Lessons in education from the land of Twitter

Lessons in education from the land of Twitter
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First Published: Wed, Apr 29 2009. 09 09 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Apr 29 2009. 09 09 PM IST
Those of you who haven’t heard of Susan Boyle must have been in a coma, or surgically separated from the Internet, Facebook, YouTube, Tweeting and MySpace blogosphere.
Boyle is a slightly brain-damaged, middle-aged, overweight spinster with unreconstructed eyebrows and a total lack of fashion sense or style. She was also the object of condescension and scorn from the audience and judges at a British TV talent show—that is, until she began to sing. Then the audience and the judges were won over by her beautiful voice. Within 24 hours of her dramatic appearance, at least 20 million people had seen her performance on YouTube, and the Tweeting of actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore brought her the attention of US TV channels, and instant international celebrity status. She became a worldwide sensation overnight.
For the uninitiated, the land of Twitter—where life is documented on the Internet in 140 characters or less—isn’t just about celebrities or silly chatter any more. It’s about real information in real time. Initially, it was designed as a service for friends, family and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing? Now all sorts of organizations are using Twitter.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, set up its Twitter page last year, making it one of about 20 law enforcement agencies at the time which had one. Today, in the US, at least 150 police agencies Twitter and FBI has at least 2,600 followers. “Wanted” posters are fast becoming a thing of the past.
A growing number of companies are keeping track of what’s said about their brands on Twitter. Comcast Corp., Dell Inc., General Motors Corp., and Eastman Kodak Co., are among the companies using Twitter to do everything from burnish brands to provide customer service. In India, Wipro Ltd and Infosys Technologies Ltd have official Twitter profiles. These companies are keeping up with the new reality. Twitter is one of the new social media tools that are letting consumers shape public discussion over brands, as well as promote events.
Universities and colleges in the UK and the US have realized the importance of this new phenomenon and are offering master’s degrees covering Twitter and other social networking media.
Students of the one-year social media programme offered by the University of Birmingham, UK, explore how we communicate using these websites and how they can be used for marketing. Other modules in the course teach students how to start a blog and use podcasting techniques. The course is designed to appeal to students looking to go into professions within the marketing and communications sector, including journalism and public relations, or PR.
The social media, which includes Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and a host of others, has become very important not only as a way of communicating on a personal level, but as a skill set within employment, and as an industry within itself. These Web utilities have also brought about a change in how we use language and communicate.
Twitter requires that you express yourself in 140 characters or less. Gone are the days of flowery descriptions, forced literary mannerisms and wordy explanations. Concise, shortened and reduced, the written word is being altered on an almost daily basis.
Sadly, we are not educating our children to understand and become more proficient in the modern techniques of communication. Our schools ignore it. In fact, it is the young people who are developing their own new ways of communication and, aided by advances in Internet technology, that is changing the way we interact. The language of the young is very different from the language of the school.
Should schools be teaching modern communication? Of course they should, but schools have always lagged behind developments in media and communication. Most of our educators still think that twittering is the sound that certain little birds make or a state of agitation or excitement.
The Susan Boyle phenomenon shows that Twittering is revolutionizing the area of marketing and communication, but it also highlights more important areas for education to concentrate on. We need to teach our children not to be so herd-like in their responses. We need to teach them not to ridicule and scorn those who do not follow fashion or style. We need to stop them from denigrating others who are differently abled.
In an age, where media and marketing are constantly telling us that social acceptance depends on how we look, how we dress, what we eat, what we drive or how light or dark we are, we need to help children learn how they are being programmed. We need them to learn not to judge a book by its cover, to be accepting of superficial differences, and to treat everyone, regardless of what they look like, with the respect they deserve.
Susan Boyle is already being used as a model for acceptance, but without a change in the way we educate our children, she will only be an exception that proves the rule.
Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.
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First Published: Wed, Apr 29 2009. 09 09 PM IST