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The digital scholar
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1.9 Interdisciplinary Twitter

Described image
Figure 7 The Twitter mixture

As an interdisciplinary tool the Twitter network has a number of advantages and associated issues.

Geographical diversity – while my network is inevitably centred on the United Kingdom and North America, it is a global community which brings together different perspectives. It is limited by language though, and the immediacy does not allow for translation, so there is a danger of English language views dominating.

Professional diversity – within the different networks a range of professions and experience can be found, which will inevitably bring a degree of interdisciplinarity. One of the benefits of Twitter has been to improve interdepartmental communication within an institution. However, while the list above shows a reasonable range of occupations, it is still largely centred on higher education. There are, for example, very few (or no) priests, builders, make-up artists or senior retail managers in my network (which is not to say they are not present on Twitter). For interdisciplinarity this may not be an issue.

Size – at the time of writing I follow about 1100 people and have approximately 3400 followers. That represents a considerable network and pool of expertise which will share a wide range of knowledge and will also respond to requests for advice on topics outside of my own domain.

Immediacy – one of the changes Twitter required in my behaviour was a shift from exhaustive reading to regular sampling. As a blog reader I tried to keep up with most posts from those I subscribed to, with subsequent guilt when the unread count on my blog reader mounted. As my Twitter network expanded this behaviour was not possible and so a shift was required, which means I ‘dip into’ Twitter, sometimes more intensively and other times I am completely absent. This is the concept of the stream; it is not meant to be consumed in its entirety but sampled on occasion. Twitterers are responding in real time, and thus it is ideal for capturing diverse reactions and interpretations before they are filtered into disciplines. There is a consequent danger though that this relentless churning of information means useful research will be missed via this route.

Interdisciplinary bridges – the ease of sharing provides a means to bridge disciplines, in particular the retweet can be viewed as a tool for bridging audiences and disciplines as a twitterer in one domain can rebroadcast to their network, which will have the types of subgroupings shown above.

An inherent set of cultural norms – the three features we saw above, as well as other practices, indicate that, as with blogs, Twitter has its own set of cultural norms, which provide the required ‘stickiness’ for communities to develop. These may be sufficient to overcome the differences in cultural norms across disciplines and provide a common framework.

Professional and personal mix – Twitter occupies an intersection between professional and personal, formal and informal, and resource and conversation. In many previous tools we have sought to separate out these elements; for instance, when we create forums for students in VLEs it is a common practice to have a separate ‘Chat’ or social forum so that this doesn't interfere with the academic discussion. However, this blend in one place in Twitter both provides motivation to partake (we don't separate out our thoughts or lives so neatly) and also provides hooks into other areas of interdisciplinarity.