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Social Media in Higher Education

Chris Rowell

Part Seven. The personal journey

22. Somewhere in Between: My Experience of Twitter as a Tool for Continuous Personal Development

Andy Horton

Texte intégral

#Beginner #Twitter #12AoC

Somewhere in between
The waxing and the waning wave
Somewhere in between
What the song and the silence say
Kate Bush (2005), ‘Somewhere in Between’

1Of all the social media platforms, Twitter has taken up a space that crosses boundaries between the private and public, and the personal and the professional. Over the years, my own use of Twitter as a librarian in the HE sector has moved increasingly into my professional life, while retaining a personal focus and voice.

2Networking and the sharing of best practice among educators are key benefits of conferences and events for continuing professional development (CPD). Social media — Twitter in particular — has made it possible for a live ‘backchannel’ of communication to emerge around a presentation or workshop, enabling commentary, critique and contribution by audience members. In this sense, it allows online communication among those physically present, while also starting conversations with interested colleagues elsewhere.

3This use of Twitter also sparks a blend of online and physical learning and networking, as participants discover common ground with colleagues at other institutions through shared social media discussions which can lead to real-world collaboration.

4Outside of conferences and associated events, Twitter — through the hashtag, the Twitter chat, and through dialogues around courses and developments in HE — has for me been a staple of communication, CPD, networking and personal brand-building.

5My use of Twitter began in 2008, and has increased — in my home and work life — over the last ten years. My use of the platform in my personal life has influenced and enhanced how I use it for professional purposes, and vice-versa. Perhaps its value lies in its ability to move between spaces — the personal and the professional, the physical and the digital. Perhaps it has now become necessary for us each to decide how we will use this in our careers, and what we choose to share of our private and public selves.

6In July 2007, I attended a conference session presented by librarians from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, about their various means of outreach to students. One of the things they mentioned in passing was their use of Twitter, described as a ‘micro-blogging’ site. I think I had heard of Twitter, but this was the first example I had encountered of it being put to a purpose in libraries or HE.

7It was some months later — March 2008, my Twitter profile confirms — when I created my own account. I had a journal on the Livejournal blogging site, and when prompted for a user name for Twitter I chose the same one I used there and became @fechtbuch. It was distinctive — and untaken — and I was able to use my own name alongside it. I have never changed it — over time, as my follower count has grown, it has become my Twitter identity. What I did not do — or think to do — was choose a professional username, a library-related one, even though I was originally inspired to sign up by a library Twitter account. It was an experiment; to investigate, use and explore Twitter, with a view to perhaps using it in some way in my professional life. Discussions of Twitter by academics and information professionals often assume its adoption as a tool for professional development or scholastic communication (Stranack 2012, Filgo 2011, Fenwick 2016), and may discuss the intersection of the personal and professional (Ollier-Malaterre et al., 2013, Fox and Bird 2017); but they rarely examine the professional use of an originally personal account.

8At first, I was unsure what to post, and how to act, on this new stage. I barely even knew who to follow. A few friends and colleagues had adopted Twitter, and they were quickly added. I followed a few celebrities too, as it seemed to be expected of me. And then the numbers began to grow. Slowly, steadily, @fechtbuch made connections with others, and built a network of followers. This was without design or strategy. Friends of friends, people with shared interests, people I had conversed with. And some colleagues, acquaintances at other libraries or other people I had met online and discussed work with. My Twitter account remained personal at first — it certainly wasn’t work-focused or linked to my role. I was tweeting as myself, in a personal capacity, largely about my personal interests. In doing so, I was starting to learn the medium — the mechanics of replies and retweets, the etiquette of conversations with strangers. I also learned about the hashtag, that simple, effective mechanism for drawing conversation and posts on a topic together.

9Hashtags marked my developing use of Twitter in a professional context. Initially, this was at another conference. A few years later, in 2012, I had changed jobs and institutions. I was at a library conference in Newcastle. The conference had a hashtag and I had been including it in my tweets. I was still tweeting as myself, not on behalf of my institution — though this time as myself at work, in my professional life. As it happens, I was in a workshop on composing content for library Twitter accounts, and I was hoping to pick up tips for a nascent institutional account we had created where I worked. I was tweeting about the session, using the conference’s hashtag, and someone replied — the person sitting next to me in the room. A conversation was taking place online between people in the same physical space, about the event we were both participating in. This for me was a memorable moment, but there were many other interactions through Twitter at that event. For the first time, I was aware of social media as a ‘backchannel’ at conferences.

