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June 25, 2009

Twitter for idiots

I'm just back from giving a 30 minute "Twitter for idiots" tutorial for one of our senior management team here at Eduserv.  Note that the title isn't intended to be offensive - in fact, he chose it - but it certainly sums up the level of what I had to say.  It reminds me that yesterday I tweeted rather negatively about the fact that CILIP are offering a Twitter for Librarians training course:

good grief... do #cilip really run a twitter course? - http://tinyurl.com/mxabo3 - speaks volumes methinks

Phil Bradley, who is running the course, quite rightly came back at me with a challenge to explain what, and who, it "speaks volumes" about.

So... two things. Firstly, it was an off the cuff remark - essentially a joke - but like all such things I guess there is a serious point behind it. The idea of running a half-day course to teach people how to tweet just struck me as funny! It's an anachronysm. In that sense, it says something about both the library community and CILIP I guess. Paying to sit in a room in order to find out how to create a "a good, rounded and effective Twitter profile", for example, smacks of a '1980s-style mainframe user-support application training programme' mentality that just doesn't sit comfortably with the way the Web works today. IMHO.

That doesn't mean that there aren't learning needs and opportunities around our use of Twitter by the way, I think there probably are, but I also think that people have to get Twitter before even thinking about such things and I'm not totally sure that you can teach people to get Twitter? People get Twitter by using it.

Secondly (and very much related to the last point), there is a visitors vs. residents issue here (to borrow David White's categorisation of online users). Twitter is a tool for residents. It's about people being immersed. It's about people "living a percentage of their life online". When visitors get hold of Twitter they see it as a tool to get a job done when the need arises - to push out an occassional marketing message for example. This is when things have the potential to go badly wrong (as seen recently with Habitat's use of Twitter). Again, the real issue here is whether you can teach/train visitors to become residents.

Note that I am not using the resident vs visitor divide in a judgemental way here. I'm happy to accept that the world is split into two types of people (no, not those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don't!) and I'm happy to accept that both approaches to the world are perfectly valid. But they are different approaches and I don't know how often people cross from one to the other, nor whether such changes come as the result of attending a course or workshop?


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Think you just about got yourself out of that one! Nice references and attributions and links to current issues.

In fact you make a good case in this post for the extended-Twitter application :-), because that's what you're doing - as a resident.

Nicely brought together into a coherent theme. I saw it all happen before my eyes. The CILIP course comment, the TALL stuff, Habitat, the Eduserv course ...nice example of Twitter dialogue bringing together issues /events from BBC,CILIP,TALL etc and making some sense together and contributing to a wider picture.

And a small observation (I am on leave today so I can make such small observations ), your remark above:
"Note that I am not using the resident vs visitor divide in a judgemental way here"

I knew (well assumed)you didn't mean a judgement eg. that residents are better than visitors, but that's Twitter for you it can make things sound a little polarised/ without full context. So nice that the blog post has cleared all that up.

Hi Andy, Hope that you don't think my question was accusatory; I was/am genuinely interested and recognised the limit of the 140 characters.

You're of course absolutely right - in order to get Twitter you have to use it, and no course on earth is going to get around that! What I'm going to attempt to do is give people an opportunity to sort out the basics very quickly - I don't know about you, but a lot of the people that I follow (or more often don't) haven't got an avatar, link to a site or biography. If they can get that sorted out quickly I think it'll be beneficial.

I also want to point out the various 3rd party applications that are available such as TweetDeck etc, so that rather than waste time later trying them out they can get a chance to at least see what they are without having to faff around later. I also want to give them an opportunity to use some of the 20+ Twitter search engines, to learn how to incorporate a Twitter feed into a website and also to understand why this might be desirable. Then there's the many directories that are out there - which are the good/bad ones and so on.

I've also noticed (and you may or may not have had the same experience) that a lot of people that I follow do perhaps only post once or twice, so clearly just doing it themselves doesn't work. If they are able to spend a couple of hours just getting to grips with it my expectation and hope is that they'll then continue to use it in the longer term, and in a variety of ways.

I hope that gives you a bit of an insight into why I thought, and continue to feel that a course like this may be useful. Time will tell of course!

I learned to use Twitter by doing it, and once I found a point to it to motivate me to do so. But I think there is a thing about training sessions in that they get you out of your usual space and give you a chance to spend some guilt-free time away from the pressures of the office, and, perhaps of family life (I'm constantly being asked at home about how on earth I find the time for all this frivolity - surely twitter isn't real work, etc...).

I recall attending a CILIP event not so long ago, before which the facilitator asked me why on earth I was going, as there was nothing I didn't know about it already. The result was I learned plenty I didn't know, met new like-minded people, caught up with old acquaintances and had a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding day.

