If Twitter fails, what next?

Social media and other technology advice

  U of Kent: "Keyboard image" by John Matthews.

The recent article on the social media platform, Twitter in Retreat, in the Economist has the unequivocal subtitle “Too late for Twitter to become the giant that people once expected”. As a platform it is still young enough, and exciting enough, that news articles name it: ‘Celebrity x said on twitter…’ rather than the ‘Celebrity x said…’ that might mark a more mature, or at least accepted, medium.

Yet there are still those who chase followers and those who integrate this or other social media services into their teaching or public profile. If the service is no longer growing, what implication does that have for existing users? Is their desired audience already in place, or will they now never be? Twitter ultimately is a private company which needs to make money to continue – if it does not, at some point the service will be switched off.

Twitter’s problems have continued … The biggest is that it has largely stopped growing. Its tally of monthly users, at around 313m, is barely rising. (Economist, Sept 17th 2016)

Specific prediction on a particular service is a mug’s game, and we are not about to start here. Instead, a wider perspective is important. In an e-learning context, Twitter is a tool, not an end in itself. To us, the question to start with is not “how do I integrate this tool into my teaching?” but “what am I trying to achieve?” The former question might lead to a situation where teaching is so integrated with a single tool, that that tool’s failure leads to educational aims being missed, or credibility being so damaged that attention is distracted from the end goal.

Instead, we should be clear about our aim. We can, after all, point to several developments in the classroom, from blackboard through transparencies on an overhead projector to projected PowerPoint, prezi and other presentations. Yet all are just ways of showing the information you want to your audience. Without a PowerPoint projector, you may still show a bulleted list to a room of people, even if you have to write it up by hand – the end result is achieved.

It is this latter generic aim which is key, and the same applies to Twitter. You can embed a twitter feed in your Moodle module (brief instructions from the e-learning site) to follow either a particular account or a search term, for instance, and if that serves the function you need, Twitter’s wider popularity does not matter one jot. There are three important considerations in this example:

  • Does this show what I want?
  • Do I have control over what is shown? (Yes, if you follow a particular Twitter account.)
  • Do students have to sign up to any external service and its terms and conditions? (No, they see the Twitter feed and can click links through Moodle.)

If technology, such as Twitter, does the job you need, then use it for that job. If the technology is phased out, there will be something else to do the same job. We will certainly need to be capable of changing which tool we use. But we will rarely have to abandon a particular method once we have found a way to make it work.

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