“Drinking beers with logicians: One argument on the axiom of choice, another on whether zero exists.”
– @fortnow Tweet, 9:04 PM Feb 19th
Northwestern computer science professor Lance Fortnow posts to Twitter regularly. His @fortnow account updates over 500 followers about his whereabouts, research and beer drinking habits.
“I use twitter for academic stuff, not really for personal or social connections,” Fortnow said. “Anyone can read my twitter so I stick to academic, computer science stuff.”
Fortnow may be one of the few (but rapidly growing), members of the entire Northwestern community to actually use the Post It Note-length blogging site. Last July, the Nielsen Company released a study complete with a simple graph: “Teens Don’t Tweet.” The world — or old people who just didn’t know any better — panicked. In February 2010, Google Ad Planner determined that the average Twitter user is 37. Suddenly, the hip new social media device wasn’t dominated by the young.
“My followers are similar to the Nielsen rating with a mix of students, grad students and older academics,” Fortnow said. “A lot of the students who follow me tend to be in their mid 20s or older. Few children would be interested in my stuff.”
Only a year ago, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a report on online social networking, citing college-aged adults as the driving force behind rapidly growing sites like Twitter. According to this February 2009 study, Twitter was “most avidly embraced by young adults.”
So where did mainstream media go wrong? In the past decade since social networking exploded and crash-landed onto college campuses, workplaces and rural Indonesia, teens and young adults have trumpeted new forms of online communication. Older people not used to this whole “double-u, double-u, double-u” thing, including major media outlets, have learned to automatically look to us for guidance. When Twitter first entered our vocabulary, they just assumed that younger people pioneered it, like everything else. We suddenly got the credit, good or bad, for something many of us knew nothing about.
“The average college student who’s not looking to promote themselves is not using Twitter,” says Medill freshman Alex Rudansky. “Unless you have something to market, like a brand, or some kind of content that you produce, there’s really no other practical use for it.”
Rudansky has had Twitter for over a year but has never posted a tweet. She originally signed up to promote articles she wrote, but never ended up using it.
Fortnow doesn’t use Twitter to follow friends but to gather information and stay up to date with his colleagues’ research. “I don’t follow my students because they don’t tend to be on twitter as much,” he said. “I follow professors, companies such as Google, organizations I deal with, fellow academics.”
For students, micro-blogging just doesn’t seem to have an appeal. Stripped of the ability to post multiple pictures, favorite quotes and become a fan of “I hate when you’re trying to make a speech and Kanye interrupts you” and 247 other pages, many of us don’t know what to do with just 140 characters.
“I don’t really see the point,” said McCormick sophomore Adam Evans. “I have a Facebook. If I really want to let people know what I’m doing I’ll just put it as my status.”
College kids and older adults alike have embraced Facebook’s status updates as a component to the site’s experience as a whole.
“As there is with any social media, there’s a level of vanity,” Medill senior Elaine Williams said. “You want to look good to everyone who’s going to see this.”
Williams has been on Twitter since her sophomore year of college. Back when it was just she and her friends, Twitter was a quick, easy way to keep in touch with “followers” with whom she had relationships with offline. Now, as a journalism major, her main reason for being on Twitter is to follow news outlets like the New York Times and Romanesko to instantly know what’s going on in the world and to keep abreast of current events.
“They always tell me what sales they have and what sort of samples they’re having this week,” Williams said. “Apparently today they had challah bread.”
Used to its full potential, Twitter is a powerful resource for immediate diffusion of news and information. A 140-character cap guarantees brevity for the reader’s sake and automatic readership for the person or organization tweeting. But without the support of our generation, it’s all for naught.