Draft Version, originally published in: Ebner, M. (2013). The Influence of Twitter on the Academic Environment. Patrut, B.,
Patrut, M., Cmeciu, C. (ed.). Social Media and the New Academic Environment: Pedagogical Challenges. IGI Global. 2013. pp.
The Influence of Twitter on the
Social Learning, Computer and Information Services, Graz University of Technology, Austria
In the last few years microblogging has become a phenomenon of our daily live. Communicating, sharing
media files, as well as acting on digital social communities platforms using mobile devices assist our
everyday activities in a complete new way. Therefore it is very reasonable that academic environments
are influenced arbitrarily too. In this publication different settings for the use of microblogging are
pointed out – for teaching and learning as well as for further scientific purposes such as professional
conferences. It can be summarized that there are different possibilities to use microblogging in an
academic context; each of them are new advantages for the academic life. The publication gives a short
overview and a first insight into the various ways to use microblogging.
Dominating platforms of the World Wide Web of the last years belong to the type called social networks.
The most popular ones are Facebook, Twitter, and the newcomer Google+. First of all, a short look at the
characteristics of a social network must be taken to understand the typical idea of such systems.
According to Koch & Richter (Koch & Richter, 2008) social software is a web based information system
of the Web 2.0 generation, which allows interaction within a community in various ways. In contrast to
Web 1.0 technologies users are made possible to search, find, and connect to each other as well as
exchange multimedia content in a very handsome and easy way. Schmid (Schmidt, 2006) stated that the
software itself is not social per se; the people who are using it collaboratively are the moving power to
make such software become social. Koch & Richter (Koch & Richter, 2008) also defined the three crucial
components of social software:
• Identity and network management: Allows user to create his/her own profile as well as the
possibility to connect with each other.
• Information management: Allows user to exchange, find, and rate their multimedia data.
• Interaction and communication: Allows communication and interaction between users in various
In the last years many different social networks were introduced to the World Wide Web community.
Actually it has become hard to categorize them. Ebner & Lorenz (Ebner & Lorenz, 2012) carried out a
model according to the described three crucial components. Each factor displayed in the model represents
one axis in a three-dimensional cube. Figure 1 shows different information systems like weblogs, wikis,
or even microblogging systems with their representation and relation to social networks. For example,
social bookmarking systems and wikis are excellent platforms for delivering information but of less
interest for providing identity management or interaction amongst users. In opposite, instant messaging
services (like MSN or Skype) allow excellent communication but are not appropriate for presentation of
[place FIGURE 1 here]
Figure 1. Definition and overview of social software according to Ebner & Lorenz (2012)
Microblogs are very close to social networks according to the definition pointed out in Figure 1 due to
their main components such as making friends, becoming ones followers, creating a user profile, and
interacting with users via posts and direct messages. Furthermore various multimedia data can be
uploaded in order to exchange it with other users (Haewoon et al., 2010). Templeton (Templeton, 2008)
defines microblogging as a small-scale form of blogging made up from short, succinct messages, used by
both consumers and businesses to share news, post status updates, and carry on conversations. Therefore a
clear separation from weblogs (Rosenbloom, 2004) can be done, which are more used to write larger
online essays with a personal touch to a specific topic.
Maybe the most well-known feature of microblogging systems is the restriction to 140 signs for each post
remembering the short-message service of mobile phones. Nevertheless it must be asked, why this service
gains such popularity and attracts so many active users. One of the success factors for sure is the
simplicity to share ideas, daily situations, as well as multimedia files with anyone in the world. Assisted
by mobile phones and the growing popularity of mobile Internet access the service becomes ubiquitous
available. So, since 2007 a complete new way to interact and communicate with people independently of
time and place has been established. The so called “living within a big personal information stream”
becomes reality and is nowadays part of the information society. Dealing with information was never
easier in the history of mankind in principle.
Of course, this progress influences also the work of researchers and teachers. Therefore this contribution
provides an insight into related research studies into the microblogging platform Twitter in an academic
environment. After a short introduction to Twitter explicit examples are given to demonstrate the
possibilities for microblogging systems to be useful for teaching and learning as well as for daily research
work. The results are discussed and summarized in the last chapters.
