Dear Twitter… Help!

Sad Twitter BirdI started on Twitter back in February 2007, joining the service as user number 779,452 using the name @betchaboy. At the time, I thought I was already late to the Twitter party but looking back at it now that the number of users has crossed into the billions, I guess that wasn’t the case.

In the time I’ve been part of Twitter, my use of it has grown considerably. As I write this, my Twitter account follows 3,931 people (mostly other educators with a nice mix of others thrown in just to keep in interesting), and there are 8,496 people following me. With over 11,000 tweets since I joined, Twitter has been a big part of my learning for the last 7 years.

Twitter has been an incredibly valuable tool of connection and learning, and has enabled me to be part of conversations and communities that I never would have discovered otherwise. Twitter has, quite literally, been life and career changing for me.  I’ve written quite a few blog posts about Twitter over the years, some of which have been quite widely read. You could say I’m a fan of Twitter.

So here’s the problem…

Twitter had a security breach earlier this year and numerous passwords were compromised, apparently including mine. Now, when I try to access my account on www.twitter.com, it tells me that I have to change my password.

Fair enough. Click the link and it sends me off to do a password reset using either my username, email address or mobile number. The trouble is, no matter which one I use, it doesn’t work. The username and email options are supposed to send me an email so I can reset the password, but no such email arrives (and yes, I’ve checked the spam folder).  Likewise, requesting a password reset using my mobile number is supposed to send me a text, but no text arrives.  After exhausting all these options, I get a note on the screen that says “If you still don’t receive a message in a few minutes, then unfortunately there is nothing else we can do to help you regain access to your account.”

Come onTwitter, you can’t be serious!

To make things even more bizarre, I can still tweet from that @betchaboy account from devices on which I’ve never logged out since the password problem arose, and which are set to remember my password. I can tweet from my iPad, from the Chrome web app of Tweetdeck and from Tweetbot on my Macbook, all of which I have never logged out of since the problem.  However, on new devices I can’t connect, and I can’t connect any app or service that needs to talk to the Twitter API.

I find it really odd that I can tweet from existing devices that remember my  password (presumably the old password) but that I can’t log in with any new devices. And the fact that I can’t retrieve or reset my password and that I’ve written to Twitter Support six times now, all with no response, is just beyond frustrating.

I suppose I could set up a new Twitter account and just start again, but with so much invested into my original Twitter account, I really don’t want to have to do that. My Twitter username, betchaboy, has been very much part of my online identity and digital footprint and I really don’t fancy losing it. And of course, it takes time to develop a large network on Twitter so I definitely don’t want to have to start that process over again if I can avoid it.

Twitter, please, can you help me sort this out? I don’t know why the normal reset processes are not working for me. I don’t understand why I can’t get anyone to respond to a support request made through the proper channels. I’m super frustrated by this whole thing, but I really want to get it sorted out.

If you know someone at Twitter, could you pass this post on to them?  If you have any suggestions, could you let me know. I just want to get it resolved and move on.

Mining for Meaning with ThinkUp

Judging from the blog comments and the @replies and the RTs on Twitter, it seems that my last blog post really resonated with a few people.  Apparently I’m not the only one who sees both the enormous value of Twitter as a social networking tool, and also a level of frustration with people who dismiss it too quickly for all the wrong reasons.

Here’s another tip about Twitter than can exponentially improve its usefulness. But be warned it’s a little geeky, and if you want to set it up for yourself it will require a certain level of technical know-how. But if you can work it out, it opens up lots of possibilities for Twitter power users and anyone who just loves playing with data.

The tool is called ThinkUp, and is an open source project led by Gina Trapani (who some of you might recognise as the founder of LifeHacker, and a regular guest on the TWiT network’s This Week in Google). Among other things, Gina is a web developer who’s been working on building tools to help mine the wealth of information that flows through the tweetstream.

To install ThinkUp you need access to the back end of a webserver and the ability to set up and connect PHP pages with a MySQL database. You’ll need to be able to manage the database access and FTP files onto the server, so this is probably not the sort of thing you should try unless you run your own (or a hosted) server. But if you can get it set up, it’s pretty interesting.

ThinkUp connects to your Twitter account using all the usual APIs but then tracks, monitors and archives a copy of your Twitter activity into your own database. If you take Twitter seriously as a tool, this is important because you normally have no way to permanently archive and capture your own Twitter activity. It normally resides on Twitter’s servers and is fairly ephemeral – once a Tweet is gone it’s gone, or at least it’s usually too hard to retrieve.  Finding a Tweet that you wrote, or the responses you might have received to it, can be difficult once the moment has passed. Trying to dig up a Twitter conversation from six months ago can be near impossible.

