To Tweet or not to Tweet – a Provost’s quandary

December 12, 2009 at 11:54 AM
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To Tweet or not to Tweet – a Provost’s quandary


Ashley Stempel NU’10 and Jim Stellar


This is a bit weird.  Ashley, who is a repeat blogger with me on this site about social media, is going to ask me questions about my comfort level using social media as a serious administrator at a large institution of higher education (CUNY Queens College) when I am in conflict about it.  OK, Ashley, first question.


Before I begin asking questions, I think it is important to somewhat outline my stance on Twitter and other social media. Back on June 28th, we wrote a post (Engagement as an Invaluable Education Tool: A Lesson from Social Media) in which you spoke about the anthropological roots of human communication and interaction. You shared a Nature article that suggested human history truly emerged once we began living in groups large enough to foster the communication of ideas, implying that humans are built to engage with each other for the purpose of our group (and perhaps individual) development. If that once small group is now the entire globe, thanks to technological advances in communication, then how can we keep the interaction going? How can we continue exchanging information and ideas without missing out on what someone who is thousands of miles away, while still in our “group,” has to contribute? Part of the answer, I believe, is in the successful use social media like Twitter. These entities break down geological and time constraints that once restricted the possibility for global communication.


In nearly every conversation in which I defend the use of Twitter, I point out that although Twitter is an abstract medium with multiple potential uses, there can be correct and incorrect ways to use the platform. It merely depends on what your intention is, and who your audience is, as well. While I understand you are not against the use of Twitter, you are still not positive it can be useful for someone who is in a serious administration role at a large academic institution. My first question for you, Jim, is if you took on the role of “Tweeting Provost of CUNY Queens College,” who would you consider your audience?


Because I talk to members of the academic hierarchy all the time, I would want to use Twitter and social media to do something else – to talk to members of the important base of the academic pyramid, the students, faculty, and staff.  But these are different groups and it seems daunting to try to talk to them all at once.  The 20,000 students at Queens are really our customers (or maybe our clients) and the potential for an intergenerational conversation about Queens is exciting. Then there are the faculty members who do research and the key work of developing and delivering the curriculum. They come in many types, ranging from tenured professors who might head important committees to others who might have the only point of contact with the institution be around the course(s) they teach. Finally, the staff members do the real work of running the College, some of whom I see every day and some I might never meet in years.  I fear that I will not have the time to devote to the rich and cross connecting conversations that might erupt as these groups begin to share perspectives in this media.  I worry about creating more disappointment than positive energy by tweeting.


Your dilemma, here, is that you wish to engage with the vast groups of people at your institution with Twitter, but are afraid of not being able to devote enough time to do so. However, what is worse, limited engagement or none at all? It goes without saying that it would be humanly impossible to sit down and have coffee meetings with as wide of an array of people you would ideally want to connect with at Queens. When using Twitter, communication is usually as urgent as you are able to make it (Twitter can also work as a great tool in crisis communication). Messages are short and precise (each message is restricted to 140 characters).


So for your desire to communicate with many people in a limited amount of time, Twitter could be an ideal solution. Not only would you have the valuable opportunity to broadcast messages and engage with many people, but ultimately you decide how often you participate. You can choose to either post messages that you feel are imperative to your followers, or respond to those posted by people you choose to follow. Using Twitter can also give you the chance to engage with interesting people who may slip through your fingers in the bustle of your day-to-day schedule.


The effectiveness of your presence on Twitter depends on who follows you, and ultimately, that will be dictated by the type of messages you post. Which leads me to my next question; what type of messages would you share using a Twitter account?


I figured I would have to share everything that was not either confidential (e.g. individual budget decisions) or boring (e.g. what I had for breakfast).  What I know of Twitter from past conversations with you and others is that one has to be completely honest in such a social networking forum or one can get ripped apart.  People will say bad things about you in Twitter, but others will either defend you or accept your defense of yourself if it is honest.  I have heard stories about CEOs of companies who have gotten in trouble with the customer base and use Twitter to make an apology and have data discussions to repair their reputation.  But it would be even better if we could use Twitter or social media to work with our students/faculty/staff/alumni to invent the future of the Institution.  At Queens College, the administration tries to do that anyway. The question is whether we should have one of us out there on Twitter or whether the current process of engagement is sufficient or even better at avoiding the downside of chaos. I am still nervous about doing it.


