To tweet or not to tweet?

Added by Ellen Collins on 03 June 2010 10:41

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Presenting at a conference last week, I felt a familiar thrill of trepidation when an audience member raised their hand. Are they about to question my study’s methods? Its findings? Its worth? So I was somewhat unprepared for the enquiry that emerged: ‘Do you happen to know the hashtag for this event?’

Ah, the ubiquitous Twitter conference hashtag. I am a new, but relatively enthusiastic convert, to this social network. I opened an account when I joined RIN (I’m @ellenscollins) but hardly used it until March, when I went to the UKSG conference in Edinburgh. For the first time I was attending an event with my laptop, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was all about.

I won’t lie: it was a mixed experience. I was quite proud of my first tweet – an invitation to visit the RIN stand at the exhibition. However, about two minutes later in the #UKSG stream a tweet appeared mocking the ‘come and visit our stand’ messages for their lack of social networking know-how. Later in the conference, a presenter talked about the unwritten rules of social websites and how intimidating they can be for newcomers. That was certainly my experience.

I persevered, though: picked up a couple of followers, started following more than a couple of people and felt as though I was experiencing the conference in a fascinating new way. It was particularly satisfying to meet people at the conference dinner and find out that we’d been enjoying each others’ tweets over the past couple of days. And on a more informative note, the Twitter back channel provided welcome context for some of the speakers’ presentations.

I also liked the way in which Twitter expanded the conference’s audience. The mix of factual reportage and comment in the #UKSG stream allowed people who were chained to their desk to participate remotely. Indeed, there was quite a bit of conversation between the UKSG tweeters, and their colleagues at a JISC conference at the other end of the country.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Twitter users were a minority among the conference audience. Active tweeters, as opposed to those just following the hash tag, were even less evident. So although the technology has been enthusiastically adopted by some there is a very large group of people who are either uninterested, or too intimidated by the ‘rules’ of the game to join in.

This is a timely and important point. RIN will shortly be publishing a report on researchers’ use of web 2.0, which shows that while many researchers are using new communications technologies sporadically, frequent use is relatively rare. Furthermore, researchers are wary of investing valuable time in building their experience and connections on a new site, only to find that three months later it is no longer relevant or widely used. So, should librarians, conference organisers and research funders be encouraging use of specific web 2.0 techniques such as Twitter? Or should we allow researchers to find their own way through this sometimes confusing but potentially valuable communications environment?

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