[Updated: I am on Twitter with the username alumnifutures.]
I've been thinking about the potential of Twitter as a tool for alumni relations.
If you're familiar with Twitter, you might want to skip down to part II of this posting.
If you're not familiar with it, here's a quick overview:
I. What is Twitter?
So-called "micro-blogging" tool Twitter (and its various cousins) takes a lot of heat. Described by Fred Stutzman as "a slow-motion chatroom," the service allows you to create a personal profile and send out short messages to everyone on Twitter who is "following" your updates. Each individual update is known as a "tweet."
The parameters are that
- Only people who choose to follow you will see your tweets; and
- Your tweets are limited in length to 140 characters. Not words – characters (letters, numbers and spaces).
Many criticize Twitter as a waste of time since it broadly consists of somewhat egotistical tid-bits of personal trivia. In response to Twitter's slogan/call to action (What are you doing right now?), many answer quite literally, with responses such as:
"I'm making soup."
"I'm not doing my homework."
"I'm about to watch television."
I have always thought that Twitter's slogan should be What are you doing right now that matters?
But as Clive Thompson explained in a recent New York Times Magazine article, individually these messages are boring and meaningless to anyone but the Twitterer (Tweeter?). And yet, taken as a stream of activity over time they create a kind of "ambient awareness" in the reader, who feels that she has an overall familiarity with the activities, interests and moods of the author.
II. Twitter: Potential Tool for Alumni Networks?
Perhaps Twitter would be a good tool to deploy for interaction among alumni. Alumni could use it to establish weak ties among themselves, which is where they'll find the richest potential for network payoff and value. As I wrote in August of 2007, Mark Granovetter points out that
...people who move in circles different from yours are likely to know of opportunities and resources you would never know about. That is the strength of weak ties: access to new information, new people and new networks.
I think these valuable weak ties are usually
- people at least two degrees away from me ("friends of friends") or
- people I used to know well (or used to work with), but with whom I now rarely interact.
What if we could create artificially weak ties? We could add value to our network by identifying relatively trusted sources of new ideas, leads and information, with whom we otherwise never interact.
Twitter can do this.
In his article, Thompson wrote:
This rapid growth of weak ties can be a very good thing. Sociologists have long found that “weak ties” greatly expand your ability to solve problems...Many avid Twitter users — the ones who fire off witty posts hourly and wind up with thousands of intrigued followers — explicitly milk this dynamic for all it’s worth, using their large online followings as a way to quickly answer almost any question.
Meanwhile, Caltech's Elizabeth Allen points out:
I follow RISD President John Maeda on Twitter. Do I know him? No. But I am much more aware of what they do there, and about his philosophies because I follow him. It may not help me get a job, but it clearly widens my circle of awareness.
Alumni can post a "networking need" to Twitter, the same way they might use LinkedIn, but in a broader, more casual way. They can also field queries from other twitterers and help them in turn. And tweets are searchable, and can be tagged for others' benefit.
Although tweets themselves are searchable, the database of users is hard to mine for known contacts. Because of this, says Liz...
...you are more likely to click through to see who others are following, see if they are interesting, and follow them in turn. And these new people whose tweets you follow are some of the weakest ties.
Once we can create groups on Twitter we'll be better able to emphasize the alumni and school connection. The Japanese version of Twitter already supports this. So does Yammer, a Twitter clone designed for enterprise use (i.e., tweeting within your company or place of business).
So how are you or your alumni using Twitter to generate and benefit from weak ties?
A note about the image: Paul Klee's drawing, The Twittering Machine (1922)
The Museum of Modern Art's description of this artwork could be used to describe the way new users regard the software service Twitter today:
Thus appears Twitter to many of its casual users and observers. With familiarity Twitter loses its menace, but whether it becomes truly useful remains to be seen.