Twitter Could Drive You Cuckoo – If You’re Not Prepared

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

[Note: This article was first posted as a comment to Lynn Zimmerman‘s “Twitter Could Drive You Cuckoo” (1 Oct. 2009).]

At first, Dr. Alloway’s criticism of Twitter may seem part of a long line that includes Rousseau’s of La Fontaine’s fables in L’Emile, Flaubert’s of novels in Madame Bovary, Orwell’s of Boys’ Weeklies, and further educational damnings of TV, transistor radio, the internet, blogs, Facebook itself. Education pundits tend to damn new things until they become familiar enough to pundit about them.

But Dr. Alloway is not an education pundit. She is an educator concretely helping a group of slow-learning 11-14 year olds to improve their short term memory and reporting what she has seen in this group. Hence the unfairness of Malcolm Parks’s comment to the Higher Ed Morning article about the fact she has no research paper about new media use and short term memory: one doesn’t write a research paper on such a statistical basis.

Some other comments are more constructive, suggesting the exploration of more active and learning-enhancing uses of Twitter. Also possibly relevant: Danah Boyd’s Twitter: “Pointless Babble” or Peripheral Awareness + Social Grooming? (16 August 2009) on the importance of socializing and on the fact that socializing communication – in real life too – contains a lot of phatic roughage, i.e., utterances only aimed at indicating readiness to interact with others. If you have a bad short term memory, telling this “roughage” apart from content communication might be difficult.

But there might be a very concrete usability factor in the different impacts Facebook and Twitter have on Dr. Alloway’s students. For someone who has short-time memory problems, Facebook is easier to use because Facebook messages stay put, whereas they slide away very fast in Twitter. So her students are more likely to be paralyzed into passivity by this rapid flow than their peers who have a better short-term memory and can use the Twitter search engine or a remembered hashtag to participate in a conversation about a given theme.

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Education pundits tend to damn new things until they become familiar enough to pundit about them.

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To overcome this issue, she might show her students how they can limit the number of people they are following until they get more familiar with Twitter so that their homepage is less crowded and does not move so fast; how to bookmark the RSS feeds of hashtags for conversation topics they’d like to participate in; how to mark a given tweet as favorite and, in general, explore with them the Getting Started topics of Twitter’s help forum – help forum topics don’t glide away, and they can be bookmarked in a browser.

Another possible factor might be young slow-learners’ fear of seeming dumb in a whirl of fast moving Twitter conversations, just as in real-life fast moving ones: people tend to equate quick-wittedness with intelligence and slower thinking with stupidity, and this is possibly even more true for pre-teens and teens.

Here, an educator might show people who need more time both to understand and to utter how to use twitter to bring people to other modes of conversation, for instance, by tweeting links to blog or forum discussions where they can have enough time. This can even be automated: new posts and comments on ETC are automatically announced at http://twitter.com/etcjournal via twitterfeed.com, which translates the entries RSS feed and the comments RSS feed into tweets. Same with many other twitter accounts.

The twitter whirlwind might drive some people cuckoo if they enter it unprepared. But they can be shown how to use its power to steer themselves and others towards quieter conversation venues.

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