University Presses and the Twitterverse

After all, to repeat a widely cited Pear Analytics study of Twitter usage, of the 650 million “tweets” posted each day (750 per second), 41% are “pointless babble”; 38% are “conversational”; 9% have “pass-along value”; 6% are “self-promotion”; 4% are “spam”; and 4% are “news.” Which is another way of saying that Twitter is amazingly like conversation in real life (but only if everyone you knew stopped talking after they’d spoken about twenty words).

Twitter is quickly gaining cultural influence, not just in terms of increases in the raw numbers of “tweets” (many people first learned of Twitter when its enthusiastic early adopters crashed the AT&T cell network at the SxSW Interactive Festival in 2007) or in its widely publicized role in breaking news events such as the 2009 Iranian election protests and Michael Jackson’s death. It is also rapidly supplanting the once pervasive RSS feeds and aggregators such as Google Reader as the preferred way for people to discover content such as new blog posts, articles posted on websites, and stories appearing in online editions of print publications. As Twitter usage has continued to soar, the past year has also seen a 71% decline in RSS feed usage and a 27% decline in hits to Google Reader. This last bit of significant information, by the way, is something I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t follow the University of Chicago Press’s Dean Blobaum (@dblobaum) on Twitter.

The reason for Twitter’s growing dominance not just as a social networking site but as a news headline service—as a way for people to manage what they read—is that its rhizomatic structure leads users not just to content or sources they know are there (the “subscription” model of RSS feeds and Google Reader) but to sources and bits of information they didn’t know exist, creating the sense of “ambient awareness” that characterizes Web 2.0 and providing, for scholarly publishers, a way of monitoring the collective thoughts of faculty, publishing professionals, scholarly communication experts, higher-education leaders, nonprofit organizations, and cultural figures. And, simultaneously, finding out quite a bit about what all those people ate for breakfast; when their kids are sick or acting-out; their taste in music and movies; and at what airport they’re currently stranded.

I just used the word “monitoring” and that is one of the primary advantages of Twitter for keeping tabs on what interesting people are hearing, thinking, reading, and writing. Unlike Facebook with its central concept of the “friend”—someone who admits you into their private space, as in a gated community— Twitter is built around the practice of “following” individual users and being “followed” by them. You could think of that term “follow” as in being a disciple; that is, you follow people on Twitter who can tell you things you want to know. Or you could think of it in a less “friendly” (that is, less “Facebooky”) way as the act of eavesdropping. It is, to me, an odd and intriguing combination of both.

Though Twitter allows users to restrict who sees their Tweets by “locking” their account, it is a rare practice and, overall, the experience of using the site is an urban one just as Facebook is resolutely suburban. On Facebook, you are among your “friends” in a private space surrounded by a “wall”; Twitter is more like an urban encounter where you see and overhear things on the street or in a crowded cafe, often exchanging greetings with others, but mostly remaining strangers. And that is probably the reason why Twitter’s demographic skews older than Facebook and why students and teenagers are less present in its user base—it is a more public, less-protected, and generally more professional than family-oriented space.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that 35.2 percent of U.S. university faculty (as well as many administrators and staff) are using Twitter. Their survey elaborated: “Twitter was most popular as a way for people to share information with colleagues and get news in real time.” As this suggests, Twitter is how many people in academia are staying informed, and these are conversations that university press publishers should want to overhear. Through Twitter’s “hashtag” search convention (by which users attending a particular event use the same search term preceded by a # symbol) one can also get live telegraphic coverage (occasionally frustratingly telegraphic coverage) of lively conference sessions and exhibit-hall buzz. And Twitter is also home to a very active cadre of booksellers and independent publishers, particularly the most tech-savvy ones, who obsessively discuss issues from e-rights and platforms to arcana such as metadata and ISBN usage, and many of whom join together in the weekly themed #followreader discussions. These, too, are conversations that university press publishers should want to hear and participate in, not to mention the useful and often humorous give-and-take that followers of the Chicago Manual of Style (@ChicagoManual) enjoy.

However, one group you won’t find to be very active on Twitter are university press publishers—other than marketing departments.  Given the isolation of university presses, dispersed across the country and with very limited travel budgets, social networks provide the potential to maintain and expand relationships and exchange knowledge year round, not just once a year at the AAUP annual meeting. Twitter, I confess, can be a distraction at the office, but it also can result in a hyper-informed staff—and that is a significant organizational edge in the digital era.

Douglas Armato is Director of the University of Minnesota Press, which tweets officially as @uminnpress.  He tweets off the record as @noctambulate.