I’m on the record of not being particularly in favour of using Twitter as a form of online reference, but that’s not to say that I’m not interested in seeing how students use Twitter. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite doing it, but I follow a Twitter search of people mentioning my place of work. I do this mostly out of curiosity, but I find that I can’t see us mentioned and not respond, or answer a question, or assure someone that I’ll pass on their complaint to the right person. I don’t consider it reference, and I do it on my own time, and I don’t think it’s something particularly sustainable or broad-spectrum, but it’s interesting nevertheless. I think of it as more of a zeitgeist, and a means of reminding myself why I do what I do. I let Twitter remind me about what’s important, and where my efforts should be directed. It’s humbling and grounding in that way.
So as I’ve been monitoring this one singular little Twitter search (mentions of my place of work), I’ve noticed some interesting trends. I’m starting to consider the possibility of being able to form an answer to the question “what do students use Twitter for?” Of course, these preliminary answers are biased, since they must contain a location in the tweet. But even so.
What I’ve seen so far falls into two broad categories: complaints, and shout outs. The complaints are things I expect; students who can’t find a place to sit, grumbling about wireless problems, outlets not working, complaints about workload, etc. I’ve seen exactly one tweet from a lecture, but I suspect there are more that I’m just not finding with my search term. In short: students appear to use Twitter as a way to vent about things when they’re stressed out. Since I find myself doing the same thing more often than I’d like, this doesn’t surprise me. It’s this behaviour that I think makes it worth my while to keep an eye on it. I saw a marked uptick in complaints once the exam period began last term. Twitter complaints may have more to do with the stress level of the student body than with specific issues, but it’s a nice reminder to be extra sympathetic at those times.
The shout outs: these are sort of fun. More often than not, the stuff that comes up on my search fits into this category. Students use Twitter to tell their friends where they are; it’s the foursquare use, even without the use of foursquare! They announce which part of the library they’re in, who they’re with, and what they’re working on. They shout out how many words they’ve written in their essays. This is really cool, and it would be neat to incorporate this kind of presence awareness status update with the course itself. It could certainly help students find classmates to study with. It could fit into some kind of meta courseware, nebulous social layer to the university.
At this point, I don’t think there are very many students at my campus using Twitter. I’m not sure there will ever be very many of them. But it provides an interesting view of student life.