It is true, companies like Comcast are using Twitter to address and take action to relieve customer complaints. But another aspect of social media is that it is merely a great STARTING point for conversations, but eventually these conversations must be moved into real-time to make them stick. Social media is just an alternate angle to begin a conversation, make a friend, or develop an idea. There must be a concrete end-point.


Also, having an ethical stance on Twitter or in any communication in general is certainly important. But when you say you would “have” to share everything not confidential or boring that is not necessarily true. In fact, it may be overkill. To begin, you must decide if you want Twitter to represent you, Jim Stellar, as a real person who happens to be Provost of Queens College CUNY, or if you want the account to reflect the office of the Provost at Queens College CUNY. From there, decide on a few communicational goals you have for the Queens community and then our next step will be to decide how to most effectively achieve them using the medium.


Ashley and I are going to stop here, for now.  But since this is a real event (Jim is really considering using Twitter), it would be a good moment for readers weigh in with comments.  We may come back and talk again about how social media taps into the otherlobe thinking we feature in this blog, or how it ties into education, but for now, let’s stay on this topic.  Comments are welcome!

Preparing for graduation – the ultimate internship?

4 Responses to “To Tweet or not to Tweet – a Provost’s quandary”

  1. Boone Gorges says:

    It’s commendable to want to use media like Twitter to forge real connections with students, faculty and staff. I have a sense that Twitter use among the typical university population (QC included, or perhaps especially) is too low for such interactions to be representative of the population as a whole. An all-too-common kneejerk reaction is to go to the platform that has the greatest saturation in the target audiences, namely Facebook, but this reaction is misguided. The conventional ethos that has emerged in a space like Facebook (where things are private by default, where you generally only communicate with those you know offline, where communication is generally not on professional topics) is different from that emerging on Twitter (where things are far more open, both in terms of access to content and in terms of the range of networks represented). So I think Twitter is the right kind of place to establish a presence, but it’d be wrong to assume that such a presence would facilitate the kind of broad, intergenerational discussion you hope for.

    That said, there is an enormous amount of value to be gotten from authentic engagement in something like Twitter. For one thing, the population on Twitter is self-selected – people who are ambitious about expanding their personal and professional networks – and is likely to represent a particularly fertile cross-section of the QC population. That’s doubly true for the subsection of those QC Twitter users who would be willing to interact rather than just eavesdrop on your tweets. This section of QC is the low-hanging fruit, those who are most eager to collaborate and innovate. Another benefit whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated is the connections that you might make beyond QC. To think of Twitter as a strategy for connecting to people on campus and nowhere else is to impose artificial restrictions on a medium whose inherent nature is to be porous around the edges. I myself have found the greatest value in Twitter when I’ve connected to people whose work parallels my own at other campuses within CUNY, around NYC, and beyond. These sorts of connections have a tendency to amplify and frame the work that I do locally.

    In any case, I couldn’t agree more with Ashley’s suggestion that you decide whether you’d be tweeting as Jim (who is the Provost at QC) or The Provost (who is also Jim). The only valuable kind of interaction on Twitter is authentic interaction, and authenticity on Twitter amounts to having a voice that clearly represents an individual. Whether that voice is Jim’s voice or the Provost’s Office’s voice, nobody will listen if your tweets read like a newsletter – that is, as a disembodied, unidirectional megaphone.

    Looking forward to reading more about your decision-making process.

