Twitter: Why Should I Care What You Had For Breakfast?

If that’s how you understand Twitter, then you don’t know the whole story.

Twitter is far more than random babble by celebrities and nobodies. It can be a valuable part of your professional development as an educator.

On this page are the notes for a session I do on the basics of Twitter and how educators can use and learn from the service. It’s missing the excellent discussion we had but I hope you can find something of value here anyway.

And if you need someone to follow, I’m @timstahmer and Kathy is @1snappykathy.


So, what is Twitter? Actually, it’s pretty simple.

According to Wikipedia: Twitter is a social networking and 
microblogging service that enables its users to send and read messages known as tweets.

Those messages are limited to 140 characters and on your Twitter page you will only see the messages from those people you’ve chosen to follow.

Likewise, the tweets you write will only be seen by the people who have chosen to follow you.

To get started, you will need to register for a free account at the Twitter web site. It’s easy and doesn’t ask for much information at all.

Why Twitter?

Some have called Twitter the world’s largest cocktail party, a huge bar full of multiple conversations, or like walking through a coffee shop and hearing one sentence of each conversation.

Sounds pretty stupid, right? Just a lot of noise?

Why does the world need this, exactly? It’s not as if we were all sitting around four years ago scratching our heads and saying, “If only there were a technology that would allow me to send a message to my 50 friends, alerting them in real time about my choice of breakfast cereal.” — Steven Johnson, Time Magazine, June, 2009

Well, in the time since Twitter started by asking “What are you doing?”, it’s users have found many more expedient ways to use the service.

And in late 2009 the creators changed the question to “What’s happening?” to better reflect how Twitter was being used. The service had “long outgrown the concept of personal status updates”.

Sure, someone in San Francisco may be answering “What are you doing?” with “Enjoying an excellent cup of coffee,” at this very moment. However, a bird’s-eye view of Twitter reveals that it’s not exclusively about these personal musings. Between those cups of coffee, people are witnessing accidents, organizing events, sharing links, breaking news, reporting stuff their dad says, and so much more. — Biz Stone, co-founder, Twitter.

The 15 million or so active Twitter users have many, many reasons for posting their thoughts.

  • News (both reading and reporting)
  • Spam
  • Self-promotion (personal and corporate)
  • Pointless babble (that would be your breakfast report)
  • Professional conversation
  • Pass-along value (recommendations)

Many educators are interested in those last two, possibly the first, but here are a few more specific ways you might use Twitter.

  • Connect with others attending the same conference to discuss in the “back channel” a presentation. Or follow the tweets of people attending a conference you were not able to go to.
  • Problem solving and getting advice. Once you have a network built up, ask your followers to help. You’ll often find some good alternatives come back very quickly.
  • Get involved in an interesting discussion. You may not think 140 characters tossed into a seemingly random mix could do much but here’s a good example of just how active Twitter conversations can get.
  • Librarians can announce new library programs and update patrons on new materials.
  • Here is an English teacher offering Five Reasons Why English Teachers Should Use Twitter
  • Growing your personal learning network, probably the most important reason to use Twitter.
  • In the end Twitter is What You Make of It.

Using Twitter

So, Twitter can be used in many different ways, depending on your interests and needs.

Making that happen depends on you knowing the secrets…

  1. Follow the right people. At the time this was posted, I follow 121 people on Twitter. Some I’ve met face-to-face, others I read their writings or have heard at conferences. All remain in my follow list because I find them interesting, funny, useful, relevant. Start by asking your friends and colleagues for recommendations. You’ll find more as you go along.
  2. Learn to sample the flow and to filter. You can’t possibly read everything that is tweeted, even in the much smaller group you follow. So you need to practice scanning your feed and learn to pick out the stuff that’s most important. And let the stuff you miss go.
  3. Give as good as you get. Be the pitcher sometimes and not just the batter. Remember, Twitter is a two-way conversation. Contribute – your ideas, your comments, your recommendations, your thoughts.
  4. Learn the language. As with all new endevours, there are some unique terms and phrases used by twitterers (that’s the people who use the service) and knowing them will help.

Twitter Terms

tweet = message – simple, no explanation needed.

@reply = message sent in reply to someone’s tweet but seen by all. Sometimes @replies don’t make much sense unless you see the whole conversation, which some Twitter client programs will help you see.

retweet = someone else’s message you send to your followers (with credit of course). People usually retweet messages they agree with and/or want to add a comment of their own.

direct message (dm) = message seen only by the person you send it to. DM is similar to IM, instant messaging, on other systems.

hashtag = a word with # attached in front indicating a topic many people are discussing. This was something invented by Twitter users to help them better find tweets on common topics.

shorten URL = most links in messages have been shortened by one of several services. This allows you to include a URL without eating up most of your 140 character limit.

And the final secret is: Don’t use the web site. There are far better tools for managing your Twitter feeds, both on your computer and your “phone”.

Here are just a few.

Tweetdeck is the most popular free Twitter client program for Windows, Mac and Linux. They also have versions for the iPhone and iPad.

If you don’t like Tweetdeck, here’s a short summary of ten Twitter clients for Windows, most of them free.

Tweetie is probably the best client for the Mac (free version with ads and $20 for version with no ads) and their iPhone version ($2.99) is now the “official” Twitter app.

Here’s a similar summary list of ten Mac clients for Twitter, most free.

For the iPhone, you can search the iTunes App Store and find many good Twitter apps, many free. For the Droid, Blackberry and other smart phones, check their app store. You’ll probably find several choices.