It’s no surprise that Facebook accounts make up 78 percent of total social networking usage online, according to marketing firm Social Twist — but what about Twitter? An update of 140 characters or less may seem like an unlikely news source, but more and more companies and organizations, including media outlets, are jumping to add Twitter to their methods of reaching the masses.
MIT organizations are no exception. According to a list from the MIT News Office, at least 75 MIT groups tweet to supplement information released to students and MIT affiliates through word-of-mouth and e-mail. If there are so many tweets from all these organizations, what’s in them and why should students care?
The MIT organizations that tweet tend to use the tool as a form of outreach and advertising. For instance, the News Office tweets many of its top stories as well as updates on newsworthy events. Twitter is particularly useful in ensuring that word of “more obscure events” gets out, said Patrick E. Gillooly, who tweets for the MIT News Office.
Remlee S. Green, a tweeter for the MIT Libraries, said that tweets are rarely made every day, to avoid overwhelming followers. “I like to keep tweets short and sweet, and limited to things people wouldn’t know about and could possibly find helpful,” Green said. Several departments tweet in a similar fashion, posting 3–5 quality tweets per week.
These meaningful tweets are appreciated by students who follow the Twitter feeds. “I have actually found it interesting to see how professors are making impacts with their research,” said Allison P. Anderson G on following the tweets of her department, Aeronautics and Astronautics. Still, she added that Twitter was not one of her primary sources of information.
But have the numerous tweets and other social networking initiatives by MIT organizations — including numerous Facebook profiles — been reaching the student body as a whole?
Not necessarily. Searching the list of people following these tweets does not yield an overwhelming number of MIT students followers — to the magnitude of less than 10 in the first 100 or so names listed as followers. In a small December survey of 20 MIT students in the Student Center, only three of them reported having Twitter account. Several others — including Anderson — were found following MIT feeds on Twitter and were contacted through the website. Even among these users, questions concerning the usefulness of the tweets yielded mixed reviews.
“I haven’t found following my own department (Mechanical Engineering) to be very useful. Many of their tweets include information that I would already get from e-mails anyway,” Victoria N. Hammett ’12, contacted through Twitter, said.
“I do, however, get a lot out of following organizations such as MIT News and the Media Lab. These organizations frequently post interesting articles that I enjoy reading,” she noted.
A common reason students cited for not having a Twitter account was that they did not see the need to make an account when they had already had a Facebook profile. Green said that the MIT Libraries had attempted to make a Facebook profile in the past, but it did not catch on nearly as well as the Libraries’ Twitter feed.
“It’s a challenge to find the right niche for the best form of communication to reach certain people,” Green said.
In a way, it seems that this challenge has been met. Although all but five of the students sampled did not know that these numerous MIT-related Twitter accounts existed, the vast majority of them acknowledged the potential benefits of following the tweets.
But if tweets are not reaching many students, why tweet in the first place? In the case of MIT organizations, the main motivation for maintaining a Twitter account is usually to strengthen outreach to interested users while diversifying the methods of communication between organizations and the rest of the world, not just the MIT community.
Josie Patterson, one of several who tweets for the MIT Museum, stated that the Museum tweets in order to aid in “building a community of interested people supporting science and engineering education,” as well as in “positioning and branding the Museum as an interesting place to visit and connect with.”
None of the major MIT organizations that tweet, such as the News Office and the Libraries, specifically mentioned reaching out to the students because they are currently tweeting to a different crowd. Gillooly even says that the tweets are “not necessarily targeted toward students.” Still, he welcomes the opportunity for feedback from students as to what they want to get out of the tweets so that student use may increase in the future.
“I’d love for students to pick [Twitter] up,” he said.
The vast majority of the tweets posted by any organization get re-tweeted, according to Gillooly and many of the surveyed students. Still, some of these accounts, such as the News Office and the Libraries, have been established for as long as two years, and many students remain unaware that these accounts even exist, much less follow them. But those organizations running Twitter accounts felt that the accounts met their main objective — spreading information, whether or not it is read by the MIT community.
“We want the people that want to be reached to get the information,” Gillooly said. One of his goals was to make the tweets viral.
“I think we’re beginning to accomplish that,” he said.