first-time adopters come online via Facebook’s proprietary network, rather than via the open web” (para. 8). Similarly, Amazon has the goal of becoming the sole global retailer, and Google and Apple contest the battle to be the sole technology provider in people’s lives, embedding their platforms and technology in their home, car, phone, and entertainment systems. Such a monopoly means that any provider who desires access to the markets they control must abide by the rules determined by these companies, whether that is in what type of content they permit, the data they have access to, or the revenue they require. In addition, they are unlikely to permit any company that acts as a competitor to flourish within their domain. So, while these corporations have inveigled their way to infrastructure status, we should remember that providers of physical infrastructure systems such as water, roads, and power have responsibilities and accountability placed upon them. This is relevant to ed tech, because it highlights the responsibility in mandating the use of such systems and thus increasing their infrastructure-like status and stresses the importance of developing a critical approach to technology in all subject areas.
Social Media and Research
Having looked at possible uses of social media in teaching and learning, we can also undertake a similar exercise for research. If we view a typical research lifecycle, as shown in Figure 1, then for each of these, social media can be seen to offer alternatives or opportunities to enhance the phase. Taking each in turn we can examine some examples.
Social media can be a useful place to test out ideas and garner early feedback. It can also be used to conduct lightweight pilot studies, surveys, and find possible collaborations.
SITUATE IN FIELD
Social media allows projects and people within a field to connect, to reach out to others who have done related work, and to develop an identity around a particular project.
FIGURE 1. A typical research lifecycle.
Social media allows for methods such as sentiment analysis, network analysis, subject recruitment, and survey dissemination, which can all form part of an overall methodology plan.
During the research process, social media can be used to generate interest, disseminate early findings, and gather further collaborations and subjects.
Disseminating work via social media brings greater visibility, citations, downloads, and linking through to the “open access citation advantage” (Eysenbach, 2006). But beyond this, there are other approaches to dissemination, including social media and video, to get across messages. Development of other outputs beyond the traditional papers, such as infographics, MOOC, and open tools, which are social media friendly can be produced to further dissemination.
What social media ultimately provides ed tech with is a set of tools and possibilities, but these are not without risks and issues. The clear distinction between professional and personal is deliberately blurred on social media. This can be beneficial, but it also leads to “context collapse.” Marwick and boyd (2010) highlighted this issue:
We present ourselves differently based on who we are talking to and where the conversation takes place — social contexts like a job interview, trivia night at a bar, or dinner with a partner differ in their norms and expectations . . . . The need for variable self-presentation is complicated by increasingly mainstream social media technologies that collapse multiple contexts and bring together commonly distinct audiences. (p. 1)
In other words, we communicate in social media with one audience in mind, but several different audiences might access that content. This is particularly true if you have a diverse audience, or if people use hashtags or search terms to find your tweets. This context collapse provides both an opportunity, for example in reaching new audiences for research dissemination, and a risk, for example trolls searching for terms to harass people. This is a reflection of what social media does for education as a whole — the context between the university and the rest of society is collapsed. That may be beneficial generally, but when it means conspiracy theorists arrive in a geology discussion to insist the world is flat, it raises problems that we are still incapable of solving. Twitter context collapse is akin to a black hole consuming all matter indiscriminately — cat pictures, sports discussion, political discussion, humorous memes, feminist movements, medical support communities, Nazi trolls, conspiracy theorists, and marketing — and in this academia is but one small part. Regaining and retaining an academic sense of identity and values, while deriving some of the benefits of context collapse, is the challenge that social media brings.