One of the most frequently mentioned activities when teachers discuss their use of Twitter is ‘connecting,’ and the purpose of connecting is in order to learn. Principally, they’re seeking connections with other people, but also in order to link between different spaces, for example between Twitter and blog posts. Some of the most important connections they’re seeking to make are with other teachers, especially those who share similar interests, passions, and are of a ‘like-mind.’
Whilst connecting with specific individuals can lead to strong and trusting relationships forming and reforming, there’s a recognition that by doing so, you’re also connecting with the whole network of other connections that person benefits from; it’s a cumulative or even exponential process. Knowing the importance of making and maintaining connections, some act as brokers in bringing together people and things they think would interest or assist one another.
…or seeing someone tweeting about some subject and you think, well you need to speak to this person; those sorts of connections I think are incredibly important and that’s not really to do with the technology, it’s just about being a nice person …
Twitter, like other social media platforms, simplifies and encourages the process of making connections through the Follow button. Each new person followed establishes a new connection and that simple act may attract a reciprocal follow and the subsequent building of a relationship. Finding people to follow can occur randomly from the tweets which appear in your timeline; if a tweet from someone you don’t currently follow appears (perhaps from a retweet by someone you do follow), you then have the option to follow them. In the browser version of Twitter, hovering over the handle of a tweet author produces a pop-up window showing their profile which once more presents the follow button. Alternately, you may actively seek out new connections by following hashtags of interest and seeing who is tweeting using those hashtags.
…we had been using hashtags from day 1 to try and connect people. So pretty much anyone that filled out the form, saying that they wanted to be the ‘person of the day,’ then we would ask them about topics that interested them and we tweet out their handle and what they said, and hashtags and try to get them connections.
Retweeting, Liking or replying to other people’s tweets briefly brings you to their attention via the notification they receive; this can sometimes serve as a nudge, and coax someone into following you. This kind of activity is not only useful in establishing connections initially, but also renews and maintains those relationships.
The international landscape across which Twitter stretches allows connections to be made beyond your school, your local area and across national borders. In addition to educators with different backgrounds and from different educational contexts, it is possible to establish links with experts outside education who may be able to inform practice and contribute to the pupils’ learning.
in my previous school, we connected to authors; we’ve tweeted people we’ve been looking at and they’ve tweeted back, so we got in contact with … an author we were reading (S F Stead) about a book and so when the children had a question about the book or why the author had written certain things, if we tweeted him, he would always tweet back and for them, that was amazing that they had this real world connection.
Having access to a much broader landscape makes it easier to connect with people who might share your professional interest, even where that is somewhat niche. Or it may be that you’re facing particular challenges not usually found in the mainstream. The ability to connect with similar others is important in reducing the sense of isolation that some educators feel, whether from their unique interests, professional role, or geographical location.
[Twitter] certainly makes me feel connected to other people who are interested in the same things as I’m interested in and … obviously there’s a lot of teachers interested in educational technology, but in any one establishment, there might not be that many. … So I think that that’s quite useful, y’know, if you’ve got a minority interest, you don’t have to be alone.
For some people it’s more about being able to tap into a more positive atmosphere perhaps than the one with which they’ve become accustomed.
Sometimes in our staff rooms we can get a bit negative and judgemental of our colleagues but it was refreshing to connect with a group of educators who had this same passion for education that I had burning inside.
The connections which are seeded in ‘Following’ practices on Twitter develop into more fruitful and meaningful relationships. Where possible, the connections are often cemented through face-to-face encounters, sometimes serendipitously as paths cross at conferences, or often intentionally arranged ‘meet-ups.’ The warmth of these exchanges and their importance in strengthening the relationship should not be underestimated.
So the face-to-face is just … it just feels magical after you’ve talked to someone for so long on Twitter and then … I mean I heard someone say, I can’t remember exactly who it was, but someone was saying this on Voxer that first when you start connecting with someone on Twitter and then you … you chat with them on a Hangout, then that’s like a different feeling, and then when you actually see them face-to-face so you can shake their hand and you know, give them a hug, then that’s … that’s a whole different ball park right there.
Where face-to-face meeting is not possible, or even if it is, playful, creative exchanges can bolster what might otherwise be rather shallow connections.
With the online world often appearing to be in a state of flux, with platforms or features coming and going, it would be surprising to find that connections made through Twitter might offer a degree of stability. When teachers move schools or take on new roles, perhaps even in different countries, their real world connections become disrupted or even severed. Their Twitter relationships on the other hand remain stable during the transition, existing as they do in a different temporo-spatial continuum.
I do find Twitter and social media and all those communities and tribes that I belong to as really quite interesting because they sort of exist outside of this temporal nature of where I work; where my contract is and so forth. They’re connections that y’know if change five jobs, I’ve still got these connections. And many of the people that I know have changed jobs several times, but it’s the connections that have remained
In addition to the benefits outlined so far, connecting with others also has its drawbacks. The time taken to create an initial connection may be minimal, but assembling then maintaining and nurturing a useful network of connections can be time-consuming. Furthermore, in surrounding oneself with like-minded individuals, it is recognised that opinions and ideas get continually bounced around in what many call an ‘echo chamber,’ limiting the exposure to fresh ideas. Similarly it becomes difficult to innovate when more radical, or even just different views find it harder to penetrate the ‘filter bubble’ generated by your ‘tribe.’
you’re seeing people connecting, but a lot of people are siloed in the people that they follow. The filter bubble of twitter … people don’t hang out with people that disagree with them all the time because you just can’t survive.
Twitter and its algorithms may also contribute to the filter bubble. As mentioned, the Follow button encourages connecting, but so too does the ‘Who to follow’ panel found on the right of the home page, which offers updated suggestions for people you might consider following. Is this panel helping bring like-minded people together or reinforcing the filter bubble? Since the recommendation algorithms are somewhat fuzzy, Twitter users remain less than clear about the factors which seek to influence their behaviour.
Connecting with others has become part of the professional practice of teachers on Twitter. It is common for people to link together connecting and learning, if not in the same breath, then definitely in the same tweet. Connecting has become almost synonymous with learning for many.
So when Fenwick (2015) observes that ‘A sociomaterial perspective tends to view all things – human and non-human, hybrids and parts, knowledge and systems – as effects of connections and activity’, connecting becomes more than merely making links, it is a constitutive activity within learning assemblage.
Through twitter, teachers can connect with like-minded peers in order to enhance and extend their repertoire. Through those connections, they also expose themselves to other perspectives and different ways of doing things, and may consequently change their views. The support and inspiration they receive, whilst being immersed in what they feel to be a more positive environment, contributes to an improved sense of well-being. Twitter’s role in this is to enable and encourage the connections, acting as as a social glue, and facilitating the regular exchanges which constitute ‘ambient intimacy’ (Reichelt, 2007) and which maintain ongoing relationships. Furthermore, since online networking also extends offline into schools and amongst colleagues, the benefits accrued online can have an impact beyond the connections made online.
Fenwick, T. (2015). Sociomateriality and Learning: a critical approach. The SAGE Handbook of Learning. London: Sage Publications, 83-93.
Reichelt, L. (2007). Ambient Intimacy. Disambiguity. Retrieved from http://www.disambiguity.com/ambientintimacy/