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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

To tweet or not to tweet?

Twitter is a free service that lets you keep in touch with people through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing? Brandeis students and professors sound off on Twitter’s social and educational potential.

Published: September 11, 2009
Section: Features

Ladysaw731: Shannon Ingram ‘13, pictured above, tweets at<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

Ladysaw731: Shannon Ingram ‘13, pictured above, tweets at
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

There’s a famous song that goes, “I always feel like somebody’s watching me, and I have no privacy.” Sound familiar? Do you ever get the feeling someone’s following you? Or are you the one doing the trailing?

While following people might’ve been frowned upon in the past, in our age of digital media, it’s become perfectly normal – and albeit encouraged – to “cyber stalk” people. Isn’t it ironic?

At any given moment you can satisfy your curiosity online and check out what people are doing: It’s 7 a.m. and your best friend is eating breakfast in Usdan. It’s noon and your professor is meeting with a student. It’s 3 p.m. and your roommate is nearly dying of boredom in economics class.

In a pre-internet or phone era, you’d have no way of knowing this unless you were with any one of these people, but this is today’s norm. Welcome to the era of Twitter and Facebook, where no detail is too mundane to be broadcast to your cyber audience.

Gone are the days of the obligatory “how are you doing?” Instead the Facebook newsfeed and tweets are en vogue.

Many people associate social media networks with youth, but adults are proving that they, too, are web savvy and have important stories to share via Twitter. And while it seems like more Brandeis students than professors are on Twitter, the latter is beginning to see its value. Still, it would seem that one fundamental difference exists between students’ and professors’ use of Twitter – their reasons for tweeting.

As Brandeis students and professors and outside speakers gathered yesterday and today at the TMI: Social Justice in the Age of Facebook conference to discuss social media in its different forms, some of Brandeis’ top Twitterers speak out to The Hoot about their tweets, revealing the website’s social and educational potential.

Students’ cyber social life

Like many other things in life, Shannon Ingram’s ’13 decision to get Twitter resulted from a bit of peer pressure.

“All my friends had one, so I wanted to see what it was all about,” she says. “It’s just a way that my friends and I keep in touch since we’re all in different places.”

Twitter, like its cyber cousin Facebook, offers Ingram and many other college students the chance to share a slice of their life with friends. After all, when life gets tough and your friends are halfway across the country, it’s comforting to get an update, or a tweet, here and there.

But Ingram, who goes by the name Ladysaw731 on her Twitter page, is quick to differentiate between her use of Twitter and Facebook: “Facebook I use more to post pictures and to write long comments. Twitter I just use to update what I’m doing and just [as] a quick reply to a friend because [you’re allowed] only 140 characters, so you can’t do anything too long.”

A huge fan of the site, Ingram says she updates her Twitter page “all the time.” Just minutes after being interviewed for this article, Ingram even tweeted the following: “My extensive Twitter use led to me being interviewed for the school newspaper. Highlight of my day. =)”

Ingram says her use of Twitter is confined strictly to a sort of social dialogue. “I don’t use it for education at all; it’s definitely social,” she says.

But for some other Brandeis students, the use of Twitter isn’t so black and white. Take Sahar Massachi ’11, for example. Massachi started using Twitter two years ago, first as a way to update his Facebook status from his phone, and then as a way to update his parents on his life while away at college. In June 2008, Massachi attended a conference about the intersection of technology and politics which changed the way he used this new social media platform. Participants in the conference were using Twitter to communicate with each other about the conference during the conference, and that was when Massachi started tweeting more often.

For Massachi, like most Twitter users, the website serves many functions. Some of Massachi’s tweets update his friends and family on what he’s been up to; some of them provide his followers with links he finds interesting and he admits that, like any red-blooded Twitterer, his tweets occasionally serve as camouflage for self promotion.

Although he uses it often, Massachi says he doesn’t let his cyber life interfere with what technology often renders obsolete – human interaction.

“It’s not really that big of a deal for me,” he admits. “Twitter has been relentlessly overhyped by, among other things, the media…I’m confused by the amount of attention it’s getting.”

While Ingram uses Twitter solely for social interaction, Massachi sees the site as aimed more to professionals in their 20s and 30s, and not so much for his peers around this hilly campus.

Twitter’s co-founder and chief executive Evan Williams would agree. Or at least he did, in a recent New York Times article (Who’s Driving Twitter’s Popularity? Not Teens; Aug. 25, 2009): “Many people use it for professional purposes — keeping connected with industry contacts and following news.”

Massachi certainly sees the benefits of Twitter, but he’s also quick to comment on its limitations: “I feel among people our age there’s a growing sort of zeitgeist that all this technology stuff is great, but…it doesn’t replace actual human interaction.“

In other words, Twitter is great, but don’t let it become a substitute for one-on-one time with family and friends. Says Massachi, “It’s a bright day outside, go out and play.”

