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Tweet Up? Examining Twitter's Impact on Social Capital and Digital Citizenship in Higher Education
Article first published online: 12 FEB 2014
© 2014 by American College Personnel Association and Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company
Volume 18, Issue 6, pages 10–17, January/February 2014
How to Cite
Acosta, D. M. (2014), Tweet Up? Examining Twitter's Impact on Social Capital and Digital Citizenship in Higher Education. About Campus, 18: 10–17. doi: 10.1002/abc.21139
- Issue published online: 12 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 12 FEB 2014
Twitter is a highly accessible communication venue that is embraced by great numbers of traditionally aged and ethnically diverse college students. Danielle Morgan Acosta challenges us to turn our research and teaching attention to the potential of Twitter to support student learning.
I know. Not another article about Twitter. Believe me, I have been there. In fact, this research began out of a strong belief that by relying too heavily on Twitter, my student leaders were leaving people out of the conversation. I might have even felt a little personal disdain for the idea of getting my thoughts into only 140 characters. But what I discovered is that Twitter is quite possibly one of the most accessible venues of communication currently available. When used effectively, it is filled with opportunity and connections to help students learn and lead because it is focused on the importance of connecting the thoughts of others with your own. So maybe this is just another article about Twitter, but I believe it is an article that shows higher education can and must participate in Twitter, and will educate students by doing so.
The Microblogging Phenomenon
Twitter, originally described as bursts of inconsequential information, emerged in 2006 as the newest social networking system: a more accessible platform, a quicker version of Facebook, a less cluttered MySpace. Not tied to collegiate enrollment, not even requiring a computer or a lot of time, Constantinos K. Coursaris, Younghwa Yun, and Jieun Sung found that by 2010 Twitter had over 17 million registered users in the United States alone. According to studies reported by Aaron Smith and Joanna Brenner at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, over 67 percent of online adults use social media sites, and even higher percentages of traditionally aged college students participate in social media, yet little research has been conducted to understand the communities created over Twitter. The majority of information available regarding Twitter comes from communications, computer technology, and business areas of study, yet the networks created by social media require a higher education lens in order to fully understand how current systems function, how they are utilized, and how we can help students use them to support their learning.
The microblogging service demands 140 or fewer characters and allows users to upload photographs, share a message directly with particular users, or highlight a post by including a hashtag. Released when the heart of the millennial generation became young adults, Twitter provides Generation Y with the ability to send and receive instantaneous short tweets with friends, famous people, and complete strangers. It allows Twitter users to connect to whomever they choose, including others from around the globe.
And connecting they have been. Smith and Brenner report that Twitter has become the third most visited social networking site behind Facebook and MySpace, and continues to grow, with 15 percent of online adults reportedly using Twitter regularly. Perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority of Twitter users are traditionally aged college students: approximately 31 percent of 18–24-year-olds are on Twitter, and 20 percent use it on a daily basis. Much of the demographic information surrounding Twitter use is expected in terms of age, yet is perhaps more diverse with regard to socioeconomic status, education, race, ethnicity, and gender than one may assume. Mark Hugo Lopez, Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, and Eileen Patten with the Pew Research Hispanic Center find that surveys show even though the affluently educated use Twitter, younger adults, lower-income households, and those in urban areas are the most likely to participate.
Lopez, Gonzalez-Barrera, and Patten also found that historically marginalized groups in the United States, such as women, blacks, and Latinos, use social media, and particularly Twitter, at higher levels than their male or white counterparts. Sixty-nine percent of online blacks and 68 percent of online Latinos, compared to 66 percent of online whites, reported using Twitter regularly. These percentages highlight how populations that have not historically participated in new technology are finding a voice and taking advantage of the opportunity to connect.