I think there's two sides to this that have become slightly confused.

First off, some of the ways in which Twitter actually works *is* something that can be taught. So how an @ reply works, and how @messages are reflected around your community of followers (or not, depending on who follows who); ditto what a "RT" is or why a "D" message can only be sent to someone who is following you back. The same can be said of deeper stuff like Twitter search, feeds, API and so on.

I recently went to a beginners workshop set up by @neildenny and was interested to watch people really struggling with something as simple as **setting up an account**. Three of the people there got hugely over-excited when they saw the 140 character limit ticking down and realised what it was. We should be very careful not to assume PEBCAK when faced with new technologies: these are *real* people, trying to engage with tools and interfaces that we (geeks) take for granted.

Secondly, re. teaching "how to be" on Twitter - I absolutely agree with you - this only comes from experience. Understanding how lifestreaming is a game changer - this requires immersion. As you know, I'm *still* struggling (for instance) with how to marry up my personal and work voices. Or not. These issues can't be taught, IMO, and will only come from exposure.

I do react in the same way as you though when I see the various attempts to formalise (and yes, you people who want to archive Twitter, that means you) these media. It's inevitable that this will happen as tools become more widespread, but I also think it's important to not become precious about the exclusivity of "our Twitter" as it becomes more popular.

I've got conflicting views on the Twitter course at CILIP. It will be a good course - Phil is an excellent trainer - but there's aspects of it that make me uncomfortable.

I do have to take my hat off to Phil. He kicked CILIP in the unmentionables (see the excellent "CILIP: Epic Fail" posting on his blog) a few months ago regarding their Twitter attitude, and is now running a course with/for them on this very same topic. Which, from a self-employed perspective, I have to give him massive kudos for - biting the hand, but still getting fed :-).


1. Are there people out there who would not use Twitter, or figure out how to use it, *unless* they went on a training course? That bothers me, especially from a sector where the ability to find information (for example, about how to use Twitter) is *THE* core skill.

There is an overwhelming amount of information online about how to use Twitter. When seeing that part of the course is "Writing your first tweet", surely there's guidance on this online? (Thinks: would "Devising your twitter writing strategy, and reasons for tweeting" be more appropriate for sustained tweeting?).

2. Kind of following on from that, the question of demand for the course. Is the course creating demand that otherwise wouldn't be there i.e. rather than finding out how to use twitter by doing ('experiencing') it, some people default to a training course instead?

It's easy to create 'demand' for many things. Set up a course on 'How to remove a paper jam from your library copier' or 'Sending your first email' and it would probably be a sell-out. Doesn't mean it's right, just because there's demand for it, though.

Some people would go out of laziness (not prepared to learn themselves), some through a genuine desire to learn and ask questions, some because it's an away-day.

3. It's 400 US dollars for the top price for the half-day course. I'm having a real difficulty getting past this. Add on travel expenses, and the cost of that person's job salary for the half or more of the day they are there, and it's not cheap.

Mentioned this to a few US librarians here and their responses are, let's just say, mostly negative (here, the backdrop is Ohio libraries facing a 50% cut in funding - there's no way in hell any Ohio librarian is going to get funding to go on a course). To quote one: "You Brits have too much money. What next: a 500 dollar course on how to tie your shoelaces?"

I should stress that I am not criticising Phil's fee - he's self-employed and has to earn a crust, same as me.

However, if a library (public or academic) was paying out of their budget for someone to go on a "Twitter 101" course (adding on travel expenses, plus the salary of that person for their day at the course), then that's a fair dollop of budget/public money.

If CILIP was running this for free, it would be less uncomfortable (though that would raise the issue of how CILIP spent their money). Alternately, if the course was tweaked to make it aimed at trainers e.g. "Training people in your institution to use Twitter effectively", then it would be more justifiable, as the end-result could be hundreds of new, professional, twitterers rather than 10 or 20.

4. Wouldn't it be better if CILIP hired Phil to produce a "UK Librarians guide to getting started with Twitter" thing, for putting online, instead? It would boost traffic to their website, would be a *lot* cheaper (well, free) for librarians (libraries), and would mean that any librarian could use it, rather than the lucky 20 who can get their expenses paid to turn up on the day. Yes, it would mean CILIP would have to spend money, rather than raking it in from running such courses.

5. Finally; despite being uncomfortable, if CILIP or someone else contacted me and said "Do you want to run an introductory course on Twitter in our lab in exchange for a large envelope of cash?" I would say "Yes! I'll get me coat!", thinking "Easy money!" without hesitation.

