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!