What ThinkUp does is to archive and organise your Tweets in your own database and provide you with tools to make more sense of them. One of the most useful things is to aggregate the replies to a question I may have asked on Twitter. Here’s an example… I recently sat in a meeting at school where we were talking about the challenge we were facing with kids keeping their laptops charged, and someone asked “I wonder how other schools handle this issue?”  While sitting in the meeting I Tweeted out the question and within minutes the replies started to come back in from all over the world.

The next day I had about 20 replies to the question, and while those replies were useful, the way Twitter normally works makes those replies hard to see in aggregate form – they were scattered all over the previous 24 hours of the public Tweetstream. With ThinkUp however, the replies to the original question can be brought together in one place, providing an easy to read Q&A type page with it’s own URL. Thanks to Twitter I was able to get a broad range of responses to the question, but because of ThinkUp I was able to get a clearer insight into what that response thread was actually trying to tell me. It also gave me an easy way to share that insight with my colleagues via a single URL.

From your ThinkUp homepage you can browse a range of interesting views of your Twitter data, such as…

  • The week’s most replied to posts
  • The week’s most retweeted posts
  • Graphs to show your follower count trends
  • Graphs to show where and how you tweet
  • Inquiries (a collated list of all your Tweets that contained a question mark)
  • Most replied-to Tweets
  • Most retweeted Tweets
  • Mentions (anything that contains an @ reply to you)
  • Conversations (and exchange between you an another user)
  • Chatterboxes (people you follow who post a lot)
  • Deadbeats (people you follow who hardly ever post)
  • All your favourite tweets in one place
  • Tweets that contained URLs
  • Tweets that contained pictures

and much more.

Next to each tweet are numbers to indicate how many times it has been replied to or retweeted. Clicking on the number takes you to a page listing all the details. On some pages you can even see a Google map that show the geographic locations of where each tweet originated (I’m having a bit of trouble making this bit work on mine but it’s a neat idea!) Update: It’s mostly working now!

As you can see, over time you’ll end up with an enormous amount of data in there. But because it’ all now in your own database, that YOU manage, you have full control over it. As you should… after all, it’s YOUR data. But what makes it all so much more useful is the way you can mine this data for meaning, because it’s in the mining for meaning that real insight about the data starts to emerge.

You can find my own ThinkUp page at http://chrisbetcher.com/thinkup. If you want to try ThinkUp for yourself but can’t install it on your own server, just make yourself an account on mine (by clicking the Log In link then click Register.)  I’ll leave the site registrable for a few days for anyone who wants to try it out.

 

Tiny Bursts of Learning

Despite the fact that I know many teachers who would rank Twitter as the most valuable and powerful networking tool they have access to, there are still many more who simply don’t “get” the value of Twitter. I’ve been to lots of conferences over the last few years where the enormous value of belonging to a Personal Learning Network was being touted, and Twitter is nearly always being suggested as the ideal tool for building that network. At one recent conference I asked for a show of hands for who was not yet on Twitter, and many hands went up… my response was “Why not? What are you waiting for? How many times do you need to hear people say that Twitter is the most valuable tool they have, before you actually try it for yourself?”

I spoke to a group of preservice teachers recently who were basically told by their lecturers that they needed to join Twitter. Despite the fact that it was being promoted to them as a powerful way to learn and network with others, most of them seemed to join up simply because it was part of their assessment requirement.  Because they joined Twitter “under duress”, I don’t expect them to actually buy into it, use it well, or continue to use it past the mandated requirement to use it.  And that’s a bit of a shame.

In contrast to all this is the general sentiment among many teachers that “we need more PD!”, or the always-amusing “How can they expect us to learn new things if all we get is a few PD days a year?”

If you still believe that professional development is what happens on those two or three days each year when you sit in a classroom and have some expert “deliver” it to you, I have bad news. That model is no longer sustainable and the days of PD as something that is done “to you” by “experts” a couple of times a year are over.

Learning needs to be ongoing. The world is changing. There are new tools that can help students learn, new ideas about learning, new brain research, new emerging technologies, new social structures, and so on… to think that you can maintain a professional outlook by attending two or three PD workshops a year is almost laughable. To keep up with new learning, you really need to be plugged in to an ongoing source of professional discourse and resource sharing. It needs to be something that happens regularly, at least several times a week. Like so many other aspects of the 21st Century, some of the “ways we’ve always done things” don’t really cut it anymore.