Aaron Smith with the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project reported in June 2011 that over 95 percent of Twitter users access the program through their mobile devices. This may account for the influx of blacks and Latinos actively participating in Twitter: Lopez, Gonzalez-Barrera, and Patten state that within the past three years, blacks and Latinos have surpassed whites with regard to owning a cell or smartphone and using them to access the Internet. Mobile devices have increased access to social networking sites, particularly Twitter, for those without a computer. A quick examination of store-bought, pay-as-you-go mobile phones showcases a possible reason: the most affordable monthly plans limit minutes to talk on the phone but provide unlimited access to the Internet and text messaging.
The usage of Twitter by black Americans was analyzed in 2009, with John Horrigan's “Wireless Internet Use” report showing that black Americans were 70 percent more likely than white Americans to participate in Twitter. Findings such as Smith's June 2011 report suggest that blacks use Twitter disproportionally to other demographic groups. They are 25 percent of all Twitter users, which is a staggering difference compared to previous technology usage, proficiency, and information literacy in the United States. In his 2012 article “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation,” Andre Brock claims that Twitter's discourse and social features not only encourage black participation, but also continue the black tradition of storytelling in the United States. Twitter provides an outlet for the ever-necessary counter-story, an opportunity for dialogue and discussion from voices that differ from the mainstream.
Twitter allows users to connect to anyone or anything regardless of location, socioeconomic status, or other typical barriers. Yet users choose whom to follow, ultimately creating new structures of information sources and community for themselves, as Philip R. Johnson and Sung-Un Yang describe. In a 2010 slate magazine article, Farhad Manjoo examined black Twitter users and the closely formed groups that they create for themselves on Twitter. He found that the bonding social capital showcased in black involvement in Twitter highlights the continuation of pre-existing networks outside of Twitter: the groups were incredibly close-knit and connected. Friends were following each other on Twitter, retweeting, replying to tweets, using conversation hashtags, and gaining trending status quickly. In essence, by establishing a community of participation that continues when people are no longer together, Twitter is in many ways replacing the socializing coffee table of the 1990s.
More accessible and noncommittal than Facebook, cleaner and less time-consuming than MySpace, Twitter's presence in the technological world allows for connections, concise information, and low user investment for communication to continue and expand regardless of location, as Coursaris, Yun, and Sung showcase. Microsoft researcher and assistant professor at New York University danah boyd believes that Twitter is different because it is less about making a space for one's self and more about sharing and contributing to a message: about connections and forming ties and community with others. If historically marginalized groups are participating in Twitter at high rates, then there is an opportunity to educate these users about the significance of their public personas, concepts that both boyd and Brock discuss. Twitter is an information source and social network that could expand users’ knowledge and resources differently than other social network sites have previously done; the microblogging phenomenon has the potential for increased networking, connections, and social mobility through community building and conversation.
There is a possibility that the community created on Twitter provides opportunities for social networking and, in turn, supports community participation and, possibly, supplements social capital. Michael J. Stern, Alison E. Adams, and Shaun Elsasser's 2009 study on digital inequality and Internet use found that there was a strong correlation between Internet use and civic involvement, as well as community participation. It is conceivable that Twitter use would elicit similar findings, since we have seen strong Twitter activity surrounding civic events, particularly governmental debates and elections, both in the United States and abroad, as can been seen in Smith's January 2011 Pew Research Center data and Andranik Tumasjan, Timm O. Sprenger, Philipp G. Sandner, and Isabell M. Welpe's research. This impact could contribute to what community building and learning looks like at our colleges and universities.
Technology can be used for a variety of daily activities, including gathering information, connecting with others, and contributing to the local community. Twitter can be used for these same activities. There is a strong possibility that Twitter participation could help participants gain social capital: it could help expand social networks and bring more historically marginalized groups into the community and conversation. Further, if Twitter is more accessible than broadband technologies due to the use of mobile devices, the formally disenfranchised may be able to gain information and connect in new ways. Twitter could potentially serve to combat digital inequality by providing digital capital to rural communities, allowing for connections, networking, and learning, which could create social capital. This can have implications for many of our institutions that aid in students’ attainment of social capital in a variety of activities already, and provide a new vehicle for our students to connect, network, and become life-learning global citizens.