Twitter was not the first microblogging platform offered for free registration, but it is the most well-
known and most used one so far. Twitter’s weblog states the impressive numbers of 140 million tweets
sent per day in March 2011, or more than 460000 created accounts per day within the same time (Twitter,
2011). Finally the number of mobile users increased from 2010 – 2011 with 182%. A similar growth can
only be noticed for the other two big social networks Facebook and Google+. But those both systems are
not typical microblogging platforms at all.
Twitter and other microblogging platforms are characterized by:
• A concept of shortness: The number of signs for each post (in case of Twitter it is called ”tweet”)
is usually limited to 140 signs.
• A concept of friends and followers: Friends are accounts I am following and I am followed back
by so called followers. There is no concept of a strong friendship; anyone can follow anyone in
• A concept of information presentation: Tweets of friends are presented just in an endless list with
the newest post at the top. This kind of information stream can be split into different groups.
• A concept of openness: In general, all posts on Twitter are public. Users can hide their profiles,
but it is more or less unusual.
• A concept of Web services: Already in a very early phase Twitter allowed third-party applications
to connect with the service using a provided Application Interface (API). A high number of
additional Twitter applications have been developed and made Twitter even much more powerful.
Overall it can be concluded that indeed a new service for a new kind of communication has been invented
by microblogging. First scientific studies point out the communication aspect (Ebner & Schiefner, 2008)
(McFedries, 2007). Beside the new communication culture other publications focus the reasons why
people are using Twitter (Java et al., 2007): for daily chats, for conversation, for sharing information, and
for reporting news. Boyd (Boyd et al, 2010) mentioned the importance of so-called re-tweets for the
social network. By repeating a message this message is offered to another network of followers and in
that way distributed further. The power of re-tweeting could be massively monitored for example by the
death of Michael Jackson (Kim & Gilbers, 2009), the election of Barack Obama, and further political
events of great importance (e.g. revolutions such as the Arab Spring). Due to the fact that people are
repeating messages or sending tweets using a special “hashtag” a massive information stream especially
on the focused (hashtagged) item can be produced.
TWITTER IN ACADEMIC SETTINGS
Of course, this new communication possibility inspired the interest of researchers. A number of different
studies appeared, asking, how Twitter can be used for learning (Grosseck & Holotescu, 2008) (Costa et
al., 2008) or for further academic scopes (Reinhardt 2009). In the following, different academic scenarios
are described, exemplifying the way Twitter has been used whether for teaching and learning purposes or
for the researcher´s daily work.
Twitter as Tool for Mass Education
Didactical approach: Use of microblogging to allow instant feedback during face-to-face lecturing
Technical issues: Use of lecture hashtags to allow a collection of posts on a so called “Twitterwall”
Mass education is mainly a problem of higher education. Often one lecturer has to teach more than 100
students in big lecture hall. A well-known problem is that the interaction between teachers and students
decreases therefore or even does not happen anymore. Anderson (Anderson et al, 2003) pointed out the
three main reasons for that:
• Feedback lag: With the number of attendees the feedback is dramatically increasing
• Student apprehension: Students simply fear to get blamed by asking questions or doing some
• Single speaker paradigm: The only-one speaker syndrome leads to less active participation
There are different technological possibilities to overcome these problems, mainly through so-called
Audience Response Systems (ARS). Such systems are a combination of hard- and software that allow
giving the auditorium instant feedback by polling. The hardware mostly consists of a special developed
“clicker” sending the signal to a server that is interpreting the answers and providing the result. With
other words, installing such systems in huge lecture rooms is nearly impossible because of high hardware
costs (every student would need a hardware clicker on his/her own) as well as high efforts for
organization (the hardware must be given to learners each lecture and collected afterwards). Furthermore
such systems can only be used for quizzes or polls, textual feedback is not possible.
At Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) a research work has been started to enhance the lecture
room interactivity in a meaningful way. It was specified that learners must be able to use their own
devices and the existing infrastructure environment of the lecture halls. Too, the application must be as
simple to handle as possible. Due to the fact that Twitter is a daily used, primarily mobile application that
is little limited by different devices a Twitterwall has been developed (Ebner, 2011).