So how can something at simple as Twitter possibly be used to stay professionally current?

How I use my Twitter PLN to learn

I’ve been keeping an eye on my Twitter stream for the past 10 minutes or so. Using the Twitter app for Mac, it sits in a narrow vertical window on the right side of my screen and as the people I follow add their tweets they flow by in a steady stream that updates every few moments. How fast this flow happens is obviously dependent on how many people you follow… I follow about 2600 people, so it tends to be a pretty steady stream of tweets, but yours might be more or less. Occasionally I glance at this “stream of (networked) consciousness” and spot little gems that look interesting.

For example in the last ten minutes I’ve spotted the following things…

…to name but a few.

In the same 10 minutes worth of tweets, I also responded to a couple of questions from other people that I felt I could help them with, saw a funny story about Moodle, watched an amusing exchange between some people I know, and ended up getting invited into an Elluminate session about developing Moodle courseware.

Just ten minutes. Even just skimming through that list of things would give me more relevant PD than most teachers get exposed to in a whole year. And those of us who use Twitter in this way are able to tap this stream of information any time we like.

(I hope you also noticed that I still don’t know what Ashton Kutcher had for lunch, or what crazy antics Charlie Sheen is up to. I don’t care about that stuff, so I don’t follow those people, so I don’t see those tweets. Twitter works because you get to make choices about who is part of your network.  You create relevance for yourself.)

Now, before you assume that I spend my whole day getting sidetracked by Twitter, let me assure you that’s not the case.  I’m telling you about this 10 minute slice of time to make the point that Twitter, when you build a network of relevant people, is an amazingly rich sources of ideas, inspiration and connections.

I don’t read every tweet. I don’t follow every link. I let most of the tweetstream just flow by me, only dipping into it if I get a moment. If I spot something interesting I hit the star to favorite it and come back to it later. If anything really good turns up in the stream and I miss it, it gets retweeted over and over so the chance of me seeing it is still pretty good.  But mostly it’s just there, flowing by, ready for me to dip into it and pull out a few gems whenever i have a moment. Do that every day and pretty soon you have a substantial body of PD building up.

I understand why people find it hard to get their head around Twitter.  I understand why people are still skeptical when they hear others say things like “Twitter is the best PD you can get!”  It sounds like complete hyperbole… How on earth can a random collection of short messages from strangers possibly compete with professionally organised training and PD sessions?

It competes because it’s more relevant, more timely, ongoing, interactive, daily and personal. Traditional PD just can’t offer all that.

If you’re one of those people who resist Twitter because it just doesn’t seem logical, please just suspend your doubt and give it a go. Don’t just join and do nothing; give it a proper go. Follow a bunch of relevant people – at least 50 or 60 – get a decent Twitter client, and open yourself to the possibilities of what a network offers. You won’t regret it.

Big Twitter, Little Twitter

This video just went live today from New Zealand’s wonderful EdTalks collection.  I’d forgotten all about it, but it was recorded back in October at the ULearn conference in New Zealand.  It’s kind of weird looking back at things you said many months ago and had forgotten you’d even said.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s a few thoughts about the use of Twitter for ongoing professional development, and some musings about how kids might use it (or something like it) to develop good digital citizenship skills.

Using Twitter to develop a PLN

Another article written for Education Technology Australia. Probably not much new in here for regular readers of this blog, but I thought I’d post it just in case anyone found it interesting…

Of all the tools to emerge from the Web 2.0 revolution, few are as intriguing as Twitter. When Twitter first appeared in 2006 it was one of those hard to define web tools that, on the surface, sounded silly and trivial. However, in the last few years it has risen to be one of the web’s most powerful simple ideas.

At its best, Twitter is the ultimate real-time communication tool, enabling ideas to spread across the Internet with unprecedented speed and reach. As a mechanism for gaining insight into the “wisdom of the crowds” it has few equals. During the recent elections in Iran for example, Twitter proved its worth as a vehicle for people in Tehran to keep the flow of information going to the outside world, even when official news crews were being silenced and censored by the government. Thanks to Twitter, the truth still had a voice.

At its worst, Twitter can be nothing but an embarrassing parade of personal ephemera, filled with people publicly sharing the most inane and trivial aspects of their lives.

