The Twitter dilemma for organisations

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.


  • Doug Clow

    if students are using it then having a presence is important because any avenue of conversation and support is worthwhile.
    Err … I’m sure you don’t really mean that. Students are using bedrooms and toilets but I really don’t think universities should be trying to join in the conversations that go on there.
    Less obviously over-the-top, there’s the Creepy Treehouse argument, and the related ‘let them blow off steam in private somewhere’ one.
    There’s also the question of resourcing. Sure, we *could* support students by every communications method known to humanity … but we might well find the university bankrupt before they finished their first course/semester.

  • Anne Marie Cunningham

    Great post. I think that while any avenue of communication and support is worthwhile they are not all equal. Learning about how to use different channels of communication- email, twitter, discussion boards, telephone, f2f(arranged meeting), f2f(bump into each other in the corridor)- is important.
    Maybe a twitter from a student could trigger an email back asking them more about their query and giving them some contact details etc, and obviously a twitter response acknowleging that they had been heard, perhaps by DM.
    And I don’t think it should be your colleague’s job:)
    I’m sure this isn’t the last time we will hear about this. I work in medicine and there is a lot of talk about whether hospitals should be on twitter. They could have just the same problems or more.
    Anne Marie

  • Michael Penman

    In Learner Support I, personally, would only be comfy answering queries by linking existing sources of information. Relevant bits of the website, policies, tutor details on student home.
    That would prevent me getting a student to open up any underlying issues, though.
    Trouble is, we’d have no solid record of a student contact to refer back to on their record, and we rely on that surprisingly often. It’s not just a protective paper trail; it tells me if a student’s having worsening/repeating problems with something, necessitating a referral to better sources of advice; it tells me if we might have missed something in the past that I can put right – anything from a changed exam allocation to sources of funding.
    I think what I’m saying is that Twitter just isn’t any good for IAG services – can’t be. But for initial contact it’d be okay: ‘Where are your science courses?’ Channels can’t help that.
    BTW Dial up BBs loooong before 1998!

  • Martin Weller

    @AJ – yes, I agree to fighting the ghettoization of Twitter, and you’re right, search and hashtags are key (I’m not going to mention Weinberger, honest).
    @Doug – but students are using toilets to communicate with each other are they? (apart from some engineering students maybe). My point is that often students can’t find their way through our sophisticated systems and so if twitter is the way in for them, then we should find a way to use it.
    @Anne Marie – ooh, yes hospitals would be in an even more awkward position! I can imagine the patient ‘I told you I couldn’t make the appointment via twitter.’ I think we need a pretty obvious way of using it. Personally I think there’s nothing wrong with just using it as a broadcast channel – you don’t have conversations with universities or hospitals. You have conversations with people who work in them.
    @Michael – good to hear a learner support view, I agree completely, it just isn’t the medium. I await the first appeal case where a student says ‘I told you my assignment would be late via twitter, I didn’t know that wasn’t the way to communicate, it doesn’t _say_ so on the twitter page’. So, yes as you say first contact maybe, but more just as a presence.
    And yes, I know we had BBs before 1998 – I was using Cosy back then, but just chose that as a date when they were reasonably well established.
    @Juliette – yes, particularly if a large group of people you follow are at a conference – your feed gets deluged for a couple of days

  • stuart brown

    Hello. Re creepy tree arg – I did agree with this, but then I tweeted a few students and asked if they would think it creepy – none said they would. Also, once I’ve followed someone I normally @ them and tell them (ok they already know, but nevermind) and say ‘feel free to block me/us’. Similar with privacy option – they just block me if they want.
    I’ve been lucky so far re request for advice – I’ve either been able to send a URL to offical OU page / advice with which they should engage, or it’s been a simple question to answer.
    Perhaps there’s a peer-support aspect to this somewhere. Maybe we have OU prefixed hashtags (#OU_mystuff, #OU_funding perhaps)but it would need to be quite clear that this is not an official OU-supported thing (like all those OU course-related Facebook groups out there!).
    Oh, and this is defintiely loads of work. If anyone wants to petition my boss that i deserve a raise i can provide contact details 😉

  • David Harrison

    Good one Martin. It’s fascinating seeing how a medium develops. Before I’d read your blogpoast, I’d just tweeted on how I approach the fact that with the “pressures of my job” I can only follow twitter in bursts. My strategy is to go back as far as I can in 10mins and do quick replies or right-click to new tabs links I want to follow-up and then trawl through the tabs – hence I’m commenting here!
    My point is that I’ve stopped checking Google Reader. I get access to more streams of useful information from the people I’ve effectively peer-reviewed; people who (for me) have established some credibility.
    If they start compartmentalising themselves into separate groups, start creating communities, or even separate identities then all of a sudden I will start to be cut-off from information that I’m beginning to expect.
    If tweeps feel the need to segregate themselves off the public tweetline – perhaps they should not be on twitter. Perhaps they should even investigate yammer … but then I don’t really want them to do that, because I’d lose that serendipidity that leads me to a really useful tweet.

  • Sue Waters

    Here is what I have learnt from looking after a company twitter account.
    Pros – The account is good for sending out latest news that are helpful for users. Also good for interacting with a twitter who you aren’t following but is asking questions relating to your product.
    Con – the main time people want to interact is when there is an issue or when they are having problems. Trouble is users often have expectation of 24/7 access with near instantaneous response. They can also take offense if you fail to respond in what they consider an appropriate time frame.
    What I have noticed is users prefer to interact with me in my personal account, are more likely to engage in conversations (than they would with the company account) and don’t have the same expectations of 24/7 access with near instantaneous response.
    Here is my post I wrote after reviewing the different ways companies are using twitter –

  • James

    Apologies if someone mentioned this above, but I just skimmed. One word – Tweetdeck. While it has features that would be useful on the Twitter site, I barely visit it anymore, other than to see what kind of Twitterer has followed.
    Tweetdeck lets you filter, group and search on terms, while shortening URLs easily. Plus, you don’t have to see the more annoying Twitpics unless you want to go to the site.

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