[place FIGURE 2 here]
Figure 2. TU Graz Twitterwall (http://twitterwall.tugraz.at)
By displaying the Twitterwall during the lecture students nowadays are able to ask questions, comment
lecture content, or simply apply it for example by providing. On the left side of Fig. 2 all tweets within a
defined time frame are shown (e.g. the time the lecture takes place). On the right side all tweets that
contain the lecture´s hashtag (e.g. #gadi2011) and an additional hashtag (e.g. #question) are displayed.
With this application it becomes easily possible to collect tweets and filter them according to different
needs as well as to enhance the lecture interactivity. The first practical experiences showed that students
use the Twitterwall especially to ask questions in a more or less anonymous way and to collect hyperlinks
relevant to the lecture. The lecture´s feedback was very positive due to the fact that the audience´s
response definitely increases compared to prior years. The next release of the Twitterwall will also allow
to post without a Twitter account and also to rate tweets of other students to rank more important
Twitter as Tool for Discussing beyond Face-to-Face Lectures
Didactical approach: Use of microblogging to post status updates of activities concerning the lecture
Technical issues: Use of an own microblogging platform (http://mblog.tugraz.at)
Another didactical approach is the use of microblogging to stay in contact with learners beyond
the traditional face-to-face lectures. Especially Twitter with its communicational quality allows
students to post status updates of their current activities concerning the lecture and report about
what they are currently doing. In this case, lecturers can interact with students in real time,
answer questions when they occur and discuss them.
Ebner (Ebner et al, 2010a) showed in a practical study that within a time period of 6 weeks
students were using the microblogging platform very extensively. More than 11.000 recorded
and analyzed posts (tweets) result in the fact that in average each student wrote 7,5 tweets each
day. Due to the fact that most of all updates were relevant to the lecture and served as assistance
to students’ communication, it was pointed out that microblogging assists the communication
behavior in a very new way.
[place FIGURE 3 here]
Figure 3. Communication by subject (Ebner et al., 2010a)
Figure 3 points out that “course-related work” posts are a minority – not more than 10-20% each
day. Vice versa, updates belonging to the discussion subject, or just for small talk, or private
content cover 60-70% of all updates per day. The lecturers as well as the authors of
microblogging posts keep the dialogue beyond the classroom running which allows process-
oriented learning and helps students to keep in touch with each other as well with the lecturers.
Furthermore, more than 60% of all posts contain the sign @, which means that the post is
directly related to another person and more or less a personal message to him/her. This means
that theses posts are from a directed communicative nature.
Finally, oral evaluations pointed out that many users unfamiliar with microblogging systems
report an unwieldy information flow, known as information overload. So the need of different
strategies for consuming massive information becomes an important task. Otherwise this kind of
information stream can also be described as constant murmuring in the background where the
user takes an active part when he/she wants to do so.
The function of communication by this understanding is exclusively social – an exchange of
trivial information. Malinowski (1922) referred to this as a ‘‘phatic function”. It serves to keep in
contact with others and as an assurance of group identity (Honeycutt, 2009).
Twitter as Tool for Exchange of Lecture Content (GADI)
Didactical approach: Use of microblogging to collect and exchange relevant lecture content in a fast and
Technical issues: Use of a microblogging platform (e.g. http://mblog.tugraz.at) and a defined hashtag
According to that approach another practical example was carried out in the lecture called
“Social Aspects of Information Technology”. This course is an obligatory one for students of
informatics during their bachelor program. It educates students to have a critical view on the
ways informatics influence human society today. More than 200 students attend this course every
year to listen to about 17 presentations held by different experts in different fields: Topics are for
example Human Computer Interaction, eHealth, Google, weblogs as well as virtual worlds or the
use of informatics in civil engineering.
In recent years, students had to write two essays about topics of their own choice to pass the
lecture. Based on the strict scientific rules a high amount of text documents had been composed.
The big drawback of this method is that nobody is reading the text of the students but the
teachers. From a very critical point of view it can be argued that the students´ work more or less
equaled a concentrated version of the experts´ presentations. Therefore nearly no further
discussion on the topics took place during the whole lecture. Hence a new didactical concept was
needed to increase students’ activity. Therefore four groups were introduced – Scientific Writer
(still have to write a short essay), Scientific Reviewer (have to review the essays of the Scientific
Writers), Blogger (have to write short blog posts about the topic of their choice) and
Mircoblogger (have to write microblogs about the topic of their choice).
