Is professional discourse possible on Twitter?

Recent “conversations” on Twitter have left me excited, annoyed, frustrated, and thrilled. Very much like any other conversation but there have been some fundamental differences in the nature of the Twitter experiences that inspired me to dust off my blog template.

I adore discourse. Fortunately, I married an amateur elocutionist so I get plenty of practice. Theresa and I started this blog so we could engage with others around what we’re reading or wondering about. My motto (after “The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth”, and Wil Wheaton’s philosophy) is “Seek first to understand then to be understood”. I truly do want to understand different perspectives. There is no benefit to walking around ignorant or wrong so I want to engage with people with different perspectives. It’s not their job to convince me I’m wrong, but my job to seek them out and investigate if I am. Within reason, of course. I’m not actively looking for members of the Flat-Earth Society.

Twitter has opened a whole new world of resources. I have four perma-search columns in Tweetdeck and am constantly tagging new sites and resources as a result of the awesome people I follow. In the past few weeks I’ve been purposefully engaging with other educators who have explicitly stated an opinion I disagree or struggle with and many times, find myself more frustrated than ever before. Almost without fail, the frustration comes from the nature of Twitter itself and not the conversation. If we focus on those moments when educators are directly engaging with each other around challenging issues or topics, there may be cause for some concern.

Which leads me back to my guiding question: Is professional discourse possible on Twitter? A few points of evidence for what might be getting in the way.
140 characters is very limiting. When trying to assert your point of view, one of the first things to go are “unnecessary words” such as please, thank you, I was wondering, tell me more, I agree but am curious about…those words that let the other person know you’re not attacking. As a result, a tweet that we mean as curious and inquisitive may come off as brusque and rude. Some educators solve this by referring to blog postings they’ve done on the subject and others disemvowel themselves or truncate their words to a point where it’s hard to interpret their message.

Twitter moves quickly. Even though there are resources for tracking connected Tweets, it’s my sense that most users are doing other things while Tweeting. As a result, someone posts a Tweet with a provocative question, not knowing their partner had to head back to teach, and wonders if they’re being ignored, their question was too forward, or their partner has gotten bored with them. By the time you return and see that question, four hours has passed and whatever point you wanted to make may have slipped away.

We’re talking about big issues. As a result of working with Adam Fletcher, I still feel a tickle when I talk about student engagement without students. I feel that same tickle when we try and tackle big issues on Twitter. When we have an #edchat where most of the Tweeters are on the same page, there is the potential for it turning into an echo chamber. This by itself isn’t a bad thing but I fear it may lead to atrophy of our discourse muscles. On the other hand, trying to talk about this big beautiful thing called learning in snippets seems to border on disrespectful.

It’s very possible that the problem lies entirely with me. I point to the length of this post as one example of how I struggle with character limits. A friend and colleague of mine has done a great deal of work around discourse and presents the following types and it’s interesting to think about what type(s) are possible on Twitter:

Conversation: Talk where the participants take turns talking and listening but little movement occurs. The talk is congenial. (Mark Lipman) Carefree and effortless discourse. (James Dillon)

Dialogue: (Talk where) “members help one another reconsider, reevaluate, and reassemble bits of information they already have, integrating them into a new, more inclusive whole.” … Dialogue encourages mutual respect and insights that lead to new solutions. (Peter Winchell)

Discussion: Alternately serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique. The purposes of a discussion are fourfold: 1) to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration, 2) to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique, 3) to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and 4) to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world. (Brookfield and Preskill, p. 7)

Debate: Participants argue opposing sides of a question with emphasis on winning based on reasoned argument. The winner is usually determined by a judge.
Clearly, I am not advocating for limiting Twitter to just sharing resources but a part of me wishes we had a version of “let’s take this outside”. But with slightly less violence. Should we as educators develop an approach that allows us to start a conversation on Twitter and move it elsewhere? What are your thoughts?


Ms. President said...

I think that twitter "conferences" are great for brainstorming, for crowdsourcing. Personally, I need to step back and reflect and synthesize all the great ideas and information after a twitter event like edchat. I think it is sometimes appropriate to continue the conversation off twitter. Some people try to do that on their blogs or on a ning. I think that the discussion grows through the incentive of a single person or a small group of people.

Mr. Rogers said...

Excellent and timely observations. These issues with Twitter are magnified during a hashtag conversation like #edchat which gets more and more participants every week. The only thing I have found to be helpful is to always follow up with the people I converse with and try to develop a relationship so that misunderstandings are less likely. You are totally right in asserting the value of blogs by the way.

Jennifer said...

Thanks Mr. Rogers and Ms. President for the comments - I think your comments highlight the connections between the various Web 2.0 tools and the need to see the big picture, rather than the individual tools.

Chris said...

No, it's not just with you. You articulate some very good points here that I believe many share, but as you say, the as a piece of the big picture, Twitter is a useful tool in conjunction with the many others available. I know Twitter has opened many professional doors I did not even existed 18 months ago, and it has led me to professional discussions and growth opportunities, but it is certainly cannot be the only venue we use for professional discourse.

