Saturday, August 15, 2009

More Than a Passing Trend

I wrote an email to an editor at the Denver Post last Sunday in response to an editorial titled, Twitter: A Medium without a Message (please read it before reading the rest of this post).

Now, this is somewhat ironic because, while I certainly use Twitter, I'm not a frequent user compared to many folks and I don't necessarily think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I truly felt like he was missing the point somewhat, and he generally seems like a thoughtful guy (even if I don't always agree with him), so I dashed off a quick email in about eight minutes or so.

I then tweeted about it (of course) and wondered a couple of things. First, I wondered:

Why did I feel like email was a more "personal" way to connect with Dan Haley?

Then I wondered this:


Why would I give less thought and care writing an email to an editor of the Denver Post then I would to a blog post? Perhaps Jenny Nash got it right that it's due to the perceived audience:

In any event, I've obviously decided to repost it here, with the caveat that, again, I'm not sure it really does justice to the argument I was trying to make. So, I'm counting on you guys to add to it in the comments or link to posts that are already created about the value of Twitter, just in case Dan Haley stops by.

So, here's the email I sent (unaltered, much as I would like to refine it before posting it here)


I read your editorial today about Twitter and wanted to share a few thoughts. While I'm not a huge Twitter user, and I won't argue that it's the greatest thing ever, I think one of the reasons you're not finding it valuable is that you're following the wrong people. Part of that you can't help, as you said politicians are "the people you 'follow' for a living." The problem is that most politicians use Twitter in one of two ways. As you indicated, they either use them as glorified press releases, or as a way to appear "folksy" to their constituents. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not all that interesting and, as politicians, they're somewhat constrained from being "real" on Twitter because it could come back to haunt them. You also mentioned celebrities and, well, unless you're really interested in a particular celebrity, most of them aren't that interesting either.

I would suggest that if you want to see the real power in Twitter, you need to follow people that are passionate about the same things you are passionate about. Since politicians are interesting to you, but are somewhat constrained as indicated above, then find some folks that are writing about politics and follow them on Twitter. Then find some folks that are passionate about journalism (I'm assuming you are) and follow them. And then find some folks that are passionate about some hobby of yours and follow them. If you do that, I think you'll find more value in Twitter.

As an example, I'm an educator that's passionate about trying to meet the needs of our students in a world that is vastly different than the one that most educators grew up in. So I mostly follow other educators who are thinking and writing and linking and tweeting about education. There is a bias toward tech using educators, partially because that's my role in my school - technology coordinator, but also because those folks have a higher presence on Twitter. But I also follow interesting folks that aren't specifically educators writing about teaching and learning but are always finding interesting and relevant ideas and information that help me do my job as an educator - and as a citizen. Every time I dip into Twitter I always find a relevant resource or tool I can share with the teachers in my building, or a link to a blog post or a website or a podcast or a video that helps my thinking around what education should look like. I have teachers on six continents - most of whom I've never met face-to-face - but I learn from them every day.They are part of my own Personal Learning Network, an extended network of people around the world that I can not only learn from every day, but that I can connect teachers and students in my building with to help them teach and learn in a rapidly changing, technology-rich, globally-interconnected world.

Yes, I also find many tweets that aren't along those lines, that are more "personal" if you will, but that's a huge part of community building. Just as in face-to-face communication, folks that establish trust and some personal connection have a much better chance of connecting around more significant issues as well. I would guess that at the Post, teams of people that have some personal relationship and connection are more productive in the long run, particularly around big issues or projects, because they have a relationship that's more than "just" business, and they have some common frame of reference. It's the same on Twitter, and some of those "this is what I'm doing" type tweets help establish that.

So, while I agree that there is a lot of hype about Twitter right now, I would ask you to take a closer look at it. I would ask you to get beyond the press releases and the celebrity gossip, and talk with some folks that were using it before the hype and that find tremendous value in it. (I can connect you with some very thoughtful folks using Twitter if you'd like.) It doesn't matter if Twitter is the particular tool that has staying power, or whether something else comes along to replace it. What matters, and what should be interesting to you as a journalist, is how thoughtful folks are using it to help them learn, grow and be more productive. Surely that is more than simply a "passing trend."

Thanks for reading.


  1. Well said, Karl. I think the journalist missed the point. I get the most value from my educational PLN members. I do not care about Paula Abdul or Sarah Palin enough to follow them. I have found twitter to be the major reason I have grown so much in the last couple of years as an educator. My learning has increased more through twitter than through any college course or workshop I've attended over the 25 years I've been teaching.

  2. This is for Dan...

    I follow plenty of journalists in my area most of which all tweet with other journalists. Visit, follow her and pick off of her followers. Might be local to my area, but you could do the same for folks in your area or elsewhere. I agree with Karl here, do what you do best, dig deeper to find the real value here. You've only taken it for face value. May not be for you, but you have a responsibility to your readers so they can decide for themselves.

  3. This is more or less what I tried to say to Doug Johnson (see I killed my Twitter Account)

    It's who I follow that makes Twitter valuable to me.

    I also like what you say about the personal stuff adding to community building. Doug didn't seem to get that point either. He said he'd drop people he was following if "They post something that deals with the daily minutia of their lives. (Being stuck at an airport, eating toast, feeling nauseated. I'd really like to care but...)" I *knew* he didn't want to follow me, but since I was following him, he probably did, then dropped me when I mentioned the peacocks that appeared in my back yard this summer.

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  5. I had trouble with Twitter when I first started. I don't care when you get up or that you're going to bed. Driving your kids to soccer practice? Good for you; not something I need to know. I readily admit I am not much of a "people" person. Goal oriented and to the point – that’s me. I'm like that in person, too. I have to work at asking folks about themselves and their lives. But I do it and keep working at it because it's part of developing a relationship with my colleagues.

    Twitter is the same, I've found. Part of building a relationship is the personal stuff. I am careful about the folks I follow. I only follow those who predominantly post about the things in which I'm interested - gifted education, primarily. If someone’s #gifted posts are few and far between, I don't follow her. However, if education is the foremost topic, I can skim over the driving reports.

    Like you mentioned in the post, Karl, I almost always learn about a new resource, a new article, a new idea of which I wasn't aware when I read through Twitter. In turn, I pass the information on to my colleagues. This has helped me shape the educational experience for thousands of kids. That's powerful!

  6. I, too, find myself defending my use of twitter. As school board member, I use twitter to find out about current research, opinions, thoughts, etc. of folks in the education world. It keeps me up to date and expands my thinking beyond the state of Colorado and our district. It's quick, easy, and available.