A bit of recent serendipity motivates me to address a point I made during my and Chris Guder’s ACRL presentation on Ohio University’s 2008 student environmental scanning project. Based on our findings, I made a joke along the lines of “librarians are the only Twitter users,” citing its extremely low student adoption relative to other tools:
Ah, the things I do for humor’s sake. The usage data on Twitter seemed so absurdly negligible compared to more established social tools that I was compelled to poke public fun. While I remain committed to finding whatever levity I can in the bleak sea of technostatistical exposition, I fully admit that I’ve been appropriately schooled for my statement, and by more than one source.
Yesterday Ubiquitous Librarian Brian Mathews pointed out (quite graciously, it must be noted – without pointing the finger) that this type of dismissiveness is a rather glib generalization of a growing and potentially multidimensional technology. He states that general interest in Twitter has recently surged, and that rather than talking about student adoption rates of emerging media we must consider local communication contexts and potential library participation in campus conversations about social tools, outreach, and workflow.
How right he is, and here’s where the serendipity comes in. I’m in the process of putting the finishing touches on a large research report of OU’s survey findings that will be published next month via ACRL. My eternally insightful editors, Joan Lippincott and Kathryn Deiss, not two days ago raised the same concerns about Twitter, noting that recent political and popular media use of the tool seems to have raised its profile considerably. While Twitter may still be inordinately well known within the librarian community of practice, it does seem to be experiencing a general upsurge – I’ve definitely been noticing this myself. (On a somewhat different but interesting note, Jenny Levine posted a few days ago on Twitter’s apparent “ephemeraliness” in terms of archiving conference communication).
In light of the above conversations, I’m in the process of revisiting my discussion of Twitter in the ACRL report. At the conference Chris and I referred to findings of research conducted in early 2008, when Twitter was still in its relative infancy. If the OU study was replicated today and supplemented with the type of granular investigation Brian advocates, the picture would likely look quite different.
In closing his post, Brian makes the point that “it’s good to step back sometimes and not just look at what other libraries are doing, but what your community is as well.” I couldn’t agree more. Benchmarking library applications of emerging technologies such as Twitter is a dangerous game, based on the essential diversity/uniqueness of campus and library cultures and the fundamentally dynamic nature of social media itself.
I’d also like to note that my precipitous past dismissal of Twitter highlights another important reality of library technology development (not to mention an interesting side effect I’ve long observed among “early adopters,” for lack of a better descriptor – preemptive writeoff syndrome). Rejecting a tool based on low apparent use – without fully investigating its other implications, behind the scenes applications, or future potential – can be just as unfortunate as developing a new public service technology without adequate needs assessment and project planning. It pays to keep our collective and respective eyes on a constantly shifting landscape, and to actively resist assuming that we can predict the direction a tool or trend might take.
When I get to UCSB let’s find a project we can work on together.
most definitely – i’m so glad to see you joining a uc, and i’ve been hankering to get my hands in some cross-system collaboration. there is much good work to be done.
The unpredictability of public adoption of an internet tool was definitely the case with things like MySpace and Amazon, where just a few tweaks of the tool produced an explosion in traffic and a transformation of our perceptions of what the internet was capable of providing us with.
I doubt that ExecTweets will make that happen. Also, it’s interesting that Facebook redesigned their homepage to be more like Twitter even though as you say, the use of Twitter is much less widespread than it seems. The curiosity about what a tool like Twitter is capable of was enough to influence the redesign of a behemoth like Facebook. The mutations will definitely be interesting to see.
agreed, netty – and nice terminology with “mutations.” (and by the way, i LOVE it when nonlibrarians comment. it blows my mind.)
I just heard your “apparently only librarians Twitter” quoted at Computers in Libraries. It didn’t get quite as many laughs as it did at ACRL – but I’m sure some people tweeted it.
thanks for reporting… i seem to remember very little laughter in crystal city.
To put some concrete numbers on the debate look at the Library Twitter league of almost 500 official library twitter accounts at http://twitterleague.com/view_league/252
It has real time tracking of 460+ Library twitter accounts showing followers, following, total updates, age of account, follower/following ratios.
Some analysis at http://musingsaboutlibrarianship.blogspot.com/2009/05/offical-library-twitter-accounts-what.html
In addition a special twitter account http://twitter.com/Leaguelibrary tracks these accounts
thanks for the links/figures, aaron… twitter does indeed seem to be blowing up. foot —> mouth.