  2. SteveMac says:

    This is a very timely topic. I have not only participated in conversations like this recently (to tweet or not to tweet… or… facebook is a too big of a time commitment… or I haven’t fallen into the vortex of facebook yet…) but have also overheard them. I think there many factors at play–so the following is just a sequence of random thoughts. Social media only works if it becomes a standard mode of communication. It speaks to the old adage, “if a tree falls…” Here’s an example–I was at a mall with a friend a couple months ago and she tweeted “I’m shopping at the mall.” My initial response was, “who cares?” On the other hand, if I were at the mall separately, it would be pertinent (let’s meet for coffee?). And for my friend’s circle, that tweet carries more interest it would to someone outside her social circle because it pertains to her. Right now, there are two groups. Those who tweet, and those who don’t. It’s not so much a generation gap as it as a technological generation gap (divded between those who are early adapters and those who aren’t). For me personally, I’ve only dabbled in social media (I’m in the “I don’t think I have the time” camp) but stay close to those who are fully engrossed to make sure I don’t miss anything interesting.

    Tweeting may not serve every communications need. Many bemoan the superficial nature of television news coverage, for example, because it skims the surface but omits important substantive details that would be required to fully process the depth and breadth of the news. Tweeting is similar in its brevity. So it may not be the best tool to use to conduct a robust conversation. And that is not to say that twitter cannot still be meaningful as a tool for engaging communities and transmitting useful information quickly, and through a viral network which actually is able to select those things that are important to broadcast more broadly. The interesting thing about the self-selecting nature of viral news is that the selecting organism is a broader consciousness that is representative of the group as a whole. So some segments may be alerting their networks to the latest things Lohan, Kardashian, or Gosselin while others are embroiled in the latest regarding the health care legislation in Washington. It remains to see what the outcome, per se, is, other than remaining informed and plugged in. Marshall McCluhan (sp) in his famous work said that the media is the message. I think it’s unclear what this means yet in the context of real-time social networks powered by remarkable mobile technologies.

    Here’s another thought–we’re ultimately in a living laboratory, and we are the test subjects. We’re in a period of accelerating technological change, and in time, tools like twitter may evolve, or others may emerge, that help satisfy a wider range of needs and preferences. Those who don’t feel compelled to be “plugged in” every moment of the day may not need to, and yet be able to engage with those who are.

    Regardless, it’s interesting to watch, and slowly, for me, to begin to engage. I am discovering, with stunned amazement, the many abilities of my new iPhone, which is really beyond anything I imagined it would be. It’s almost like a pet or best little electronic friend that I feel has to be with me at all times. I think that says something not only about the way technology has changed, but about how in order to feel a sense of connection to a larger “whole” this little handheld device carries such great relevance.

    Sorry for the rambling randomness of these thoughts. Is that what Blogs are for? Tweet out.

  3. LeRoy says:

    I hadn’t thought that much about how a college or university might use Twitter, but it seems pretty clear an institution would be at a disadvantage by not using it since many prospective and current students probably are using it anyway. It seems like such an easy thing to set up even if all you’re doing is putting up links to what’s currently happening at the school. I was doing some Googling on this topic and found this article:

    This isn’t necessarily related to this topic, but there are clearly many people throughout the world (two examples are Iran and China) who are using these tools for political expression. I think it’s easy to see things like Twitter and Facebook being somewhat frivolous, but to some folks it’s a powerful way to communicate with the rest of the world.

  4. Jim Stellar says:

    Thank you all for your blog comments. I also thank those of you who have communicated with me privately on e-mail or in person. I love the conversation and your insights and opinions are important to me and especially here as I think with Ashley (and now all of you) about whether to take this next step with Twitter.

    One specific comment that I did want to make is on the “Jim as Provost” vs. “Provost as Jim” voice in any such operation. Note that in both the two worlds are combined – the operation of otherlobe gut-instinct thinking with facts-and-theories content thinking. This is a key point of the entire blog. If I had to choose, I would say my career has been more of the “Jim as Dean/Provost” than the other way. I think leadership begins with the person and I am most comfortable that way. At the same time, I would hope to keep the conversation on a professional level.

    Please keep talking to me. I urge you to put your comments on the web site so that others can interact, but if you must I am always accessible by e-mail (

    Happy New Year!

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