Twitter in the classroom

Prof. Mark Auslander (ANTH) first started tweeting after attending a conference on television and cultural studies in Virginia last spring. For a time, he tried to tweet during his classes at Brandeis, summarizing the most important idea every 10 minutes or so.

“That was fun because you hear hundreds of thousands of words [a day/during class], and to get everything down to 140 characters really makes you think [about word choice],” he says.

Tweeting may benefit students’ evolving writing skills, Auslander says, and may in fact make them better writers.

“When you have to express one idea in 140 characters, there’s no wasting space; you just have to keep cutting down and getting your idea clearer and clearer,” he says. “So I think that’s good for all of us.”

Auslander views Twitter primarily as an education outlet, rather than a social platform.

“It’s about intellectual engagement; it’s about sharing new [and] exciting ideas in philosophy and art and anthropology,” he says. “I think it’s a wonderful tool for learning.”

This year, Auslander plans on getting his students to tweet to illustrate its growing importance in the museum world.

“Museums are doing more and more with Twitter…and so we’re going to be experimenting with that as well,” he says.

To this end, Auslander says he’s exploring the possibility of helping the Rose Art Museum to use Twitter. His ANTH 184a class is even currently exploring a possible cell phone-based tour with the Rose Art Museum that might include texting and Twitter options.

Auslander says he doesn’t get the sense that many other professors at Brandeis are on Twitter. After all, even though it’s been around for a mere three years, it’s still a fairly new phenomenon. But what he does know is that it’s a time for professors across the country to test out the Twitter waters.

“I think we’re all just experimenting now,” he says.

One person doing just that is Wayne Marshall, who taught at Brandeis from 2007-09 as the Kay Fellow in Music and African and Afro-American Studies and is now at the beginning of a two-year stay at MIT as a Mellon Fellow.

Marshall had been blogging for five years when he finally gave in to Twitter temptation last fall. Because he’d been using another platform to broadcast his work and personal interests, tweeting wasn’t something Marshall started doing in order to fill a void, but rather an online outlet that seemed to offer him something new.

“Twitter seemed like a unique way to share, briefly, things I am thinking about, listening to, reading, doing and eating – usually in that order,” he wrote in an email to The Hoot.

Marshall didn’t use Twitter in his class, but he does recognize both the potential and problems it can pose when used as an educational platform.

“I think Twitter’s 140 character limit presents some challenges to using it as a teaching tool,” he says. “On the other hand, with the right sort of assignment or approach, its required concision could make for a great writing exercise.”

Tweeting 9-5

As if Brandeis employees didn’t already have enough work to fill their work day, some people might be surprised to learn that several offices around campus are tweeting. Though in the early stages, a number of departments and offices, such as the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Hiatt Career Center have created Twitter accounts to share news and resources with students.

Brandeis’ Office of Communications seems to be the trendsetter in the social media realm at Brandeis, maintaining active Twitter and Facebook pages.

Carrie Simmons, Assistant Director of Integrated Marketing for the Office of Communications, manages the main Brandeis Twitter account. She tweets about Brandeis news and events, and retweets when community members are in the news, to give current, former and future Brandeis students a snapshot of what Brandeis is doing now.

Of BrandeisU’s 1,200 followers, Simmons says students outnumber professors. In addition to students and professors, there are also many Brandeis alumni following their alma mater online. Recently, several alumni answered the call when Simmons asked them to share their favorite Brandeis memories with the Class of 2013 before Orientation. Two alumni even offered to help one Brandeis student with her career plans after Simmons posted a Boston Globe story about the student on Brandeis’ Facebook page.

“Twitter and Facebook are helping us build and maintain community relationships,” Simmons says.

Though not many professors are on Twitter yet, if the latest Facebook statistics are any indication, it’s likely that we’ll see more professors giving in to Twitter temptation. And according to the New York Times, this past year witnessed a 60 percent increase in the use of social networking websites by adults aged 34 to 54. (Who’s Driving Twitter’s Popularity? Not Teens; Aug. 25, 2009)

Twitter translation

So what does all this mean? Perhaps you’re one of the students tweeting your responses to the TMI conference now. If you’re reading this online, maybe you have your Twitter or Facebook page opened in another tab. Maybe you’re of the old school crowd who still prefer to read their news in printed form. Whatever the case, you can be sure that things are different now.

Twitter is a reality in our world, and many would argue it’s something worth analyzing. Some people may use Twitter to self promote, some may use it to provide educational links to colleagues and some may use it to update loved ones on their daily activities. Whatever the reason for using Twitter, though, one thing is sure: Each twitterer is a bit of each of these wrapped up in one 140 character message.