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Twitter for Art, Design & Media Educators

Twitter bird

Author:  Jon Hickman
Institution: Birmingham City University

Keywords: social media, networking, twitter, learning & teaching


Twitter is easily dismissed as banal, daft, and a bit introverted but given a little time it can be a useful tool for educators. In fact, social media in general provides a great tool kit for us: from portfolios on Flickr, to professional networks on LinkedIn, these digital spaces provide us with great opportunities to showcase our work, build our reputations, and harness networks in a way that is useful to ourselves, our institutions and, most importantly, to our students.

The first thing you need to know about Twitter is that it is what you make of it: there is no such thing as the Twitter Community, and there is not a set of homogenous rules governing its use. I can make some broad generalisations about who tends to use it and how they tend to behave, but they will be just that: generalisations. I realise that introducing a discussion on how to use Twitter in higher education with this piece of advice seems self defeating, so let’s strike a quick and easy deal: I’ll tell you how I use it, discuss some case studies and point you in what I hope is the right direction. In return I only ask that you give it a try, and disregard anything I have said that doesn’t feel right for you. If you’re already using Twitter but only in your role as a private citizen, I hope I can show you that it has something to offer your professional life too.

How useful is Twitter? Let me count the ways.

Twitter has made my work easier and more interesting in a number of ways. For me, Twitter is:
1.    A way to develop institution-industry networks
2.    A way to develop student-industry networks
3.    An informal news channel
4.    An informal research tool
5.    An interesting object of study
6.    A ‘water cooler’ space

Twitter for industry-institution networking
When I returned to HE after eight years, I needed to reconfigure my professional network to suit my new role. Having worked mainly within marketing and communications, I had a healthy book of general business contacts but my network needed to be built again from the ground up to focus on creative workers and entrepreneurs (folk who previously were my ‘competitors’). I joined Twitter with the intention of building a new network and was surprised by how easy it was to form connections across Birmingham, the UK and further afield. Firstly I had to prime my Twitter presence by following (see glossary) some carefully chosen individuals. I located these by searching Twitter and by exploring the lists of people that my contacts follow. This allowed me to find a dozen or so people who share some of my interests. I then contributed to their conversations (using what Twitter users call an “@ reply”) in the hope that they would find me interesting enough to follow. The conversational nature of Twitter is such that, as people begin to interact with you, they will mention you in their tweets and other people with similar interests will get to know about you; at this point your network grows organically. With this network in place and growing I have pretty much gone about my business, tweeting as I go. I will happily tweet about the work we are doing in the Birmingham School of Media, things I have read, things I am teaching, interesting things I hear, and, yes, what I’m eating for lunch. I also contribute to wider discussions and debates where I have something to add. So, how is this in any way helpful to my University?

Tweeting about our work means that I am disseminating information about our projects. By contributing to debates, I am engaged in a soft form of knowledge transfer, taking ideas from our reading, teaching and research and putting them into context for creative and cultural industries workers. Tweeting about lunch or what music we are listening to in the research office helps build rapport, removing some of the traditional barriers to industry-academy relations; it’s hard to accuse me of being stuck up in an ivory tower when you know what I had in my sandwich today. Twitter based discussions about work also introduce the concept of knowledge transfer and consultancy to a wider audience, opening up opportunities for valuable third stream work.

Twitter for student-industry networking
Just as I located useful contacts by examining other peoples’ Twitter profiles, anybody can see who I am following, and what I am saying to them. My students use this to good effect, tapping into my network to build their own. As one undergraduate student told me:

"Lecturers have similar interests and are well connected. A lot of my lecturers’ contacts are on Twitter so I look at who they are following and see who is interesting to me."

Twitter can also be a useful tool for promoting your students or their work directly. I often retweet my students when they share interesting thoughts or links. That prompts my network to notice them, and possibly follow their future updates. This can be taken even further if you wish, with Twitter being used as part of classroom activities. In a recent class I challenged students to generate fifty new ‘digital’ business ideas in fifty minutes. As part of the challenge their ideas had to be communicable as a tweet (for brevity and clarity). Not only did they exceed the brief, but their tweets generated feedback from a wider network of industry professionals and other students (Hickman 2010).

