Twitter’s Value to Technical Communication

Some responses to an inquiry I got via email from a student at the University of Minnesota in the Scientific and Technical Communication program. Thanks Mary, for asking nice thought-provoking questions!

1. What do you think is the value of Twitter compared to other forms of communication?

To me, the value of Twitter is that it was built based on the patterns some people saw of the ways people were really communicating online – In this interview with Noah Glass, one of Twitter’s founders, a journalist learns that Noah was reading myspace postings and figuring out that asynchronous, status-like updates were how people were really talking to each other online. The value of Twitter that I see after reading that article is that Twitter modeled itself after reality. It works well with mobile devices, a communication device that needed to fill a void in 2006-7. It’s hard to compare it to email or texting or instant messaging, when it’s a messaging system we didn’t know we needed until we had it. Recognizing and filling that need is how Twitter is thriving today.

2. Can Twitter really be used for documentation and if so, what are its unique qualities?

Sure, people are using Twitter for posting tips and tricks and encouraging others to do the same. It’s also being used for Twitter chats, periods of time set aside to talk on Twitter with a particular hashtag collecting and aggregating all the tweets within the time period. Tweets with a certain hashtag can also be displayed alongside online content that serves as documentation. Twitter can be used for the goals met with traditional documentation when the goals are customer support or service, engagement, adoption, research and feedback loops, and other similar customer-serving goals that doc fulfills. So yes, Twitter can be used for documentation, when documentation’s goals align with some Twitter use cases.

3. Are there any accessibility problems facing Twitter and what are the best ways to make Twitter more accessible?

Accessibility improvements usually apply to vision impairment, and the popularity of the iPhone or other smart phones that automatically eliminate most vision-impaired users mean that Twitter is not easily accessible to those usually served by accommodations such as screen readers. I don’t have real suggestions to make Twitter web content more accessible – I actually believe the mobile devices need to become more accessible to vision-impaired people. Touchscreens just aren’t going to cut it.

What’s more interesting to me are the articles about how much social media like Twitter suffers from a “club” problem – it can amplify how disconnected we are with other cultures. For example, when some BET award show topics started trending and some people on Twitter commented as if to say “I didn’t realize ‘they’ were here” I was mortified as were others. That lack of vision and close-mindedness is a huge social problem that social media can amplify. Also, there’s an often hidden advantage that doesn’t have to do with disabilities necessarily. Those of us with fairly “boring” lives (no horrid exes, no fear of violence or retaliation, no fear of identity theft or libelous charges) can use Twitter or other social platforms without fear, but others who grew up in gangs, had to reinvent themselves to avoid prosecution, or people who are chased by violent family members cannot use Twitter unless they’re willing to take much more risk than others.

8 Comments

  • May 5, 2011 - 6:24 am | Permalink

    Hi Anne

    I absolutely love that a student in this field is asking about accessibility!

    I’d like to expand on Answer 3.

    There’s more accessibility in Twitter and mobile devices than you’d think. Just ask any of these blind Twitter users:
    http://twitter.com/stcaccess/lists/vision
    (They represent a fraction of blind users on Twitter.)

    Through them, you can learn how Apple’s VoiceOver and work on the Android are inclusive – letting blind or low-vision users waste as much time on Twitter as anyone else. ;)

    It’s not Twitter itself that is accessible. It’s the third-party tools – made with accessibility in the driver’s seat – that are accessible.

    http://accessibletwitter.com is a fully accessible version of Twitter on the web, and it even works nicely on the Kindle! It was made by Dennis Lembree (@dennisl a.k.a. @accessibletwitr) together with incredible support from several developers from around the world. I love it – and I am not blind (although I am near-sighted). Every time I read about a sighted user complaining about twitter.com, I always suggest they try accessibletwitter.com.

    Places like http://www.knowbility.org/ have reviews of tools for participating in social media regardless of your disability.

    While it’s true that Twitter.com was not designed with accessibility in mind, it’s also true that amazing people involved with accessibility are making the tools that *are* accessible so that everyone can jump into social media and make their voice heard.

    I’ll add that following @GlendaWH and her blog will also expose you to the new world an iPad can give many people – like Glenda with her cerebral palsy. The amount of tweeting Glenda does with her left thumb will leave many technical communicators in the dust!

    The lists by @stcaccess on Twitter have many, many good resources on people and organizations working with accessibility, social media, the web, and lots, lots more. (Disclaimer: I tweet as @stcaccess as well as myself at @kmdk.)

  • May 5, 2011 - 7:29 am | Permalink

    That’s a wonderful, inspirational group, Karen! Thanks for your comment!

  • May 5, 2011 - 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anne,
    I agree with Karen that it’s great to see a student asking about Twitter use. We don’t see a lot of Twitter use among our students at RIT, although once they start getting the idea that it can help with networking and extend their personal brand, some do start.

    I’ve found the larger value of Twitter to technical communications in the networking opportunities it fosters and as a communications tool to get a quick reply from someone I know uses it actively.

    On the information security side (the subject area in which I practice my techcomm skills), I use Twitter more to verify what threats are trending and to get quick notification when an attack does happen.

    Karen mentions the accessibility of some of the third party tools. I can’t even imagine trying to use Twitter with just its native interface. When HootSuite was impacted by the Amazon outage, using Twitter through its native interface felt like going back to the Stone Age. I use HootSuite to administer my personal twitter account @bwoelk, as well as @STC_rochester and @RIT_Infosec.

  • May 5, 2011 - 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I know you’re going to fix that wrong “its” in question #2. :-) Otherwise, VERY INTERESTING. Thanks!

  • May 7, 2011 - 9:04 am | Permalink

    Fixed, thanks John! :)

  • May 21, 2011 - 12:18 am | Permalink

    I love it! Technical writers should be present with current movements in popular culture. It’s important for any company or organization to be connected with the people who they work with.

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