[place FIGURE 4 here]
Figure 4. Communication by category (Ebner & Maurer, 2008)
Figure 4 displays the relation between the four groups. With a special eye on the microblogging
group it can be pointed out that these students have to search the Web for interesting and relevant
content concerning the defined topics. Furthermore they have close contact to the blogger group
for discussions and exchange of interesting information. Ebner and Maurer (Ebner & Maurer,
2008) stated that this didactical approach leads to a better performance of the course´s outcome.
Furthermore students that are member of the microblogging group gave a very positive feedback;
theyreported that they felt constantly involved during the whole time period of the lecture. A
pencil based evaluation carried out amongst the students resulted in the very interesting aspect
that due to the fact that students read other contributions more often also informal learning
effects occur as a result of blogging and microblogging activities.
Ebner and Maurer concluded in their final paper (Ebner & Maurer, 2008) that mainly three
• Reflection: Students attending the microblogging group wrote more reflective
contributions in a personal and subjective style
• Discussion: Students of the blogging and microblogging groups commented more often
than their colleagues of the other groups; their feedback and statements provided were
• Quality: Teachers mentioned that the quality of the contributions increased arbitrarily to
former years at all.
Twitter as Tool for Documentation and Retrieve of Information
Didactical approach: Use of microblogging for documentation of lecture issues or other relevant content
Technical issues: Use of a tool that allows collection of tweets, to store collected tweets offline and
provide a search function (http://grabeeter.tugraz.at)
A very simple possibility to collect information is to use microblogging streams of different
sources. In our contex different sources are meant to be events or lectures, a learning unit or
simply a traditional face-to-face lecture with writing on blackboards, or showing something on
the Internet, or using the projector for presenting learning content. In that way events are even
documented on base of their microblogging activities. Due to the fact that students own
smartphones or similar devices, it becomes quite easy to take pictures, browse hyperlinks, or
simply take some notes during the lecture. For the later learning phase it would be advantageous
to have just one application providing and organizing all notes taken in the course of an event. So
the research idea was to develop a web-based application that can also be used offline for
information retrieval and knowledge discovery based on a micro-content system like Twitter. In
2010 the application called “Grabeeter” (http://grabeeter.tugraz.at) has been launched. Grabeeter
consists of two main parts (Mühlburger et al., 2010). The first part is a web application that
retrieves tweets and user information from Twitter using the official Twitter API. The second
part of Grabeeter consists of a client application developed in JavaFX technology for accessing
the stored information on a client side.
[place FIGURE 5 here]
Figure 5. Grabeeter – web application
Figure 5 shows a screenshot of the web application Grabeeter of a Twitter user. Once a user is
registered within the application each single tweet of the user will be stored automatically in the
Grabeeter database and can be accessed online via the web application as well as offline with the
client application. On the right sidebar an export possibility of all tweets of the user is offered in
the standard formats XML and JSON. An API allows third party applications to use the stored
tweets for other purposes. Finally a short statistic shows how many posts of all tweets ever
posted on Twitter are currently stored. With the help of Grabeeter the following approaches were
• Micro-content (e.g. a tweet) is achievable offline due to the fact that any tweet can be
retrieved at anytime from a local hard-drive
• Micro-content is storable in a way that the user can distinguish between different events
• Micro-content is searchable along keywords, hashtags, time frames as well as different
entities (URLs, @ ... )
Due to these facts Grabeeter become an application used by more than 1500 users very
extensively to document their events especially in a learning or research context. Different
research studies pointed out that also monitoring events became an interesting variant to use
Grabeeter (Ebner et al., 2010b). Finally Twitter became also a useful tool to spread and store
scientific messages (Letierce et al., 2010).