I appreciate your bringing this to light.

Mrs. Tenkely said...

I get hung up with the very same thing on Twitter. Twitter is a great place to start discourse but isn't very practical for actually engaging in discourse. It is easy to be miss understood in 140 characters or less. It is hard to visit EVERY blog post that gets tweeted on any given subject. Google Wave has fallen off the radar, but I wonder if it wouldn't be a good place for the actual discourse to take place?

Angela said...

When I hop on Twitter, it's kinda like that moment when I pull in the driveway at the end of a busy work day. My neighbors are on their porches, sharing coffee and trading tales of the day. Some might have a resource to share, others might make reference to something they read or saw on the news. I jump into the mix and take the time to nurture my friendships with people. Sometimes,they could use a bit of help with something, and I give it. Sometimes, I need a bit of help, and they reciprocate. Mostly, I get to know who is in my neighborhood, and this is a good thing.

There are times when we need to be active listeners, though. Some conversations require our undivided attention. The topics are much more important.Sometimes, I need to go into the house, pull up a chair, and have a real conversation with a neighbor or two that isn't subject to interruption or compromised by other distractions.

I don't know that Twitter can provide this sort of space for anyone. Fortunately, there are a good number of incredible people there who understand the limitations of Twitter and who engage me elsewhere when needed. So much so that I tend to spend more time in those other spaces now. I value Twitter for the network it introduces me to and the resources they share, but I agree with you--it's just one tool. Perhaps when we leverage it in ways that aren't ideal, it's possible that we do more harm than good. Dunno.

eduguy101 said...

Jen, I so enjoy the conversations on Twitter and do get a bit anxious as the speed stops me from being able to digest everything that comes in at light speed.

I do think the 140 characters is limiting as well.

Last year, about this time, @edshepard, myself and a group of others from Twitter started a book club. We used multiple venues, including a google doc, and a couple other resources I can no longer remember.

It was great to move to a different form of online discourse that allowed for more lengthy and in depth "talk".

All in all I say finding a way or place to get into detail is a good thing, at times.

If this were a Twitter response I would need to say something like.

"I enjoy twitter, need process time, and ability to go deeper"

Theresa G said...

I think it really does come back to why use the tool?

I am curently sitting in a GoogleWave session and could really see how this could meet some of the concerns you raised - but it is still clunky.

Plus we are weighted by the baggage of using other tools - like Twitter - in that we want the new tools to be like them as well.

One thing I think we have not done a great job with is setting norms for what online collaboration and discourse looks like. You mention not being able to use some of our key words - but maybe we need to create those in Twitter-speak!

Ms. Gibson said...

Yes, it's possible. The very fact that we are limited to just 140 characters is helpful because some people can get a bit wordy.
I think when we use twitter, it's also good to use blogs and FB when we need to discuss things in greater detail.
Thanks for your post.

Stephen said...

Let's be honest here. Many times "discussion" turns into folks wanting to hear themselves tweet and looking for affirmation. At other times, when affirmation is elusive, things can quickly get ugly, disrespectful, or even come to an abrupt end in efforts to cut one's losses and hide... or de-escalate a volatile situation. Much of what is problematic here comes from the lack of face2face contact and all of the advantages hinge on that (interpreting body language, sarcasm, innuendo, emotion, and other such cues...).

I think as we come to understand its limitations and it's real benefits, we all need to make good decisions in terms of how we want to spend our precious time there. For example, it may be energizing to participate in something like edchat, but one must honestly ask if he/she is benefitting from the time spent there - whether that be from helping others, or from being challenged. Or, if one's goal is merely to be social and participate, then that just may be the ticket. There may also be very real limitations for many in terms of "getting honest" in public spaces.

So, I guess your follow-up comment, Angela, resonates with me most. Let's not be fooled by what our virtual spaces can and cannot do or facilitate. Understand their strengths as well as their limitations. Of course, when they are new, it takes some time to figure all of this out. But, we have so many choices in terms of thinking/working/discussing spaces today and need to be able to choose wisely in terms of how we invest our time and nurture [our] growth.

MikeFisher821 said...

I think that there was a time when I would have said that yes, discourse on Twitter is possible, but I think that response would have been informed primarily by the way that I "think" I use Twitter and not representative of what is actually happening. I know that sounds cryptic, but bear with me.

When we engage in a conversation on twitter, there is an automatic response to the valuation of comments--and that response is rarely a clarified one that is free of emotion. What ends up happening is that the conversation becomes one of either shared opinions or shared differences, but without the exploration component. We share on Twitter, we converse, we agree, we disagree--but there's not much "WHY" behind it.

For it to be what I would consider discourse--or a conversation in which I learn or grow--I think it has to be in a different medium, primarily because 140 characters is way too limiting.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy Twitter, or depend on it as a repository of great resources, but the conversations I have on it, even if they are synchronous in nature and last a while, are rarely anywhere near what I would consider academic in nature. Though they have, on occasion, inspired academic thoughts and ideas that I could explore further outside of twitter.