My enterprising students are building their own networks off the back of mine, using my contacts to find placements, paid work, and other educational opportunities. I know of students who have organised research interviews through these connections and students who have been invited to observe processes which we are unable to simulate within the university, just because they have sought out these connections via their tutors’ Twitter networks. Perhaps more importantly, I’m beginning to see these connections lead to permanent positions after graduation.

Twitter as an industry news feed
Twitter is often in the news for its role in breaking news stories. For me, its main news function is to keep up to date with news, and gossip, relevant to my interests. I know who’s being commissioned to do what work and who’s hiring and firing, which is useful in advising students as to which companies they should be tracking for research or professional development. I also receive dozens of links each day to interesting case studies, papers, blog posts and news articles. Because I have picked who I follow, these links are all relevant to my interests.

Twitter as an informal research tool
The Times Higher Education Supplement has run several stories exploring Twitter as it relates to academia (e.g. Gill,2009; Whitock 2009). I would tend to agree with the overall tone of these articles: that Twitter is a useful adjunct to existing tools and processes. However, some of the ideas THES puts forward perhaps underplay Twitter’s utility in research. There is nothing wrong with testing out an idea among one’s Twitter followers, or running a straw poll to test the usefulness or viability of a piece of work you wish to undertake. Clearly anybody who uses Twitter in this way needs to be very aware of the limitations of doing so. This is the scholarly equivalent of sketching an idea on the back of a napkin, and showing it to your friends. I’m always mindful that my Twitter community is made up of people who have the same interests and perspective as me, and I tend to receive back opinions similar to my own. This is set against the advantage of near instant feedback.

It can be particularly useful when asking attitudinal questions of a community of practice: ‘what’s the hottest thing in technology right now?’, ‘which new designers inspire you?’; these are useful barometer questions, and might help spruce up a lecture you’re giving for the nth  time. It’s also a useful tool for sourcing other bits of market based intelligence: ‘what’s the going rate for 5,000 full colour A5 prints on 280gsm silk?’, ‘what interesting new spaces should we look at to host the end of year show?’  A good Twitter network excels at providing snappy answers to short questions.

Twitter as an object of study
Twitter is of some academic interest to those studying media organisations or media audiences. It allows us to observe audience commentaries and analysis of media texts, often organised by ‘folksonomic’ (Vander Wal, 2007) tags. We can also observe relationships between the producers of cultural products and their audiences, as well as relationships between media workers who may be communicating informally within Twitter. As this information is generally shared and published in the public domain, it can be suggested that there are few ethical barriers to using Twitter as a site of fieldwork, although this is still the subject of some debate amongst web studies scholars.

Twitter as a ‘watercooler’ space
Twitter’s detractors often claim it is a mere middle-class vanity, the ‘ultimate in mini-munchie banality’ as Janet Street-Porter (2009) wrote in an Independent on Sunday editorial. However, those of us who enjoy using the service love it precisely because of the informal and sometimes surreal chat and banter that takes place on Twitter. The television and advertising industries often talk about ‘watercooler moments’: shared media moments that inform office conversations the following day. Here the watercooler becomes a metaphor for a place where social exchanges take place, and culture is shared. The hypothetical watercooler is the place we go to linger, to take a break from the task in hand, and perhaps to share a quick word before we return to work. The watercooler could in fact be any place that allows us this thinking space: the smoking room, the coffee pot, the village pump… and now Twitter. If your work process ever requires you to work from home, to find a quiet room, or perhaps to take an extended study leave to complete research, Twitter can be a valuable way to take a break. Take it from me: a two-day marking session goes much more quickly if you know you can take a five minute break and catch up with friends and colleagues on Twitter.

