EduTwitter; a space of public engagement and private dilemmas
The character limit, even with the ability to create threads, means that sometimes meaning is lost. But that same constraint also means that sometimes the message has been even more carefully crafted than usual. Sometimes we tweet with a definite potential audience in mind – adding hashtags, visible twitter names or tagging people into photos. Sometimes we tweet in a genuine attempt to reach an unpredictable audience – deliberately asking for advice or ideas beyond our friendship groups of colleagues. Sometimes we tweet just to take an idea out of our minds, to feel we have done something with it so that it stops bothering us. Some of us narrate our own lives via twitter, some of us react to others’ lives there.
Respondents to tweets are likely to infer meaning differently according to context. If the tweeter is someone you follow and who your algorithm throws into your timeline frequently you may have developed a reasonable insight into their concerns and stances held on education, society and politics. This may help you to regard an individual tweet with greater understanding than if that same person appears fresh into your timeline, as if on a re-bound, as someone you follow retweets them. If you have met the tweeter you may recognise how their real-life personalities are translated into online ones. If the stance they take is one you generally question or oppose you will probably experience a different immediate reaction to their tweets than if their stance is one with which you generally concur.
If you are using EduTwitter as a shopfront, either as seller or consumer, you will be relieved it provides a free space to promote and find blogs, books, resources, CPD and even new jobs from the comfort of your sofa. Alternatively, you may the sort of person who bristles at the seemingly relentless sales pitches and brand-building and start muting accounts that begin to bore you. You may perceive that some people use others on social media to build their own brands or follower count, while others seem active in using their brands or follower count to build up the confidence and engagement of others. And of course, this relationship might be reciprocal and to mutual advantage.
You may separate out your personal and professional lives using two twitter accounts, having made your own rules for how you use these. These rules may be different to those constructed by the person next to you on your timeline – but you may never know that. Perhaps you balance an individual account with one you run on behalf of an organisation or network. Maybe you even have a sock puppet account.
Twitter may be a digital space but (bots aside) its users are all too human. The differences in how we use and react to others on twitter are testament to that. All of this is inevitable and probably unproblematic on a good day. After all, tweets are quickly pushed down timelines by new ones coming in. We may miss most of the twitter traffic when our minds and hands are occupied elsewhere. We may typically turn to twitter for a purpose or perhaps when we are at a loose end. We may engage with Direct Message groups and find a sense of solidarity and productive ways of working there, even if not in public timelines. Tweets land into ours and others’ private spaces and lives and we cannot always know what other emotions or circumstances they become adjunct to.
Even remembering that the majority of teachers, school leaders and academics working in education are not active on twitter those of us who are there can see how influential it sometimes becomes. Alignments and allegiances are forged, fall outs are public. Political and ideological cases are argued and counter-arguments are waged. Government money is spent on promoted tweets by the DfE or organisations funded through their grants.
And then the hard stuff happens; twitter is a micro-publishing site, tweets are unleased into the world and we lose control of them. Because we read tweets from our digital devices creating and saving screenshots is only a click away, preserving not just the words but the avatars and profile pictures in metaphorical date-specific aspic. If we do take screenshots we are then at liberty to decide what to do with them, we might share them within our networks, use them to support teaching, or re-post them down the line into new, decontextualized twitter threads. There are no rules of engagement, asking for permission to take, keep of share screen-shots or the texts of tweets is not required and is thus prone to individual decision-making. Twitter is searchable, so if tweets have not been deleted, we can find them again if we want them, sometimes creating the dissonance of years’ old words sitting side by side with a profile photo only taken a week ago. The ethics of using twitter in educational research is evolving, debated and is unlikely to ever be defined by single approved conduct.
The community of EduTwitter can be a source of companionship and of learning. It can be huge fun and it can offer solace. It gives educators a space to shape and share their voices. Like all social media, twitter helps build movements and can lead to change. Those who venture into it sometimes need more empathy and caution, and often need resilience and courage.
Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.