Arguing that social networking sites should be examined for their potential as opportunities for civic and political engagement, particularly for college students, Sebastian Valenzuela, Namsu Park, and Kerk F. Kee examined Facebook and social capital attainment directly in 2009. Looking at the attitudes and behaviors promoting social capital and democratic citizenship with data of over 2,600 college students in Texas, they found that the use of Facebook did contribute to students’ satisfaction, trust in society, and civic participation, but did not necessarily promote social capital attainment. There was some difference for ethnic minorities, however, as nonwhite students did seem to experience some social capital gains through Facebook use. This finding needs to be further unpacked and investigated: participation and connection to community can support stronger bonding social capital on our campuses and lead to a greater sense of belonging and possible academic success. While there are limits to this research, in particular its application here since Facebook participants may have already had more social capital and been connected to their “friends,” it does provide a framework for additional research and understanding, particularly in a system such as Twitter that has never been exclusive and makes connecting with others much more seamless.
If technology assists in information collection and community building and Twitter utilizes that technology to connect via conversations and thoughts, as Meeyoung Cha, Hamed Haddadi, Fabricio Benevenuto, and Krishna P. Gummadi proclaim, not just space, social class, or location, there is potential for a social capital attainment. Further, there is a need to educate Twitter users on the potential of the connections formed and the digital presence and persona judged through tweets and other forms of digital communication. Different from Facebook, whose users have learned the importance of privacy settings, Twitter's platform works best when posts are shared with all to build upon ideas and form connections. Twitter needs to be examined more to see if not just bridging social capital but perhaps bonding social capital with people over time is happening or possible.
Higher Education's Role
With the increased access of Twitter and other social networking sites and the opportunities and potential within them, it makes logical sense that colleges and universities have begun to incorporate these platforms into their daily work. In fact, as Reynol Junco, Greg Heiberger, and Eric Loken note, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) recognized as early as 2007 that 94 percent of traditional-aged first-year students were using social media in some form. In separate articles in About Campus, Sara Kathleen Henry, and Junco and Arthur W. Chickering have noted that participation in social media that connects students with others may provide students with a stronger sense of community and can help benefit learning. Institutions now utilize social networking as a way to advertise, connect, disseminate information, help students feel safe, and encourage involvement within the institution, but there is more to be done.
As early as 2008, Greg Heiberger and Ruth Harper at South Dakota State University encouraged student affairs professionals to participate in technology to enhance student involvement. Marketing and communications offices currently have devoted social media experts updating not only websites but also Facebook pages and multiple Twitter accounts in order to advertise or highlight events, warnings, and achievements: reaching students in various mediums is beneficial. In addition to using these tools for marketing and disseminating information, colleges and universities have a role to play in educating students about how to effectively use Twitter and other social networking sites. They should incorporate them into co-curricular and academic activities in order to streamline the student experience.
Stephen Porter and Paul Umbach's 2006 article in Research in Higher Education shows that social networking sites can aid in students’ feelings of attachment and engagement, while also creating congruence for a student's life with school and friends. Higher education professionals participating in Twitter could also lead to higher levels of student satisfaction. Utilizing Alexander Astin's model of student involvement as a framework, Heiberger and Harper highlighted the ways in which students could increase involvement through their use of social networking sites. Although their research focused on Facebook, there is some correlation to Twitter as well. Looking at HERI data, they found that students who spend more time per week on social media did not necessarily seem to spend less time on other activities, an argument that was originally marshaled against Facebook by higher education. Instead, Heiberger and Harper found that students used various amounts of energy on social media, and often the physical and psychological energy was similar to going to meetings or chatting with fellow students, just in a different forum. It is plausible that similar research focusing on Twitter would find more discussion-based connections being formed, perhaps aiding in continued thinking and networking outside of the classroom and an overall sense of connection to the campus community.
