I, like many others, have in the past voiced the opinion that Twitter needs to have groups or filters so you can selectively send messages rather than lump everyone in together. I'm not so sure now, 'lumping' is what Twitter does best, it creates a big old organic soup of social chat, half caught conversations, professional debate, links, tips, cries for help, rambling thoughts, news updates, and plain old nonsense. From this organic soup something wonderful evolves – if you are your network then your Twitter stream is the phenotype of that network.
The danger of the grouping line of development is that it goes something like this:
- Let's have groups.
- Let's put them 'inside' different containers so that people can easily differentiate them
- Let's add in some threading so we can follow conversations more easily
- Let's group them around subjects.
Sounds familiar? Yes, it's 1998 and we have reinvented bulletin boards.
But, as Twitter goes mainstream people are facing problems. Individuals such as Stephen Pope has decided to split his Twitter identity in two to allow for professional chat and smaller scale social chat. As it mainstreams more organisations are also having ids. My colleague Stuart Brown set up the @openuniversity account some time ago, and as he explains he wasn't sure what to do with it. He used it mainly for broadcasting news (yes, we all knew when Coast would be on next), but has started to engage in conversation more recently. This has had a positive effect on the number of followers and interaction, but it gets us into tricky areas. Most universities have set up detailed systems for dealing with student queries, so the right person can answer the right question. The danger is that as more students get onto Twitter they'll start using the openuniversity account as a catch-all. Stuart's smart but he isn't going to be able to cope with queries about software set-up, assessment deadline extensions, strength of covalent bonds, obtaining financial support, missing course materials, etc.
Of course he will respond appropriately if he gets such queries, pointing people in the right direction, but a) being the full-time Open University Twitter responder isn't his job and b) this isn't the best medium. I am imagining the conversation where I say to our head of communications, 'hey let's forget expensive Customer Relations Management software, I've got this cool tool where we'll just have one id for everything. Oh, and you can only use 140 characters.'
But, here is the Twitter dilemma (or any social media) – if students are using it then having a presence is important because any avenue of conversation and support is worthwhile. So how do you manage that dialogue without having the sort of terms and conditions that seem inappropriate in an informal discussion space?
Hey, don't look at me, I don't know.