Building social networks and activating weak ties: Twitter for academics

Twitter has taken a lot of heat for its flaws. Despite the millions of tweets (or some claim billions) sent each day, others point out that its penetration to the American market is small (with 15% of adults using Twitter and only 8% checking it daily). Even more troubling is research that suggests the Twitterverse remains dominated by a few elite users, and that mainstream news organizations use Twitter primarily to publish their own work, not to start conversations or post other material.

Yet for me, the most troubling indictment is that based on structural linkages, Twitter is an information-sharing network, rather than a social network. I myself have complained that Twitter might be overcome by its own success, limiting its ability to foster social interactions.

However, I think that these last concerns at least are overstated. Twitter’s successes – even in the realm of information sharing – are tied to its very underpinnings as a social network. Furthermore, these social underpinnings offer particular benefits to academics, especially in two related areas:

1) Building social networks: Twitter remains a great resource for people looking to build connections and network with others who share a range of interests. I’ve focused on building a network of people who are interested in journalism, current events, politics, uses and effects of social media, and particularly academics from all fields. It’s been a great way for me to stay in touch with the people I meet at conferences – or make it easier to start up a conversation when you meet for the first time!

For academics – especially young academics – a great resource is #phdchat, which began when students in the UK started using Twitter to discuss their experiences in pursuing a Ph.D. I found the group last fall, and their discussions on Wednesday afternoon (EST) have been fun, supportive, and wide-ranging. I haven’t been “attending” as frequently this summer, but I strongly encourage other academics to join this group – or to form their own – to share the commonalities that occur when you’re going for a ph.D., regardless of field (as also immortalized in the great phdcomics strip).

2) Activating weak ties: I’ve never liked the term “weak tie” – it feels very derogatory (when is “weak” a good thing?). But academics have long acknowledged their benefits, particularly for information sharing. Twitter is a perfect place for weak ties to not only develop (as demonstrated above), but to be utilized.

The example that inspired this blog post occurred a few days ago, as I was searching for the perfect article to conclude my “Foundations of Mass Communication” class, discussing the implications of “new media” for definitions of mass communication. There are so many potential ways to go with this topic (it could be a class in itself!), that I was stymied. So, I posted a question on Twitter asking my followers to help me out with suggestions.

Within an hour, I had 2 retweets and 4 replies with suggestions on articles and topics. And beyond the simple awesomeness of immediate feedback, that these suggestions came from people who weren’t necessarily in my particular area of expertise, my department, or even my country meant that some of the suggestions were ones I may not have thought of on my own. So while posting this same question on Facebook would probably have gotten me some responses (and who knows, maybe even more responses) from my academic friends, they are more likely to be the “strong” or “close” ties with whom I probably have more in common.

Now, it’s only fair to offer a few disclaimers. I’m basing this post on my own experiences with Twitter (and in particular, a good mood after getting help on my syllabus!), rather than on extensive academic research. Similarly, any reader of this blog knows I’m a fan of Twitter (and if not, including my feed on this blog is probably a give-away).

But that said, I remain unconvinced that Twitter is only – or even primarily – an information-sharing website. In fact, while Twitter is a great source of information for me (even if not for most of the American public yet!), it fulfills this function because of the very weak ties it encourages, which expose me to information I might not have come across otherwise.

Further, one of the scholars who suggests Twitter functions as an information-sharing site also demonstrate the two-step flow of communication – a primarily social theory of interaction in which information from the media makes its way through influential opinion leaders to the rest of the public - explains much information sharing on Twitter.

Ultimately, Twitter’s strengths have their foundation in the fact it is, at its heart, a social network. That its users can choose whether they use it primarily as a news source, as a discussion board, or as a professional network (or some combination of the three) does not undermine that social structure. And for academics in particular, this social network offers a lot of advantages that can make our jobs easier and a lot more fun!

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