To tweet or not to tweet? An RSW activist’s guide to twitter

Several colleagues with an interest in the work of the RSW collective have asked how they can use digital media to support and contribute to our work.  This post offers a basic introduction to one social media tool:  twitter.  It explains the basics of tweeting, provides links to additional information, and offers you a nice wee digital activist project for the long weekend. Future posts will explore the value of digital activism more broadly, and discuss engagement with other digital media tools.

What is twitter?

Twitter is often referred to as a microblogging service. Like a blog it allows users to publish messages to the open internet, and to follow and track the messages of others. Unlike a blog it limits contributions to a mere 140 characters.  Surely you can’t say much in 140 characters? Possibly not, but the broad acceptance of short messages used in text messaging probably accounts for the popularity of twitter (that last sentence was 126 characters by the way). Let’s face it, most people don’t have time to commit to regular blogging, but armed with a twitter account and any digital device (smartphone, tablet or PC) they can fire off a short message that has the potential to reach hundreds of followers. The message can be accompanied by a web link (with additional information) and can include an image or video captured with a smartphone.  If the message captures the attention of other people and they retweet it, it has the potential to reach the eyes of thousands of people.

Why use twitter?

This is all very well but why would you want to do so?  Isn’t this just another time wasting tool for the “me” generation to self-obsess? It would be easy to dip your toes into the twitterverse and come away feeling that it offers nothing but a continuous 24/7 stream of utterly, mindless and banal trivia. If trivia is what you are looking for, you can find spade loads of it on twitter. And yet, on twitter, as in life, what you pay attention to is what you get. If you want to, you can follow the accounts of your favourite celebrities, or share your views with countless others on the latest episode of #Eastenders (spoiler alert!). But, if you choose the people you follow carefully, and monitor hashtags selectively, your twitter account can act as a current awareness newsfeed, a way of staying up to date with the latest research, breaking news, and the views of key individuals and organisations, including many social work researchers, research organisations and NGOs.  In previous blog posts I have discussed how social workers can use social media for professional development. I have also posted on why social work educators and social work organisations ought to pay attention to social media. In this post I will explore twitter in more depth, reflecting on its role as a tool for digital activism.

Along with Facebook and YouTube, twitter is one of the key campaigning tools for digital activists. People who use twitter (sometimes called tweeps) use it to inform, agitate and organise. During significant local or world events, twitter becomes something akin to a democracy wall, allowing everyday citizens and others to relay to the wider world what is happening on their streets, and in their communities. For example, during the civil unrest that followed the police shooting of an unarmed African American in Ferguson, USA, twitter was alive with tweets from the streets. Some were from professional journalists offering first-hand evidence of the protests, like the tweet below from the award-winning CNN journalist Sara Sidner.


But many, many, many more were from ordinary citizens like the tweet below from an African American youth.


Twitter can and is being used to promote social justice, empower the powerless, and challenge governments and government agencies.  It’s not a tool to be used instead of the more traditional forms of face-to-face, collective organisation; but harnessed with traditional activist tools it can be a powerful adjunct to mobilise people, share experiences, build community and speak truth to power.

The language of twitter

I’ve already mentioned followers and hashtags so let’s get some of the other jargon of twitter out of the way. In the tweet below, from the RSW collective twitter feed, you can see (on the top line) our profile picture, and twitter account name (RSW Collective) followed by our twitter @username (@RSWcollective) and the date the tweet was posted.  The @username is important because if you include a @username in a twitter message then the person mentioned is notified. So, the tweet below starts on the second line and mentions that @BeddoeE (Liz Beddoe’s @username) has posted a blog post.

RSWtweetThe tweet gives the title of the blog post and ends with a link to the blog post. The good news is that the link is not included in the 140 character limit. A link to a blog post is an excellent way of adding value to your tweet and informing your followers about this item of interest.  Note also that the tweet above includes a twitter hashtag in the form of #CYFreview. Hashtags are simply ways of tagging messages that are related in some way so that users can search and find related messages, or set up a system to monitor all items tagged in the same way. Try searching twitter using the hashtag #CYFreview, or well known hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter, or #JeSuisCharlie, or (the more random) #justsaying.

So, in the short message above, in under 140 characters, we managed to alert @BeddoeE that we were posting a message about her blog post (important because she has a lot of followers and might retweet the message), we informed our followers what the message was about, we included a #hashtag so that people interested in the topic of the #CYFreview can find this message, and we added a link to a web page with a lot more detail. For a further analysis on the anatomy of a tweet see this link on the twitter website.

The point of twitter, from a digital activist perspective, is to participate with a community of people in sharing information, coordinating action, staying up to date with developments, and shouting out your views on key issues. Whenever you post a tweet all of your followers can access your tweets, as can anyone monitoring the #hashtags you use. A twitter user who likes your tweet may choose to reply sending a message to you directly, or they may favourite the tweet (the equivalent of a Facebook ‘like’ and used to let someone know that you like what they are saying) or they may retweet it. Messages that are retweeted are posted to all of the people following the user who retweets. So, even if your message is retweeted only a few times, each retweet can reach many hundreds of other users.

Staying safe

The one important thing to remember about twitter is that it is an open, public stream of information. Unlike Facebook you can’t lock down or keep private what you’re saying to a particular group of friends or followers. It is like walking into a busy street and shouting out a point of view. Although, unlike shouting out in the street, your tweet can be captured exactly as posted and circulate amongst thousands of people anywhere in the world. What you tweet is open to, potentially, thousands of other people. That is the point. So you need to be careful what you say. If you have concerns about expressing your point of view in public, then you could consider using an anonymous twitter @username and avoid putting identifying information online. One UK social worker has been tweeting anonymously for several years and has thousands of followers on twitter. If you are happy to identify where you work, and many people are, it’s important to indicate that the views you express on twitter are your own and not those of your employer. Some people even add that a retweeted message does not imply an endorsement of its content.

Deciding to use twitter anonymously won’t protect you if you break the law by slandering or threatening others. Even when you stay within the law it’s possible that your point of view may attract unwanted attention. There have been several examples of individuals making unguarded remarks on twitter that have had disastrous consequences for their lives and careers. There are other instances where twitter users have been harassed or bullied online. In these cases it’s important to know what you can do about twitter abuse. These situations are the exception, but you need to be aware of the risks.

A weekend project

In spite of the problems associated with incautious use of twitter, we believe that twitter can be an invaluable tool for the social work community in Aotearoa New Zealand. With a critical mass of users we can use it to educate, agitate and organise. We encourage you to experiment this weekend by:

  1. setting up a twitter account
  2. following the RSW collective and some other NZ social workers on twitter.
  3. try retweeting a few tweets you like the look of.

Use the twitter beginners guide to get you started, and if you want to ask a question or make a comment about this post, use the comments box below. See you in the twitterverse


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