Twitter as Tool for Academic Conferences
A similar approach can be gained using the application called “Twitterwall”. With Twitterwall
the interaction in a huge lecture hall can be enhanced. But Twitterwall is for the usage during
academic conferences too in order to collect and filter microblogging content. In 2008 (Ebner,
2009) for the first time, during the EdMedia conference tweets including the defined hashtag
(#edmedia08) were collected to enhance the conference by virtual statements, opinions, pictures,
hyperlinks, or just private discussion among conference participants. This special Twitter stream
was displayed on several walls with simple projectors and screens. Besides those walls located at
meeting points also a projection of the stream beside the keynote slides was provided. It could be
shown that the “murmuring of the audience” during the talks made visible as well as additional
information posted enhanced the live talk in a way never done before. A research study (Ebner,
2009) carried out that the audience use Twitter for comments to the presentation, for discussion,
for collection of additional hyperlinks, and repeating statements.
[place FIGURE 6 here]
Figure 6. Twitter stream beside keynote presentation at EdMedia 2008
Figure 6 gives an impression of the setting at EdMedia 2008. Since then the Twitterwall has
become a standard surplus for every keynote speech at further EdMedia conferences and other
conferences too. Furthermore the number of tweets regarding the conference did not only
increase during the conference but also before and after the event (Ebner & Reinhardt, 2010).
Hence it can be noticed that social networking turned out to be just more than a professional tool
for communication during events. Figure 7 shows the result of a survey amongst participants of
conferences (Reinhardt et al., 2009). Besides communicating with others, resources are shared
through tweets, parallel discussions/events are followed, notes are jotted down, the online
presence is established and enhanced, and organizational questions are raised. Figure 7
represents the main reasons why the surveyed conference delegates used Twitter while attending
the learning event.
[place FIGURE 7 here]
Figure 7. Purposes of using Twitter by attendees (role) at conferences (Reinhardt et al., 2009)
Microblogging at conferences is an additional way of discussing presented topics and
exchanging additional information. It is not limited to the face-to-face audience or the location of
the conference. Microblogging virtually allows anyone to actively participate in the thematic
debates. Different research studies (Ebner, 2009) (Reinhardt et al., 2009) point out that several
conference speakers and attendees are using Twitter for various purposes. Nowadays
microblogging often is necessary to meet participants’ needs for communication during
academic events. Reinhardt (2009b) also pointed out the increasing dynamic of academic
communities using social networks for their communication.
Twitter as Tool for Semantic Profiling and Visualization
A very new approach is to use posts for semantic profiling or keyword extraction to visualize
crucial event topics.
As described before, conference participants tweet about what they have noticed, what they have
remarked as interesting for their own needs. What if we could connect these users by using this
information? An application is needed for a profiling of researchers. The fact that the data
produced in social networks can have true value if properly annotated and interlinked between
different services. It can be done by choosing community approved ontologies and linked open
data resources. A second requirement is to create a suitable interface for further treatment of that
Using the described Grabeeter API an application to allow researchers on Twitter to connect with
each other regarding to their profiles and interests has been developed, it is called “Researcher
Affinity Browser” (De Vocht et al., 2011).
[place FIGURE 8 here]
Figure 8. Researcher Affinity Browser (http://affinitybrowser.semanticprofiling.net/)
Figure 8 shows a screenshot of the Researcher Affinity Browser. The left column tells the
different affinity facets that can be explored. The center view displays the results in a grid, an
affinity plot, and a map. Details about a person and the person´s different affinities are to be seen
in the bottom zone.
The Researcher Affinity Browser application retrieves a list of relevant users using the
Researcher profiling API. The results are a current snapshot, not static data. Every time users
produce new content on social networks, the analyzed data evolves with it. The relevance is
measured according to the number of common entities (thus affinities) that are shared with the
user. The different affinity facets are displayed on the left. Within the demo version users can
explore three types of affinities: conferences, tags, and mentions. Activating a certain affinity
narrows down and filters the list of matching persons.
Users can explore their matches in several ways. First there is the result table that displays
detailed information about each person and how many affinities are shared. Second there is a
map view and an affinity plot synchronized with the result table. The purpose of the map is to
visualize the locations of the affiliations of the found persons. The affinity plot visualizes in a
quick overview how „good” the affinity to the user is. One dimension shows the mentions, the
other dimension shows the tags. The more to the top right corner a person’s dot is plotted, the
more affinity there is to the user.