10Through the hashtag, the delegates were able to participate in the event as it unfolded. This has become increasingly common and has arguably changed delegates’ conference experiences. Some tweet key points from presentations, a behaviour which is both a form of note-taking and of broadcasting content to a wider audience outside the venue. It is not uncommon for people to virtually follow a conference via the hashtag conversation on Twitter. Others will comment on presentations, perhaps adding their own perspective or with examples from their own professional experience. It is not uncommon for a presenter to make a reference in passing to a piece of research, online resource, or other digital object and for someone in the audience to quickly tweet a link to it for their peers. Most useful, perhaps, is the use of the Twitter backchannel to share practice and experience. This kind of sharing was always one of the most useful aspects of attending a conference; this was originally limited to conversations outside the scheduled sessions. Twitter allows conversations to start and interested parties to find each other much more quickly, putting them in contact and often sparking face-to-face conversations. The communication may move on from the hashtag-focused Twitter discussion. Kimmons and Veletsianos (2016) in their research into use of Twitter at conferences found that ‘it seems that the backchannel may serve as an initial connector to begin conversation but that as discussions become disjointed and divergent authors may naturally leave the backchannels’. In this, participants’ Twitter online conversations can be seen as corresponding to the way a face-to-face conversation unfolds.

11In tweeting from a conference, a conversation is created which includes those present, but also colleagues and contacts outside the event following the hashtag or the timelines of participants. It creates a space for participation that encompasses those physically present, but also those online.

12This further makes it more likely for people expanding their professional network to expand their social media network too. People will follow each other during conferences, sometimes only for the conference duration but often afterwards. It is at this point that different users’ approaches to their Twitter accounts become apparent, as some are wholly subject- or profession-focused, while others’ cross over between their personal and their professional lives. My account, having started as a personal one, has always had that aspect. I have taken to posting a tweet (often on my way home) to let new followers know that my account is not solely library-related content. While this has lost followers, at least one person has commented that this is why they follow me.

13Connections initially established through conference conversations, hashtag discussions, and interaction with mutual friends in libraries have steadily increased the professional network aspect of my Twitter experience. However, as I increased my follower count — now at over 1500, or 3 ‘milliwheatons’ (Kovalic, 2009) — I was connecting with as many people from non-work friendships, or through mutual interests such as games, as I was with librarians or learning technologists. Conversations on Twitter can cross over between groups — a friend from outside HE might comment on an issue raised in a post from a conference, or a colleague at another institution might chat online about a television programme we are both watching.

14Just as traditional communication crosses boundaries between groups, so can social media practices. The tweetchat is a regular online conversation, using a hashtag and moderated by one or more people around a common interest or area of practice. Tweetchats often take place weekly, and usually with a selected theme for discussion each time. I have participated in the Learning Technology in Higher Education tweetchat, with the hashtag #LTHEchat (Nerantzi et al., 2014). My first experience with tweetchats though was with the #RPGChat and #RPGlifeuk games chats. In both cases there is a community of regular attendees, with newcomers welcomed and accepted for their contribution to the discussion. In participating in the game chats, I learned how to negotiate these chats, keeping track in real time of online conversations with multiple threads and new questions being posted while discussions for older ones were still live. This made my forays into #LTHEchat easier to navigate. In terms of benefits, both the games and HE tweetchats were an effective way to share practice and hold conversations around shared interests, and helped make connections and build a network.

15My presence on Twitter, blending personal and professional content, became noticed by colleagues at my institution. Specifically Chris Rowell, at the time deputy head of Learning Technology at Regent’s University London where I was deputy library manager, found in me a kindred social media spirit. He and I had collaborated on delivering a range of training to colleagues. We worked together to present a workshop for the annual staff conference which we used as a springboard for facilitating an iteration of Helen Webster’s Ten Days of Twitter course (Webster, 2018), an introduction to the platform for novices. Whilst being worthwhile in itself, this also helped outreach for our Learning Resources department to academic colleagues within our institution. It also helped foster an effective working partnership, which led to Chris inviting me in 2014 to work with him on his 12 Apps of Christmas course (Rowell, 2015).

16The 12 Apps of Christmas was an online course, intended initially to support teaching staff at Regent’s, which showcased a range of free mobile apps with applicability to teaching. It was an open course, and numbers participating rose massively in the days before it started. The course was meant to be discursive, and we were aware that it was important to maintain the online community around MOOCs for them to work; the management and engagement of a community of over 500 learners became a priority in order to make a success of the course. To this end, I spent a lot of time monitoring and responding to posts on the course forums, but I was also actively using Twitter — checking the hashtag, engaging with learners on the course, and commenting on each day’s activities.

17The course was a success, winning the Credo Digital Literacy award which Chris and I received at the 2015 LILAC conference — during which event I was tweeting. It also established itself as an annual fixture, and Chris and I have presented on it at conferences and symposiums in learning technology and librarianship. This has brought with it a new perspective in my use of Twitter. While I was still participating in Twitter conversations as a conference backchannel, now I was aware that I was tweeting as a speaker myself. Conversations among the audience on Twitter were sometimes supplemented by virtual questions from the floor, and I was seeing my own references augmented by tweeted links.