Heiberger and Harper maintain that it is vital for student affairs professionals to find positive ways to utilize new technologies, particularly those that are actually popular with students, in order to increase levels of social integration and support student persistence in college. The same could be said for faculty or college administrators in all areas of campus. If higher education professionals are using what students know to convey information, there may be an opportunity not only to role-model positive behaviors and assist students in building social capital, but also to contribute to the dissemination of information to students and help them become more active community participants and more engaged learners. Helping students acquire these technological skills, market themselves, and further build social capital relationships via these forums supplements coursework and personal development to help with students’ success overall.
Twitter's effectiveness may not stop at involvement and information sharing. The 2010 study organized by Junco, Heiberger, and Loken analyzes the effect of Twitter in the classroom on college-student engagement and academic success. A semester-long study took place in a first-year seminar course of 125 students, with 70 students participating in Twitter and 55 students serving as the control. Utilizing the National Survey of College Student Engagement and tracking Twitter conversations, the researchers found that students who used Twitter for class and interacted with faculty as a part of their Twitter participation had an increase in engagement and higher grades than the control group.
Student engagement in class was tied to contact, cooperation, active learning, and prompt feedback—all components of Twitter. In the first-year seminar, the use of Twitter allowed class discussions to continue; provided a low-stakes opportunity for students to participate in discussions and ask questions; reminded the class about course and campus events; delivered academic and personal support; offered connections with faculty members; and assisted students in organizing study groups, doing additional assignments, or participating in service learning projects. In many ways, Twitter served as the newly updated discussion boards of online classrooms; yet by meeting students in their forum, students built community and felt empowered in a fluid space that they were already familiar with. While the participants in the study were not demographically representative of the college classroom in terms of race, ethnicity, income, or international status, and the students self-reported their levels of student engagement, the Junco study helps open the possibility to next steps for higher education and faculty in terms of social networking. What does Twitter do to foster classroom community? How does it help introverted students participate in the discussion? For commuting students, how does Twitter provide a vehicle to continue dialogue once they leave campus?
In the first-year seminar studied, faculty trained students on how to use Twitter effectively. This included not only how to send a tweet and other technical tasks, but also how to understand privacy settings and acknowledge which students are tweeting. They discussed how that information might be used in other venues and prepared students for the application they had just downloaded by explaining the culture of Twitter. This aspect of training is so important. We often assume that those on social networking sites have been taught how to use them efficiently, but this is not necessarily the case since there is no telling where students may have learned to tweet, as Christine Greenhow and Beth Robelia remind us. In fact, according to data from Sonia Livingstone and Magdalena Bober's 2004 study, approximately 49 percent of full-time students have received no formal instruction on how to use the Internet, so the same, if not more so, is true for social networking sites. Access to Twitter is prevalent, but education and instruction on it is not. Assisting in the education of using Twitter is essential in order to have students truly connecting, building social capital, and creating bonding networks that lead to success.
To this point, Eszter Hargittai at Northwestern University argued in 2007 that if there is an expectation that students will be online and engaged in social networking sites, then teaching them how to act in these venues is necessary to help them utilize technology to their advantage. Mike S. Ribble, Gerald D. Bailey, and Tweed W. Ross identify the following areas that comprise digital citizenship: etiquette, communication, access, literacy, law, commerce, rights, responsibilities, health, wellness, and security are all components that factor into the ability to practice and advocate online behavior that showcases ethical, legal, safe, and responsible uses of technology. Ultimately, digital citizenship is understanding how to act and participate in digital technology, something similar to online civility. This is incredibly important for technology in general, but particularly for sites such as Twitter that students often use as an instant messaging system, perhaps forgetting that their posts are widely available and accessible by others—such as possible employers—for extended periods of time.
There is some information available within primary and secondary education about teaching digital citizenship. A concise example is the Ribble, Bailey, and Ross article mentioned earlier, which highlights each element of digital citizenship and appropriate and inappropriate strategies of primary and secondary schools. Although somewhat outdated and angled toward a younger student population, the article provides a good framework for how higher education can support and teach digital citizenship to all students, especially as colleges and universities continue to use social networking sites to make connections with students.
