Thursday, July 17, 2014

On Twitter Chats

***At the bottom of this post is a list of Twitter terminology highlighted within the text for those unfamiliar with the lingo.***

I love chats on Twitter. I don't recall when I first began lurking to see that the fuss was all about, but I have been observing educationally related chats for six months at least. They have been going on for a few years, though. One of the first was created out of necessity by Meenoo Rami, who was seeking support in her early years of teaching. I only knew of a few chats, and had not heard of Meenoo's #engchat or many others until I was exposed to the digital library created by cybraryman, Jerry Blumengarten. Jerry's resources are so widely used that when I Google his web presence, this is what comes up:
I entered only two letters, and the algorithm knew what I was looking for because of the sheer number of educators referencing Jerry's vast repository. Or maybe that's because I'm on Jerry's site so often. It is my favorite online resource, followed by Joyce Valenza's curation, and Richard Byrne's blog. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Stacy Brown (@21stStacy) for helping me through the murky process of curation, and pointing me to these resources.

When I recently went to Jerry's Twitter Chats list to double check the day and time of a specific chat, I examined more closely the names of the chats. It is interesting that over 340 chats exist in the educational setting alone, not counting those few that might occur but are not on Jerry's list. Hashtags range from 1to1chat to psycchat.  Every person in education could find a chat to participate in, if so desired. This is what I find fascinating about Twitter.

What is it that makes chats both popular with users and apparently highly useful? If educators did not find chats worthwhile, they would not be taking over the Twittersphere as they appear to be. I've noticed that chats generate a significant amount of positive reinforcement among the participants. Intelligent comments are often favorited  as a way of demonstrating both gratitude and acknowledgement, as well as being earmarked for later reference. I know that, even for myself, getting notification of a favorite is a dopamine pump inducer, especially for a newbie

Secondly, chats allow introverts to be heard. In a face to face meeting of more than three people, an introvert, no matter how intelligent, is not likely to speak unless directly spoken to, or until waiting for the other participants to stop talking. In a chat, however, the social norms do not apply. Anyone may "speak" at any given time, without talking over another person. An introvert does not feel he/she is interrupting because each tweet is boxed independently of those before and after it. This is an important visual cue. A side conversation, by way of a direct message (DM),  can occur simultaneously to the stream. In a meeting, side conversations are frowned upon, even stopped punitively.

Additionally, chats are a phenomenal source of new contacts and resources that have been pre-vetted and pre-approved. I have found many new contacts in my areas of expertise on chats. Mention that you are planning a specific unit, and a torrent of "Have you tried this..." or "I did this and it was great" messages come back to you. I have amassed a large number of web-based links from the chats I've been on. I may or may not use what has been suggested, but I won't have anyone pressuring me to do so, as might happen within a school building. "Did you try that game I suggested? Did you use the worksheet I gave you?" Often, well-meaning suggestions don't fit with another teacher's classroom culture. But the giver feels slighted none-the-less. Not so with Twitter. Use it, or not. No worries. 

But most interesting to me is the fact that chats level the playing field among the participants. Unless specifically mentioned, no one knows how long participants have been teaching, their age, their appearance, their personality type, their tics, their management style, or their perceived social position in the culture of their school. This means that teachers who may be ignored, or are quiet, or are loners in a faculty meeting are actually able to participate fully in the experience. In-person meetings inherently engage the societal rules that Twitter obliterates. Chats, in particular, because of their brevity and lack of visual connection, create a situation in which every participant feels equally valued. The rapid nature of a large chat does not allow much time for pre-editing in the thought process, which is tough for an introvert. However, because apps such as Tweetdeck and Nurph allow the user to isolate the chat and back scroll, a participant can respond to a comment that may have occurred earlier in the chat. This is the equivalent of someone blurting out an idea ten minutes after the rest of the group had moved on in a meeting. In a Twitter chat, it still works, without the social blundering. Imagine if teachers simply walked in and out of a faculty meeting whenever they felt like it. This is perfectly acceptable on a chat. You can only make it for the last ten minutes? No problem! Your ideas are still welcomed. Not only that, but many moderators spend personal time archiving chats so that anyone may go back later and view the content. A shout-out here to the incredible Paul Solarz who generously donates his time to help archive many chats. They can be found on his blog. I don't know many teachers who would go back and watch the video of a team or grade-level meeting to make sure they didn't miss anything, but the number of Tweeps requesting links to archives is high.

I finally convinced my husband, who is seeking work in the pharmaceutical industry, to use chats as a way to make connections (PLN for non educators). After only one chat for LinkedIn he had plans to change his LinkedIn profile, and had made connections. He, too is sold on chats, and he's one of the strongest extroverts I know! 

I want to be clear to say that in-person meetings are critical for a school, team, or division to run successfully. I am by no means advocating eliminating faculty meetings in favor of Twitter chats. Each has its respective values and purposes. I do think, however, that chats are more than just a cocktail party with a large group of people, without the cocktails (or maybe not - we'll never know).  Their format, brevity, and openness create an experience unlike any other. If you haven't yet, give it a try! 

Twitter terms (these definitions are mine - I did not source them from the web):
  • chat: an open conversation among Twitter users at a scheduled time using a hashtag, typically oriented around a particular topic of interest 
  •  lurk(ing): reading the stream of a chat without participating
  • #engchat: a chat initiated by Meenoo Rami for teachers of English (lit and comp)
  • #1to1chat: a chat for uses of devices, one per student
  • #psycchat: a chat for psychologists and counselors in the educational field
  • hashtag: symbol previously known as number or pound sign, used to track information (as in hash marks) 
  • Twittersphere: the collective of Twitter users, as represented by their tweets
  • favorite(d): a verb (gasp!) meaning to mark a Tweet for reference or acknowledgement using the star symbol in Twitter
  • notification: a Twitter category that places specific Tweets in a file for the user's review
  • newbie: a new user to the platform
  • DM: direct message sent from one user to another, not seen in the stream of Tweets
  • stream: list of messages sorted in time stamp order
  • Tweeps: people using Twitter
  • PLN: personal learning network - a group of strangers and acquaintances sharing a common interest or knowledge base to promote individual intellectual growth