The Twitterverse or the Twittersphere, as many clever Tweeps (an astute rendering of “Twitter” and methinks “creep” as the definition is a Twitter follower who follows a Tweeter to other social networks. Correct me if I’m wrong, interwebs.) have cleverly coined the vast digital stomping grounds of Twitter, can be–like many things described as “vast” or “stomping grounds” or “digital”–a little overwhelming, a little scary, maybe even a little outlawish**. However, it can also be an environment rich in learning, information exchange, and relationship-building.
Sadly, sometimes bad thing can happen on Twitter. People get addicted to social media. Just like in real life (IRL) people can be mean to one another within this digital realm. They can spread lies. They can circulate insults. It can even reach the level of cruel harassment. The difference here is that when something is said aloud IRL, although it is still painful, there is (in most cases) no permanent visual reminder of it. On Twitter, a vicious statement can remain indefinitely, especially if someone retweets said comment or captures a screenshot of an unsavory post and then broadcasts that image via some other digital medium, which is why we must all be cautious when posting ANYTHING online, in ANY digital space. Think news travels fast in your school? The Twitter grapevine is electrified and widespread. This can be good if you WANT to get your message out there, but if you’d rather keep it private, the internerts* is not the place to post it. What is really important to acknowledge is that it does not appear that social media is going away, so I think it is a NECESSITY that instead of forbidding our students from using it freely, that we teach them HOW to use it responsibly, and give them a process to handle things properly, if they encounter the bad stuff (which realistically, we know they will at some point, whether they are looking for it or not).
However nefarious some Tweets, some exchanges, some Twitter accounts or some backchannels can be, the Twitterverse is also a place where powerful, gritty, learning and idea exchanging takes place. My number one use for Twitter is professional development. The use of hashtags (A.K.A backchannels A.K.A. #’s) in the Twittersphere is a way to bring people with common interests and passions together as well as providing a means of networking and building a Personal Learning Network (PLN). (Note that there are other outlets for backchannel creation, but in this post, anywhere you see me reference one, I’m referring to Twitter backchannels.) I follow a few backchannels in particular including #nebedu (tweets from and for Nebraska educators), #edchat (tweets from and for educators from around the world), #engchat (tweets from and for English teachers), and #edtech (tweets from and for anyone interested in educational technology). When I have a spare minute, I take a peek at the tweets the people I follow on Twitter have posted, or I go to the one of the aforementioned backchannels. Conversely, if I find an article that I feel is useful or shareworthy, I tag it with one or more of the backchannels so that other people who are interested in similar topics might benefit from the article as well. Sometimes I just share funny or silly things too. I also like to tweet quotes from people whom I admire or people whom make me think. Not everything I post is tagged for a backchannel, but everything I post is broadcast to my followers, which at this point includes students, parents, colleagues, and strangers. I know some of my followers personally and some I’ve never met (and probably never will). I’ve also met people on Twitter whom I have later met in person. Weird. I know. But it makes sense since I’m involved in backchannels that focus on things in which I am interested, and I attend events about which I am interested. It is not unusual to bump into someone you “met” on Twitter at a NETA convention or an NCTE event. (Just to be clear, I’m not arranging rendezvous with strangers I’ve met via the Internet. If I meet someone IRL that I’ve first met on Twitter or some other social media outlet, it has thus far been by chance.) Many times at events such as NETA, the organizers and the participants create backchannels for people to live tweet, thus broadening the professional development experience by offering glimpses into sessions that one is unable to attend.
I have also created backchannels for all of the classes I teach. For anyone unfamiliar with the ways of the Twittersphere, this makes it sound like I have some special authority or power there. I don’t. Anyone who places the hashtag symbol (#) in front of any combination of letters–sensical or not–within a tweet for the first time, creates a backchannel. The downside to this is that once a backchannel is created, anyone with a Twitter account (including spammers–someone who sends out links that open malware or viruses on one’s computer–and trolls–people who intentionally incite the anger of others by making strategically provocative or even hateful comments) can participate in a backchannel. So, if you create a backchannel and it gains significant popularity, it is sometimes targeted by not-so-nice people. However, our hashtags are obscure enough so far that this has not been an issue. Backchannels do expire after a while too, if posts are not made on a regular basis. Also, the Twitter community is pretty good at taking care of their own in that, if a responsible user sees someone who is misusing his or her account, that person’s account will most likely not exist for much longer as he or she will be reported for spam or abuse. My advice to you regarding trolls and spammers is to ignore them. Showering someone like that with attention of any sort is like throwing corncobs into a bonfire. It feeds them and they grow stronger. Take away your attention (the fuel) and they’ll eventually burn out OR report them and allow them to be extinguished by force.
I use my classroom backchannels as a way to not only interact with my students digitally, but also to deliver information to them. Not every student has a Twitter account, so I cannot use it as my exclusive method of communication (face-to-face communication is still number 1 in my archaic little English teachery** book.) but it can be part of my repertoire. I see it as a way to speak one of my students’ (many) languages. I don’t want to speak TEXT with them because it’s a private communication tool that cannot be readily monitored. (Would you believe that I still don’t have texting capabilities on my phone?) I don’t want to be Facebook friends with them because I use that to socialize with my own friends. An unlocked Twitter account, on the other hand, is a transparent way to communicate with my students in matters of business (school) and manners of rapport-building (meaningful but fun, light, silly or interest-driven interactions). After this first quarter of the current school year, I have come to think of Twitter as a relationship-building machine. During our Fall play this year, I used a backchannel as a way to share updates about our production process. The students liked it because they like reading about and seeing pictures of themselves and parents liked it because they like reading about and seeing pictures of their children. For classes, I use it as a means of sharing links to articles or even embedding images of pdfs I’ve converted to jpgs–among other things.
One concern I do have about a tool like Twitter is that not every student has it. This is why I must strive to use ALL avenues–traditional and “new”–to do all of the things that I just said Twitter can do. Twitter or any digital communication tool should never replace human interaction–good ol’ face to face communication. I think this goes without saying, but I don’t want to leave it out–just in case anyone forgets.
*Internerts is my pet name for the Internet. I don’t know from where it came, but know it came from somewhere random.
**I make up adjectives sometimes.