Some higher education professionals are already providing such training, but more research about how institutions and departments are utilizing and teaching social networking is needed. Further, higher education professionals should think about how social networking is taking place individually and departmentally, and where it provides opportunities to connect and support students differently. If there is potential for social capital attainment, and studies have shown a socially and culturally diverse population is using Twitter regularly, educators must adapt and think about how to tie learning to the social networking already happening. This would provide experiences and knowledge to help students advance, if not in social capital, then in their public presence and performance.
Higher education student services departments lend themselves to the teaching of digital citizenship: orientation programs, student conduct offices, housing programs, police departments, and career services are just the beginning. Student activities and publications departments working with student organizations for marketing purposes can also have a role, as can athletics and others. Working with student organizations to encourage Twitter use not only for marketing but also for dissemination of information, discussions about current events, and social movements allows for expanded conversations and dialogues about “real-world” issues and provides the opportunity to connect students to learning that they may miss in the classroom or an unattended campus event. Helping students understand the implications of a tweet in regard to a roommate conflict, student conduct issue, or campus participation provides a new vehicle of engaging students in the conversation about what public persona they want to create. Twitter participation such as posting positive, educated tweets about an area of interest or following appropriate professionals or organizations may also help students make possible internship or career connections. Student learning can occur not only through understanding how to use technology effectively and productively, but also through actively participating in that technology.
In the classroom, faculty can engage students in Twitter for classroom discussions, posts, reminders, and additional out-of-classroom learning. Monica Rankin, a faculty member at the University of Texas, Dallas, for example, utilized Twitter for course discussion and posted a summary of positive outcomes and limitations of the experience on her website. She reports that students who may not regularly participate in class engaged via Twitter. Her positive Twitter experience can encourage more faculty to think about using Twitter for conversations in their courses as well. Similarly, following the Twitter feed for Allison Crume's leadership course at Florida State University demonstrated that the required participation encouraged dialogue in between classes and fostered a sense of community among class participants. Student leaders who participated learned not only to utilize Twitter for educational experiences, but also to see Twitter as an accountability and marketing tool when attending events on campus or trying to connect with the entire campus community. Some doctoral programs require social media postings of relevant articles in order to continue dialogue and conversation within the cohort or class through means such as Twitter. Practices such as these need to be shared so we can begin to understand and research the impact and best practices necessary to help students learn and grow holistically.
There is much about technology use that is unknown, and the long-term impact of Twitter is one of these vast areas. Since the majority of participants using social networking sites are traditionally aged college students, higher education has the opportunity to research, share, and further develop students’ skills in this area and change the conversation from the anti-technology perspective of the past to a positive attitude about the benefits of technology to students learning in the present and future. Twitter is a public forum that has great potential for individual growth and connection, depending on how it is utilized. As digital citizenship is taught and Twitter is more actively used in academic endeavors, participants on Twitter will be crafting a positive public persona that allows them to gain social capital and bridge networks with others through online conversation. Twitter seems to be attractive and accessible to possibly the most diverse groups compared to other social media and has untapped educational potential. Our departments, classrooms, and offices are well equipped to take learning onto Twitter, and in doing so role-model and teach digital citizenship while also providing a vehicle for students to attain social capital and become more well versed in their learning.
I am not advocating that higher education become the teachers of social media or that Twitter is the perfect educational tool, but I do believe we have the opportunity to help students prepare, market, and learn through tools such as Twitter. It is clear Twitter can build community and engage people in conversations they may not have traditionally participated in. And when I prepare my 140 characters for the Twitterverse, I pause to think about how the thoughts, quotes, articles, or links that I post help our students construct different thoughts of how to present themselves on Twitter and how to continue their learning in all environments.
Feel free to share and continue the conversation on Twitter.
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