Finally, users can double click on any person within the result list to get a tab that displays a
profile with more information and allows them to get more insight into certain affinities of that
person. They can also click on contact links to get in touch with that person. For example, if the
profile of someone is extracted from Twitter, a link to the Twitter profile will be displayed.
This application aims at gaining more knowledge and getting usable social data out of
microblogs with a framework driven methodology based upon semantic web standards and tools.
Some other efforts deal with the extraction of keywords of tweets and try to visualize them in a
meaningful way to get a clue about what people are writing, who is writing, and which topics are
focused (Ebner et al., 2011a). With the help of semantic web standards and linked data social
networks like twitter will help to combine data in a complete new way as well as offering new
insights and dependencies (Bojärs et al., 2008).
Twitter as well as microblogging in principle can be used in very different ways to enhance
academic communication and cooperation. Tab. 1 gives a short overview about the described
different research studies and points out the approaches used as well as its technical realization
by TU Graz.
Academic environment Approach Technical implementation
Enhance interaction for Allow anonymous posts http://twitterwall.tugraz.at
mass education on a Twitterwall
Discussion beyond face- Provide a Twitter channel http://twitter.com + lecture hashtag
to-face lecture for communication
Exchange lecture content Provide a Twitter channel http://twitter.com + lecture hashtag
or install an own platform
Documentation and Use an application that http://grabeeter.tugraz.at
information retrieval allows collection of posts
Enhance academic Provide Twitterwalls at http://twitterwall.tugraz.at +
conferences conferences for exchange conference hashtag
Become friend of Semantic profiling http://affinitybrowser.semanticprofi
researchers with similar ling.net/
Table 1. Overview about usage of microblogging in academic context
Table 1 points out that microblogging can be used for lecturing as well as for research purposes.
All cases in common are that the possibility of updating a status online is not only a fast way but
also a way to express feelings, statements or comments on other thoughts. So the nature of
microblogging is primarily about communication between people of same interests (at academic
conferences) or people with the same goal (lecture).
After thoroughly research studies over a long time period some crucial factors for using
microblogging in academic environments can be carried out. It can be also seen as a kind of
preconditions to get the community running:
1. Mobility: Between microblogging and mobility is a strong correlation or relationship.
Different research studies1 pointed out that more than 50% of all users mostly access
Twitter with a mobile device. Therefore microblogging is heavily used on the go or on
the move as well as during waiting times. The foreground is more or less to get
information from the stream or to post anything from a location. Smartphones with an on-
board camera offer a very interesting option to share something with the community.
Therefore especially for this purpose programmed apps are nowadays available (for
example Instagram is a mobile photo community, which can only be used and shared
with mobile phones) and allow us to deal with pictures in real time.
2. Communication: Microblogging allows us to communicate in a short and efficient way as
pointed out in different studies (Ebner et al., 2010). In the nature of a mobile society
contact to each other is an important precondition. This allows to keep in touch with
colleagues, teachers as well as students for exchanging thoughts, pictures, and statements
or simply to ask questions.
3. Collection: Finally a very interesting possibility is offered through microblogging, the use
of hashtags, and the search possibility. A community (for example lecture participants)
can save bookmarks, pictures or even videos by using an event hashtag. Because of the
simple possibility to do such posts this is maybe one of the most effective ways to
enhance lectures as well as conferences.
Mircoblogging became part of our daily life as well as other social network activities (Ebner et
al., 2011b). Today it is quite normal do use a smartphone for writing posts, sharing photos or
(last visited February 2012)
simply to communicate with a worldwide (academic) community. From this perspective the use
of Twitter or similar software in higher education as well as academic context must be taken into
account. As shown in this publication there are various possibilities to enhance lectures or
scientific events (conferences) through sharing and collecting related content. Based on different
research studies (Costa et al., 2008) (Grosseck & Holotescu, 2008) (Ebner et al., 2010a) this field
of research seems well progressed – the next research step should point to semantic analyses of
social networks, to address questions that can be answered in an implicit way. For example, what
is the post of a specific person about, how can be a person assisted by linked data because of
his/her posts. First research attempts were already done to combine people with same interest –
researchers, teachers as well as learners (Thonhauser et al., 2012).
Microblogging is primarily about communication and we have to think how we can assist it in a
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