Twitter was created in 2006 as a side project by Odeo Corp, but has since evolved into one of the web’s hottest properties. Thanks to its recent “discovery” by Hollywood stars and TV personalities, Twitter has experienced a massive burst of growth and visibility. It seems that everywhere you turn these days you hear about Twitter, and yet it remains generally misunderstood by most people.

So what exactly is Twitter? Think of it as a cross between SMS, email and blogging. Usually referred to as a microblogging service, Twitter enables users to send out short 140 character messages to anyone who chooses to “follow” them. Some people have thousands of “followers” reading their updates, or “tweets”, each supposedly answering the simple question “what are you doing?” Followers have the opportunity to engage in dialog with those they follow by sending a public reply – usually called an at-reply due to the Twitter convention of prefixing their response with an @ symbol – or to reply in private with a direct message, usually called a DM. These short 140 character bursts of text between individuals are generating thousands of simultaneous conversations that anyone can take part in.

Originally the domain of the geeky elite, Twitter has expanded its reach into far more mainstream uses. Celebrities are using Twitter to build their fan base. Marketers are finding Twitter powerful for spreading the word about new products and services. Companies monitor the flow of Twitter messages to see what people are saying about them. Politicians are using Twitter to converse with their constituents. It seems that many people are finding plenty of uses for a tool that lets you quickly and simply communicate you are doing.

But what about educators? What possible uses could teachers find for a tool like Twitter? As it turns out, quite a few.

The trend in professional development for educators is towards the development of a Personal Learning Network, or PLN. PLNs utilise the principle of just-in-time learning by encouraging teachers to surround themselves with others who share similar interests or knowledge. A teacher with a well developed PLN is able to turn to her network of colleagues to share ideas, ask questions, get feedback or find an audience. Many teachers have limited opportunities to surround themselves with like-minded others, either because they work in a small school, teach a niche subject, or simply don’t have access to people who think like them. Consequently, it becomes easy for many educators to feel as though they work in a vacuum, with limited opportunities to discuss ideas or get advice from others. Attending conferences or professional development days can be really useful, but these are usually limited to a few days a year.

By using a tool like Twitter to surround themselves with a network of other educators, and then using these networks to engage in ongoing conversations about teaching and learning, any teacher can have access to the “brains trust” of a larger groups of people at any time. Twitter can play a key role in connecting people together to form these personal learning networks.

Anyone can sign up for a free Twitter account at www.twitter.com. Upon joining Twitter, they will be provided with a list of suggestions for people to follow, but these are usually a random assortment of Hollywood celebrities, companies, politicians, musicians and sports stars… not exactly the right foundation for building an education-based personal learning network! Of course, there are no real rules about who you can and can’t follow – follow whoever you want – but remember that if you want to develop a Twitter network with an education focus then you should begin by following people who are already engaged in these conversations. During the signup process, Twitter will also offer to search your email address book to see if any of the people you know are currently using the service. If it finds any, it will offer to add them to your network.

The best way to start building your network is by following someone you already know and seeing who they follow. Clicking on the grid of icons will lead you to the Twitter pages of others, where you can read their bio, their latest tweets and see who else they follow. Once you find someone that sounds interesting to you, just click the “Follow” button to add them to your network. The real value of a Twitter network does not become apparent until you add at least 40 to 50 people, so continue this process of finding people to follow until you build this critical mass. When you follow someone, they receive an email notification about it and can then decide whether they want to follow you back or not. Don’t be to concerned or offended if someone does not follow you back immediately.

The other way to quickly develop a network of people is by using a list such as that found at http://twitter4teachers.pbworks.com. This list, built using a wiki by Gina Hartman, a teacher from Missouri, contains organised lists of teachers who use Twitter to help make the process of building your network simpler. Similar lists exist at http://twitterpacks.pbworks.com, where you can search for all sorts of interesting Twitter-using communities. Another excellent list of education professionals to follow online can be found at http://c4lpt.co.uk/connexions. Take some time to explore these lists and you’ll soon find plenty of interesting, relevant people to add to your network.

Once you begin to build this network around you, you’ll find a constant stream of new ideas, new links and new tools to explore. People in your network will be sharing thoughts with each other, having conversations that you can join or simply eavesdrop on. With the right group of people in your network you will be exposed to more new ideas and suggestions each day than you would normally get in a whole year of regular PD. You will have a team of people around you that you can ask questions and get suggestions from. You can tap their collective wisdom. You can get perspective from outside your regular contacts. You can find people to collaborate with. You can find an audience for student projects. Having a global network of people surrounding you, enabled by Twitter, opens up a world of professional possibilities for your own learning and sharing. You will get a much better feel for the pulse of the web.