Summing it up – in 140 characters or less
I hope this article has inspired you to try using Twitter within your professional life. In the spirit of Twitter, I’ll sign off in a mere 140 characters:

  • Twitter is useful for teaching, pastoral care, knowledge transfer, research and development as long as you remember it's informal & have fun.

Sidebar - Glossary of Twitter terms

  • Microblog: Twitter is a ‘microblogging’ service. Microblogging is about providing short, snappy vignettes of your life. Hence Twitter is based on the question: ‘What are you doing now?’.
  • Tweet / tweeting: a tweet is a single message added to your twitter. To tweet is a verb coined to describe writing Twitter updates.
  • Follow: to follow a Twitter user is to subscribe to their tweets. Your Twitter home page will update with the latest tweets from people you are following. When you follow a user they will normally receive an email notification that they have a new follower, but some users switch this off. It is best therefore to find an appropriate opportunity to ‘@reply’ them.
  • @ replies: when you wish to directly address somebody on Twitter, use the formula ‘@+username’. Hence to say hello to me on Twitter you should write ‘@jonhickman hello!’. This is called an @ reply. The Twitter website provides a link to a page with all your @ replies: check here regularly to see who is talking to you. You do not need to be following someone to @ reply them.
  • DM: a DM is a direct message. DMs are private so they’re the equivalent of sending someone a short email. You can only DM users who are following you.
  • Hash tags: the equivalent of email subject (or ‘Re.’) fields. A hash tag indicates that your tweet is related to a common conversation thread. They always begin with the hash symbol: # (if you use an Apple computer Alt+3 gives you a hash character). #followfriday is a popular hash tag used to tell other Twitter users about interesting people you follow, e.g. ‘#followfriday @jonhickman – he taught me about hash tags’. Many academic conferences have a hash tag allowing for an online conversation around the main presentations.
  • Retweeting: forwarding on another users’ tweets so that your followers benefit from the information. Just as you would cite another academic author, you should attribute when you are retweeting. Use ‘RT @username’ when you are tweeting directly & ‘Via @username’ when you are paraphrasing
  • Twitter Clients: the default client for accessing twitter is a web browser, via However you can also access your tweets through a number of other applications. If you are managing a lot of Twitter contacts TweetDeck allows you to sort contacts into groups (this is how I manage to follow over five hundred twitter accounts). Tweetie (also know as ‘Twitter for iPhone’) is a popular iPhone and Mac client that shows threaded conversations. Every tweet is tagged with the name of the Twitter client that it was written with – ‘click this tag for more information on that client’.
  • Spam: unsolicited and unwanted tweets. Spam accounts will routinely follow your account, and often attempt to hijack hash tag based conversations. If you stay polite, un-forceful and conversationally relevant you will never be accused of producing spam.

Contact information

Jonathan Hickman
Twitter: @jonhickman
Research centre blog:

Jon Hickman is a lecturer and researcher in digital culture and new media practice. He is currently engaged on a number of knowledge transfer projects, working with businesses on social media activities. Jon is the Degree Leader, Web & New Media on Birmingham City University’s BA (Hons) Media & Communication and teaches on the MA Social Media.

Gill, J. (2009) ‘Students and tutors ready to embrace the Twitter bug’. Times Higher Education Supplement. 26 March 2009 [online] Date accessed 22/11/10.

Hickman, J. (2010) ‘Conquering The Fear Of Failure: Innovating My Teaching To Improve Students' Learning’. Retrieved 22/11/10 from

Street Porter, J. (2009) ‘Twitter ye not, for it will not change the world’. Independent on Sunday. 16 August 2009 [online] Date accessed 22/11/10

Vander Wal, T. (2007) ‘Folksonomy Coinage and Definition.’   Retrieved 07/10/10, from

Whitock, J. (2009) ‘Twitterati in the academy’. Times Higher Education Supplement. 30 April 2009 [online] Date accessed 22/11/10
Twitter image supplied by Jon Hickman