Teaching with Drugs; Learning with Twitter

‘Checking your likes is the new smoking…’

Concentration by Giuseppe Milo.jpg
Concentration by Giuseppe Milo (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve written in an earlier post about feeling like I’m pushing back against a pervasive dystopian vision of the digital world in my teaching. I was reminded of that again when I first watched one of Bill Maher’s social media-related reflections/rants on his HBO talk show. In this (slightly risqué) video, he builds an expansive metaphor around the synergies between social media companies and drug dealers (and, of course, the ‘addicted’ users of both). And I guess if Google, Apple, and Facebook are high level drug barons, that means I’m one of their lower level minions? I don’t think so. My audition for Breaking Bad got unfairly overlooked a long time ago…

Now, don’t get me wrong – personally I’m a big fan of Bill Maher and find him not only entertaining but also persuasive on most occasions. Yet his oft-repeated disdain for social media frustrates me due to his vast generalisations, problematic analogies, and generally pessimistic rhetoric. Maher may be a comedian, but he’s not only trying to be funny here, particularly in the context of his show Real Time. His views feed off and feed into a moral panic around social media that I’ve constantly seen holding students back from the potential benefits of being visible and active online.

In any unit I teach, I invite students to get involved on Twitter via a unit hashtag, where they can network and interact with a community of peers in a way that surpasses the usual barriers of seminar room walls and the impossible to navigate or awkwardly silent discussion forums. Here’s an old video I made resisting the all-too-common and equally flawed stereotypes and moral panics about Twitter and Twitter users:

For years I’ve seen students use Twitter to build countless valuable connections, create amazing portfolios, and cement themselves as highly valuable and valued lifelong learners. But everyone starts somewhere; studying with Twitter is different and demands some guidance. Most of it is learning by doing, but here is a list of pointers that I hope are helpful to get people started – whether you’re a student or not. I’ve also embedded a series of tweeted snaps that I hope will forever dismiss any notion that I have anything to do with drugs…

1. Search the hashtag effectively

Searching a hashtag is the only way to know what’s going on, so checking it regularly is a great thing to do. This doesn’t have to be a daily practice when studying a unit on digital media, but you’ll be amazed at how much content you can scan through and engage with in a short period of time – that’s part of why social media works! Also, Twitter makes a rather nebulous distinction between ‘Top’ and ‘Latest’ tweets when you search a hashtag, and clicking ‘Latest’ will ensure you can see all of them. Every now and then it can take a little while for the odd tweet to appear in a hashtag search – if this happens, just persevere and don’t panic!

2. Keep things relevant

Think about your audience. Users search a hashtag because they want to find relevant things, so keeping tweets relevant when using a hashtag is of paramount importance. Here is a terrific video made by Emily Wade that offers some terrific tips on how not to spam the unit hashtag:

Don’t use the hashtag if you’re replying to someone and your message should have an audience of only a few people. If you are sharing tweets and media with a unit hashtag that have nothing to do with the unit, you are essentially telling everyone you don’t know what the unit’s about (so you’d better check out the weekly resources). It suffices to say that I’ve seen some strange things tweeted to a unit hashtag, and I often tweet or message some guidance to students who are veering off track. I’m here to help, so if I get in touch with you, don’t panic!

3. Don’t get overwhelmed

Things can get very busy on a hashtag, particularly when I have hundreds of students involved in a unit. There may be times when there is more going on than you could ever hope to devour. That’s actually a great thing, and serves as a handy little microcosm of the internet generally (and is a stark reminder of the limitations of standard university discussion forums). If you ever feel like it’s all too much, just stick to what’s required and… don’t panic!

4. Keep it brief

Remember that it wasn’t so long ago that the 140 character limit was doubled to 280 characters (this happened in late 2017). Conventions shift over time, but brevity is always best. Many have argued that 140 characters is too long for the ideal tweet, so keeping things short, snappy, and dynamic is often the best approach. If you’re maxing out the character limit with each tweet, it might be time for a rethink – but even so, don’t panic!

5. Get a balance

Follow, tweet, like, quote, retweet, reply – do all of these things, but in balance. There are some Twitter accounts out there that only retweet others’ tweets. I don’t follow them; most others don’t either. Contributing your own content is important, but don’t spam a hashtag with a series of tweets either, as this will make effective networking with peers less likely. Twitter’s improved thread function allows users to post an initial tweet (with a hashtag) and then connect others (without a hashtag) to the first post. Getting a balance can be tricky, but you’ll work it out. Don’t panic!

Most importantly: Don’t panic!

I’ve said it five times already: Don’t panic. Getting things wrong is an intrinsic part of learning by doing. Common sense and a respect for other people avoids the major problems, but if you fall over the smaller hurdles, it’s time to remember all the corny lines your parents told you (or should have) about picking yourself up and trying again. Learning by doing is rewarding, but the reward is always a result of the effort you put in and the mistakes you made along the way. If I got everything right all of the time, I would never have had my picture taken in that hat.

Thanks for reading – I’d love to hear about any other tips you have!

What are your top 5 tips for studying, or working, with Twitter??

Featured image: Photograph by The Man Who Knocks.


18 Comments Add yours

  1. annalarkin53 says:

    Watched the video on “Social Media is the new Nicotine.” Yes, the delivery sucked, but it was a really thought-provoking monologue. I saw that photo of a group of young people standing together all looking at their phones and, despite the photographic cliche I realised I still harbour some fear about the potential harmful effects of social media.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Certainly nothing wrong with being wary of potential effects of social media – they undoubtedly exist and I’m wary of them myself. My concern with Maher’s rhetoric (and many others like him) is the generalisations and stereotypes which, as some researchers have pointed out, are more harmful than the actual ‘harmful’ behaviour itself… Thanks for reading!

  2. Elliot Taylor says:

    So… should I panic?

    1. Adam Brown says:

      I don’t think so, but it’s just my opinion… Thanks for reading!

  3. ‘If I got everything right all of the time, I would never have had my picture taken in that hat.’
    That made me laugh, thanks for making your posts more interesting and witty, makes for easier reading. 🙂

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks heaps for reading – glad you found it useful, and accessible! 🙂

    2. alexhudson says:

      This was also my favourite line!

      1. Adam Brown says:

        Thanks for engaging with the post Alex – I’m glad the hat, and the line, served their purpose 😉

  4. Laura says:

    My tip as a twitter newbie to myself and others, be brave. I’m trying to push myself out of my comfort zone a little and not over analyse everything I contribute online, or make it too structure. Five edits are enough, six is clearly too much ;). Without spamming and keeping it relevant to course content of course!

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Great stuff Laura, thanks for reading! You’re most definitely on the right track to more confidence… and maybe just four edits 😉

  5. Madison Casner says:

    My top tip for beginning to be active on Twitter is: Go for IT!!!
    I am stepping into new territory, but I am thrilled to have the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the positive impacts social media can have.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks for reading Madison – with that attitude, you can’t go wrong! 🙂

  6. Sohaib Minhas says:

    I really liked the piece, the music was really interesting in How not to Spam the Unit hashtag.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks for reading Sohaib – good to hear!

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