Unlike social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook, Twitter has not become hugely popular with school-aged users and it remains somewhat of a place for “grown-ups”. Many specialist communities have adopted Twitter for their own uses, and education is one field which seems to have truly grasped the value that the service can bring to their community. Because Twitter is driven by short, to-the-point messages, it seems to be a place where content and conversation is valued. If you find particular users talking about trivial things that don’t interest you, or “overtweeting” – tweeting so often that it simply becomes annoying – you always have the option to unfollow them. You have complete control over who you want in your network. It is a very democratic environment… if people add value they find followers.

Once you start to use it more you will probably find the Twitter website a fairly inconvenient way to use the service, so there are some excellent Twitter clients – specialised software for using Twitter in an easier, more integrated way from your computer or mobile phone. There are many to choose from, but TweetDeck, Twhirl, Tweetie and Nambu are very popular. There are also plenty of Twitter clients tools that run on mobile phones – mobile versions of TweetDeck and Nambu for the iPhone, or Gravity for Nokia phones, enabling you to tweet from wherever you are.

If you haven’t tried it yet, give Twitter a go. Try using it to build a personal learning network of people you find interesting. You might be pleasantly surprised as just how powerful this simple idea can be.

Evil Twitter image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/dorsner/ CC BY-SA-NC

Finding the Needle in the Twitter Haystack

With millions of Twitter messages floating through the Twittersphere each day, you can use the search tool at  http://search.twitter.com to find references to ANY word that gets uttered there.

So a search for the word “dog” will find every tweet that contains the word dog, and so on.  You can even search for your own twittername and see any time your name is referenced online.  Many companies now use this search feature to find out whenever anyone mentions their products or services on Twitter.

The search tool for Twitter is really quite powerful, and can also be used to generate RSS feeds that can then be embedded into other pages and services.  There is some awesome potential there.

However, Twitter’s ability to search for words being mentioned out there becomes less useful when you search for a really common word, since the search results will invariably turn up lots of stuff you probably don’t want.

When you’re attending a conference for example, you could find every mention that people make about the event by searching for the conference name.  However, it wouldn’t be all that helpful just to do a search on the term “conference” since it would catch all the other possible mentions of the word “conference” from a bunch of other conferences you don’t want. Using the full name of the conference would probably work, but because Twitter limits you to only 140 characters, it would be silly to devote so many of them to including the conference name… there would be little room left for the actual message!

To get around this problem, Twitter users came up with the idea of using a hashtag.. by adding a # in front of a search term. it’s a way to trick Twitter Search into avoiding any results that might contain the keyword but don’t have the hash in front of them.

For conferences, there will generally be a designated hashtag containing a # symbol and an abbreviation for the event. People attending and Twittering from the event can include this short code at the end of each tweet, and then a search (and also an RSS feed) can be created to grab a feed of all the tweets that contain the hashtag, regardless of who they come from. This let’s people follow the conference Tweets in a single stream.

What if the conference has an unusual name already?  A search for a conference abbreviated to “educonf” would probably find most of the references to it fairly easily, since educonf is a kind of “made up” word already.  In this case, a search for the generic term “educonf” or the properly hashtagged “#educonf” would probably turn up pretty much the exact same results.

The real need for the hashtag arises when you have search terms based on regular English words that are ambiguous to the search.  The added # to the front of them makes them unique and helps them stand out from the generic non-hashed word and stops the generic words from getting caught up in the hashtagged feed.  It also carries the added bonus that many 3rd party Twitter clients such as Tweetdeck, Tweetie or Nambu can identify the hashtags and use them to create saved searches, making it much easier to follow the stream based on that tag.

Interestingly, the search feature was never a part of Twitter’s original functionality.  Twitter search was done with a third-party tool created by a company called Summize, but the huge potential (and possibilities for future monetization of Twitter) became immediately obvious and Summize was acquired by Twitter for about $15M almost a year ago.  Now the built-in search functionality is a key part of the Twitter experience, and hashtags play an important role in making that experience even more powerful.

CC Image: ‘Haystack Owl
www.flickr.com/photos/14829735@N00/360683898

The Twouble with Twitter

Sorry Twitter… I really like you and all, but this little video has quite a bit of truth to it. Funny too!

Did I mention that someone I know sends out tweets, on average, including sleep time, every 8 – 10 minutes? Needless to say, I don’t actually follow them.