Twitter Isn't a Tool

I am not a social media expert. I don't pretend to know the best way to gain 25,000 followers in a year. I cringe at the term "branding," at least with regards to teaching, learning and the identity of educators. 

I am not a brand.

I'm surprised, then, when people ask me how to "leverage" Twitter for marketing. I've had people ask me how to create a viral hashtag. (I have no idea. It's only happened to me once or twice.) I've had organizations inquire about the best ways to maximize Twitter for professional development.

My thought is this: If you want to know how to use social media, you're asking the wrong question.  Too a large extent, Twitter isn't a commodity. It's not something that I use. There is very little utilitarian value in it if I want to view it as a tool for learning. If you want a fast, efficient way to learn something as a teacher, go read a book or a journal article. If you want to spread your message to your local community, go hang out on front porches and meet the natural connectors. 

People speak of Twitter as if it's a tool that one wields, like a hammer or a picaxe. But what if that's the wrong metaphor entirely? What if social media is* less of a tool and more of a place? At its most basic level, a social network is just that: a network of relationships. Human relationships. Social relationships. Messy relationships with beautiful, broken people trying to grapple with life in a technotopia.

It is, despite all limitations, a community. If you go into it with a mentality of using it, you might as well ask how to use a neighborhood or a church or a bowling alley. If you want a one-way, on-point medium, go buy some radio airtime. 

So, Why Bother?

Twitter is relational, horizontal and interactive. Twitter is where I go when I want to talk to teacher friends who are also trying to do project-based learning in environments that are test-obsessed. Twitter is where I go when I want to hang out with some teachers with my same quirky sense of humor. It's also a place where people challenge my groupthink and push me to rethink my practice. 

It's hard to quantify the value of Twitter. I just hopped back on a few days ago and it feels . . . odd, like I'm the awkward guy who came back to the party after leaving to hang outside alone for awhile. I kind-of expected to write a post about being back, where I described how much better life was without Twitter. 

The truth is that I missed it. 

No, I really didn't miss "it" at all. I didn't miss hashtags and 140 character limits. But I missed the people. I missed the teachers who, despite the separation of space, have become my friends. I missed the community. 

And that's the value of Twitter. It's a really cool place to be. It's not an idea factory. It's not a global classroom. It's not a megaphone for personal advertisements. But it is a place where I can be myself and share my world and grow in the process. 

*Yes, I know that social media should be plural, but I'm speaking of it as a singular concept, so I'm thinking that it might work better this way. 

photo credit: UGArdener via photopin cc
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. John

    I somewhat agree. I often describe Twiter like a party. Hashtag = Address
    Moderators = Host
    Then you have the different typical party goers. Everything from "wallflowers" to the "life of the party".

    However I also use it as a tool. If I were to assign it a tool, I might call twitter a flashlight. It helps me see more clearly what I want to do as an educator. I also use a flashlight when I'm looking for something. I go to twitter often when I can't find a resource on my own.

    So while I see your point and I prefer to think of social media as a place, I also see it as a tool.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    1. Thanks for adding a little nuance and perspective here. Maybe it is a tool. Maybe it can be a flashlight for finding things.

  2. I had similar thoughts about Twitter earlier this year with this post:


    I often see Twitter as a cocktail party. Lots of people having quick exchanges amidst a lot of noise. But through time, relationships are formed and real learning happens.

    It's good to step away from it from time to time. You get away from the noise and get a chance to really focus on your own thoughts.

    Thanks for the post John, and thanks Brett for the previous comment.

    1. Thanks for the link, Curt. I like the cocktail party metaphor.

  3. John,
    I don't know if Twitter is a tool, a place, or a medium of learning. . .but what I do know is that I did notice that you haven't been around. . .and you were missed. . .that is what Twitter is for me. I come to depend on the relationships/network that I have here. . .something about its informality that allows many of us to just be ourselves without pretense. . .and reconnect easily after time away. . .

    1. Thanks, Jeffery. I think you nailed it that it's a place to reconnect and find our place.

  4. great comments for someone new to the twitter world. thanks for sharing.

  5. great comments for someone new to the twitter world. thanks for sharing.

  6. It has been interesting catching reflections of many others lately regarding their social media use and its role in education, etc. I started to wonder if people ever reflected about their telephone or email use in the past as much :). Regardless, the driving force does seem to be about people and community. We keep lines of communication open through various ways because of the people and relationships we want to maintain. Do we feel just as bad for not returning an @ reply as a phone call now? It still may have more to do with the connection to the person, than the tool.

    Enjoyed your thoughts, John.

  7. Dug this John. Every bit of it.

    Especially the idea that "using Twitter" is a lot like "using a Church or a bowling alley."

    That resonated.

    Thanks for reminding us that relationships are the key. Twitter just makes those relationships possible.

    I needed that.


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