It began – as some good, and many bad ideas do – over dinner with a couple of friends in 2011, one a national policy-maker (@johndunford), one a leadership development consultant (@LshipMatters). They persuaded me to sign up to Twitter, and, five years on, I have accumulated over 10,000 followers.
Twitter is equally seductive and maddening. There is always another tweet to check, and I’ve reached the conclusion that some people seem to spend all day locked to their smartphones twittering.
It is always frustrating: if you are an academic, communicating anything in 140 characters is a real challenge, and the danger is that you say things you don’t quite mean – even if you manage to avoid the elephant trap of typing errors, spotting, yes, just a split second too late that you have missed out a crucial letter. Some words are best avoided altogether, given the potential for a single letter slip to lead you into embarrassment.
And yet: I stay there. Partly, my Twitter presence is an aspect of institutional marketing and communications: I will always tweet, retweet or celebrate institutional achievements, and I take every opportunity to project the University. My handle is @Hallam_VC after all.
Secondly, I do find things out on Twitter – I pick up links to reports and papers I would not otherwise come across. My routine is to quickly save things to an Evernote archive, which I have lightly indexed around a series of tags to help me find things later, and I will read them on trains or early in the morning.
This is perhaps the most useful aspect of Twitter – access to things I would not typically or routinely come across.
And I do engage in debate – although less so than I used to. I don’t like to see ideas which are ill-informed or misdirected go unchallenged. But this is, really, a mug’s game: I’ve learnt from Twitter that any idea, no matter how sensible and evidentially grounded, will attract the snorting derision of someone – and you can be pretty rude in 140 characters (you can be very rude in about eight characters, actually).
I’ve learnt that no-one really believes that your opinions are your own – they are always traceable back to your role or your job, and I take ever more care about what I say. No Twitter argument is ever really settled, though some tweeters seem determined to simply grind their opponents into submission. I utterly despise the overt bullying, aggression and unpleasantness which it has legitimated amongst too many individuals and groups.
Twitter has its uses, but it is a dreadful time waster and an excuse for lazy or slovenly thinking; and I write that, and then I’ll find a link to a report which forces me to think hard about something I thought I knew well, and I will be engaged again.
My advice? Like any tool, make it work for you, and don’t let it use you. And don’t get hooked.
Professor Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor