Using Twitter in university research

@CBUresearch recently shared a “Guide to using Twitter in university research, teaching, and impact activities” [PDF]. It’s published by the London School of Economics.

Twitter is a free social networking service that lets you write 140-character messages, called “tweets”. These can be read by anyone in the world, and they look like this:

You might ask:

“…how can such a brief medium have any relevance to universities and academia, where journal articles are 3,000 to 8,000 words long, and where books contain 80,000 words? Can anything of academic value ever be said in just 140 characters?”

In fact, Twitter is quite versatile. It can be used to promote your research, and related events like public talks. It can be used to solicit feedback on your research. It can even be used during the research phase itself:

“Twitter provides many opportunities for ‘crowd sourcing’ research activities across the sciences, social sciences, history and literature – by getting people to help with gathering information, making observations, undertaking data analysis, transcribing and editing documents – all done just for the love of it. Some researchers have also used Twitter to help ‘crowdsource’ research funding from interested public bodies. You can read more about crowdsourcing at the LSE Impact blog.

You are an expert. And Twitter is a medium people often turn to, to find experts in the field of their interest. If you’re not there, they can’t find you! Those people might be PhD students, other researchers, or lay people. You can use Twitter to not only strengthen your reputation as an expert, but to expand your reach beyond the confines of the university.

“Making links with practitioners in business, government, and public policy can happen easily. Twitter’s brevity, accessibility and immediacy are all very appealing to non-academics.”

The guide starts with the basics:

  • How to create an account
  • Useful terminology
  • Examples of writing styles, and the pros and cons of each style
  • Tips on how to increase the number of people who might read your ‘Tweets’

Read the guide, experiment a little, and see how Twitter can work for you.

Community on Aging Knowledge Exchange

CAKEns (Community on Aging Knowledge Exchange) is a project of the Gerontology Association of Nova Scotia (GANS). The website’s primary audience is those who work with older Nova Scotians, but it may prove to be especially valuable to seniors themselves, especially those living in remote or rural areas (so long as they have internet access, either at home or at their community centre or C@P site).

Shortly, I’ll be developing a discussion forum on the site for seniors interested in socializing with other seniors. GANS will train groups of seniors to use the forum, with the expectation that those seniors will then train others.

The goal of the forum is to reduce the risk – and effects – of social isolation. In this respect it can benefit rural- and urban-dwelling seniors alike given that isolation need not be a matter of physical proximity. It can take the form of emotional ‘distance’ from family and friends, or be the result of health or financial issues. Isolation increases not only the risk of suffering from depression and developing chronic health problems but indeed social isolation has a direct effect on mortality in those over the age of 65.

And don’t think for a second that it’ll never work because Seniors resist new technologies. StatsCan reports that seniors are the fastest growing group of internet users.

Facebook: The End of Dislike

Facebook’s “Like” button is about to start popping up all over the web. By installing a plugin, visitors to your site who are already logged in to Facebook (which is increasingly likely) can recommend your content with one click the same way they currently endorse friends’ status updates with a thumbs up.

It’s a no-brainer for Facebook, which will be able to collect even more information about users’ preferences. By analyzing the data, Facebook will be able to report to – for example – CNN about what “type” of person likes what kinds of content on will in turn be able to tell advertisers what types of people – with what types of purchasing habits – visit the site and read which articles, allowing advertisers to personalize – or target – their message.

Internet radio site Pandora (US only), for example,

“will now be able to look directly at your Facebook profile and use public information — name, profile picture, gender and connections, plus anything else you’ve made public — to give you a personalized experience. So if I have already publicly stated through my Facebook interests page that I like a musical artist — say, The Talking Heads — the first song I hear when I go to Pandora will be a Talking Heads song or something that Pandora thinks is similar.” (Source:

It’s essentially that scene in Minority Report where John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is identified via retinal scan and then deluged with hyper-personalized ads — a prospect which, to be honest, I’ve always found intriguing for its potential to reduce the amount of message-waste in my life.

Ads for next year’s Lexus, or last month’s weight-loss fad, or this week’s scented thingamagig are psychic pollution — in other words, messages that have no chance of attracting my business and simply clutter my limited mental space. If I could avoid blanket advertising by pre-selecting ads for Guinness, Apple, and Malcolm Gladwell books well then it’s perhaps a small price to pay.

Facebook didn’t invent the “If you like X then you might like Y” model. What Facebook is supposedly doing is pioneering an invasive method for determining that you like X in the first place. (Is it an invasion of privacy if you walk into a music store wearing a Bruce Springsteen shirt and the salesperson tries to sell you Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible?)

I almost can’t help responding to this kind of announcement – and its inevitable backlash – with “Welcome to the future,” despite the fact that I find the future underwhelming and uninspiring, and I more or less agree with the backlash.

My problem is with the logic of the if-then model itself. Cass Sunstein has documented the tendency of internet users to seek out and consume content that reinforces their existing beliefs and preferences, partly due to the fact that the medium makes it so easy.

When looked upon favourably, “narrow-casting” is the consumption equivalent of filtering out ads for stuff you’re not interested in. The difference is that being exposed to ideas one opposes and art that challenges ones sensibilities expands one’s sense of self and the world, whereas being exposed to more and more ads simply expands one’s repertoire of jingles.

The end result of narrow-casting is necessarily narrow-mindedness, the principle beneficiary of which is the status quo. I’d rather see a DISLIKE button on web content so that people with similar Facebook profiles to mine can someday receive recommendations of the form: “If you like X, then you might dislike Y. Therefore you’ll be doing yourself a favour by reading Y.”

#CBSMC: Cape Breton’s 1st Social Media Conference

I hope attendees of Cape Breton’s 1st Social Media Conference don’t come away thinking they need to get their business or organization on Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, and YouTube.

Savior Joseph, Director of Digital Marketing for Colour, got it right when he said it’s all about experimenting with the various tools until you find the right fit for your company or organization. Twitter is the perfect solution for the mobile “fusion taco” wagon in Southern California whose customers want to be able to find out where it’s parked at any given time of day; Twitter might serve no purpose for Fuzzy’s Fries in downtown Sydney.

But Joseph got it wrong when he said that social media is ultimately about “conversion” – a sly word for selling the product. When advertisers “engage” or enter into a conversation with the goal – short or long term – of selling a product, that’s economic media. A new means for the same old end. In fact, it’s plainly anti-social.

When your company or organization creates online content in order to deepen its role in the community (online and off), and when people interact with that content because what you’re offering is meaningful to their lives, that’s social media. Otherwise you’re just confusing the medium with the message.