In Defense of Human Tweeting

A Bird Mascot Unmasked

Illustration by Tom Klimek

In April 2008, I joined Twitter (@LoriPA) and quickly found it to be a fun, useful and powerful tool. One month later, I created the University of Rochester’s Twitter account (@UofR) and quickly found it to be – well, frankly, confusing.

I created the account primarily to grab the UofR name. I assumed that as I used Twitter personally, I would learn how to use it institutionally. Instead, while my own use of Twitter exploded, my school’s use of Twitter advanced in fits and starts. I understood what it meant for me to be on Twitter, but after two years of tweeting as the University of Rochester, I never really grasped what it meant for the university to tweet.

In August 2010, following conversations that grew out of my HighEdWeb presentation “Talking to Your Boss About Twitter” and after reading Shel Israel’s insights in his book, “Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods” I made a simple change: I replaced the University of Rochester logo as the Twitter avatar with my own bespectacled mug, and was up front in the bio that the tweets were coming from me, Lori in Wallis Hall.

How have things gone, six months into the experiment. First, I have no quantifiable evidence that this change in approach has led to more followers, more retweets or a greater Klout score. We’ve gone from 1,400 followers in mid-August to 2,100 today, and we gain an average of 12 new followers a day. In the six months before this change, we grew from 960 fans to 1,400. While we are growing at a faster rate, but this likely has more to do with the overall growth of Twitter than my small but, I think, significant change.

What I do have are some stories that I think illustrate how being a person on Twitter has proved useful to me, and I hope to our followers.

Live Team Tweeting

My first real chance to explore this more personal approach to Twitter came during Rochester’s reunion and parents’ weekend, about two months after the switch. I proposed a simple idea: create a “Twitter team” – one person from Student Activities, one from Alumni Relations and me. We would be empowered to live-tweet from events and answer questions with complete transparency.

Instead of tweeting event listings and news releases, we could give our followers who weren’t in town a sense of the weekend through our photos and tweets from the weekend’s lectures, concerts and sporting events. Without feeling like we had to the carry the weight of the entire University of Rochester on our virtual shoulders, we were free to be Lori, Brie and Melissa.

University of Rochester Twitter Profile

Responses with a Personal Touch

If the June 2010 Old Spice Twitter campaign taught me anything, it’s the importance of smelling like a man. But if it taught me anything else, it’s the power of the personal response. Throughout the hugely successful campaign, the Old Spice Man would respond in near real-time to the tweets of ordinary, less-well-scented citizens. During that same summer, Tim Nekritz of SUNY Oswego blogged about the Atlanta Braves and how they use their Twitter account to respond directly to their fans.

Both of those ideas inspired me to use our Twitter account to send quick, personal, visual responses to our followers when I can. I don’t know how you measure the impact or value of such an interaction, but currently, it’s not a huge commitment of time, and it usually leads to a fun interaction that wouldn’t be possible or as immediate any other way.

Contest Time: 80s Television Edition

In December, comedian Howie Mandel came to campus. A student contacted the @UofR Twitter account and suggested I hold a Twitter contest to give away some tickets he couldn’t use.

Over lunch that day, the University’s first Twitter trivia contest began. Quick! What was the name of Mandel’s children’s series and the name of his character from the 80s television show St. Elsewhere? If you answered “Bobby’s World” and “Dr. Wayne Fiscus,” you are correct! And how fast did the responses roll in? If you answered, “Almost immediately,” you win the bonus round. There were 30 responses to give away four tickets. Again, hardly a social media revolution, I know. But it was a fun step in a new direction for us.

Communicating in a Crisis

In January 2011, a University of Rochester student was murdered during a party. While this was not a case of an ongoing threat or emergency, students, alumni and parents used Twitter as a way to express their shock and sadness, and to ask questions.

As a person and not a logo, it was much easier to commiserate with others in my community, answer questions when I could and be up front with them when I could not answer their questions.

Final Thoughts

Could each of the above scenarios have worked if I had not changed our avatar from a logo to a face? Sure. But this simple change is indicative of a larger mindset when it comes to social media. I still occasionally run into a critique of social media that goes something like this: “Everyone just updates their screens all day. Why don’t you go out and talk to some actual people for a change?” To which I reply, “Who do you think is posting all these updates and writing all these tweets?! PEOPLE!” Even in an institutional setting, it is still a person who is doing the tweeting. Why pretend otherwise?