18I also became involved with the Business Librarians Association as their training officer, and my tweets from their annual conference, while still in my own voice and from a personal perspective, had to take into account the organization which I was representing. In some ways, this had always been true — tweeting about work from a personal account always requires an awareness of appropriate behaviour. Now, though, I was aware that my public profile on Twitter was part of what could be considered as my social media brand. It was almost a surprise to see that I had a brand. The connections I had built, and the activities I had tweeted about, meant that I was not anonymous. The @fechtbuch Twitter account was a significant part of my online profile, and it crossed over between the personal and the professional.

19Connections made on Twitter can remain in the virtual world, but still be no less solid for that. They can also cross over into the physical, as we meet colleagues with whom we have conversed online. People often comment, on meeting online friends for the first time, on how their online presence reflects their real personality. Some research suggests that a strong online presence can influence, and become part of, a person’s identity (Ward and Coates, 2016). Or, as a friend of mine likes to say on meeting a social media contact for the first time: ‘an imaginary friend just became real’.

20Twitter contacts crossing personal and professional spheres have led to involvement in other projects. In 2015, Matt Finch invited me to participate in Lambeth public libraries’ contribution to the Fun Palaces community engagement project (Doctorow, 2015). This was based on my Twitter presence as a professional academic librarian, a supporter of public libraries, and a gamer. The work I did on this community project was in turn cited as evidence of community engagement by library staff for a Customer Service Excellence initiative where I worked. It also led to my continuing involvement with events at Upper Norwood Library. This involved my personal and professional life, as well as my leisure interests and career, all linked by my Twitter profile.

21My Twitter account is not my only presence on social media. Facebook remains a personal space, although even here there is a crossover as I am an admin of the university library’s account. There are also the library Twitter accounts for my current and previous posts — here, I have sought to include a sense of the personal where appropriate. Even an institutional social media account needs an authentic voice, and genuine contact with its audience. I have an account on LinkedIn, that most professional of platforms. A service which has taken a certain amount of time to find its place, LinkedIn is now strongly established as a professionally-focused social media platform. It works for sharing appropriate and relevant content, for communicating with professional contacts. It certainly works as a place to establish one’s professional profile — it could host a ready-made conference speaker biography, for example. Still, the point at which I felt it had established itself was when a conversation with a friend on work matters turned seamlessly into a personal chat.

22Increasing follower numbers on Twitter have meant that my feed of posts is full and diverse. This can be a good thing, but it also diffuses the posts of a range of contacts — professional connections, friends, those with shared hobbies or interests. This also applies to my own timeline. Though at different times I may have a narrower focus — if I was at a work event, or a games convention, for example — my posts inevitably range from professional conversations to leisure interests. This is true of many Twitter users, and there is sometimes a process of filtering out posts on topics in which we have little interest. Doubtless many people scroll past my tweets from library conferences, or from Sunday morning games chats. Relevant content for a particular person may well be swamped by irrelevant posts. Although the discursive nature of Twitter encourages engagement and interaction, it can lack focus. The ratio of meaningful signal to meaningless noise online can be challenging (Stranack, 2012), and requires coping strategies (Gleick, 2011).

23The @fechtbuch account certainly does not have an exclusive focus on my professional role. In 2017, I enrolled on a postgraduate certificate in professional higher education, a teaching qualification. This is a course with a high level of reflection on my teaching activities. While I believe Twitter can be a good platform for this, I felt that my account would not be suited to the purpose. For this reason I have created a second account, focused on my professional role and development. Sharing less of my private self, and centred on my professional identity, @apjhlib is centred on my role as a librarian and in particular my teaching and professional development. My first account remains, though, as my primary presence on Twitter. In a space which mixes the personal with the professional, apart from — yet sometimes interacting with — the physical, connecting with others met or unmet in real life; somewhere in between.



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Currently a library manager at BPP University and enjoys delivering training to law and health students at London Waterloo and Cambridge and in partner centres overseas. In his previous role at Regent’s University London, Andy won the prestigious Credo Digital Information Literacy award, collaborating with Chris Rowell to create the Twelve Apps of Christmas online course. Before this, he worked at The Inns of Court School of Law, and at Middle Temple library. Andy is passionate about the role of librarians as educators. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and former Training Officer for the Business Librarians Association. He also serves on the committee of the Alumni Libraries Forum. A graduate of King’s College London, Andy studied librarianship at London Metropolitan University, where he captained the University Challenge team. Twitter: @fechtbuch. LinkedIn:

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