Which, I guess, makes me a hypocrite :-)

I think the intrinsic problems of teaching people how to use these tools, as opposed to learning by doing is exactly why the 23 Things approach is a good idea - to encourage experimentation with the tools and technologies rather than 'training' people how to use them.

@Mike, I agree there are two things mixed up here but, to be frank, there are plenty of *real* people using Twitter these days (i.e. not just geeks) and I doubt many of them felt the need to go on a course about it. Hashtags, directed replies and so on aren't that complicated - and we are, presumably, talking primarily about people who have degrees in LIS? I certainly agree that there are aspects of 'effective use' that do need to be discussed, thought thru and learned about, possibly through workshops.

@John, here's another suggestion for a revised title for the course - "Everything you want to know about Twitter... for those people who will never really understand or use it". (That pretty much describes the short tutorial session I gave to someone internally the other day). :-)

Hi John,

Lots of interesting and valuable comments, some of which I agree with, and others I don't. I'll address them in the order that you wrote them:

1. Clearly there *are* people who want to go on a training course about Twitter. The course was put into the training catalogue to see if anyone did want it - I wasn't sure, so we (myself and CILIP training) decided to see if people wanted it. If no-one had put their name down for it *it wouldn't be running*.

There's plenty of online training in just about everything that you can think of, and many people like to learn that way. However, there are people who prefer not to, and for whom a training course where they can sit down for half a day and try things out, without having to worry about answering the telephone is the way they prefer to learn. Neither is better than the other - they're just different approaches to learning. I take your point entirely on devising a Twitter writing strategy and am intending on including that.

2. Is the course creating a demand? No, I think the demand is already there, and I'll tell you for why. I already reference (very much in passing) Twitter on courses that I run, and people will quickly create an account, they'll add me as a follower and I'll follow them back. A lot of those never actually come back and use the resource. Try it for yourself - check how many of the people that you follow don't post, or haven't posted in the last month or so. Why is that? What is it that's stopping them from doing so. Clearly it's not that they can't, or don't know how to, because as you point out, there's material online. There's another reason, and perhaps the reason for that is that they don't have the time to put aside in unstructured personal learning, or they don't 'get' Twitter straight away - a whole host of reasons.

Some may well prefer to be taught rather than discover - nothing wrong with that. Some want to learn; great. Some because it's a 'half away day'. Other because they're quite frankly scared of the technology and they want to work through it. Others because they want to not make the mistakes by exploring, and some because they want an overview of what the resource may be able to do for them.

Obviously I have nothing to do with the pricing structure, but if it's too expensive then clearly people won't come on it, and that's fine. I'll find something else to do on that day so it won't be a pain for me, and CILIP can run something else.

I also take your point regarding the 'training people to use Twitter' element, and if that's something that delegates want from the session I'll be able to provide it. I also think that it's a good idea to produce a 'how to' guide, but equally I've already done something like that, and as you point out, so have others. That deals with one segment of the people who want to learn, but equally there are others who don't learn well in that environment.

Couple of extra points - the course hasn't run yet. Let's hold fire and see what comes out of it; it may be something that just works once and doesn't happen again. It may be full up and become amazingly popular - we'll just need to see. However, if training courses are only ever run because we already know that there's a need, it's going to be very difficult to get new courses started. Sometimes you just have to have a punt at something.

Finally, it's all too easy for us all to think that everyone is at our standard, or appreciates how to do things on the net. As a result, it's easy to look at something like this and think 'for God's sake why??'. I was teaching a course the other day, and as usual I say 'if there's a term that I use which doesn't make sense, or you don't understand, please stop me.' I was talking about Delicious and someone put up their hand and said 'Excuse me, what's a bookmark?' I said 'Oh, it's the same as a Favorite'. Blank look from the person asking the question. So I backtracked slightly and explained with a demonstration. 'Oh! That's very clever, and how useful' was the response. This person had never realised that option existed. Does that make them stupid? No. Does it make them inferior? No. It simply means that they need training of a different kind.

No amount of it's all online, or it's not necessary or anything else is going to change the fact that the individual in question needed to sit down, with someone and learn the basics of a browser. Training is seldom just about the thing being trained; it's about much more than that, and it's far too easy to forget that.

Part of the reason Twitter needs support with training courses is that its ostensible purpose is stupid. What you find once you give it a chance however, is that's is really useful for reasons completely different from what the introductory documentation says. If you're not the type that tries every new thing- how are you going to discover this?

Another point about courses on things that can be self-taught to a large extent, is that employers often only believe you understand these new-fangled things if you can tick the box that says "a proper professional taught me about this".
If nothing else, attending a course on Twitter would allow me to prove to my employers that I'd been "properly" trained, just as attendance at an Excel training course would satisfy them that I understood that tool.

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