I’ve been teaching a class on Web 2.0 since 2007, and this semester is the first time that I’ve actually had a full week on Twitter (well, microblogging and lifestreaming to be specific). Before, I treated it sort of as an afterthought, including some information on Twitter during the two weeks that I covered blogging. But Twitter has changed so much in significance and utility since I last taught the class in Fall ’08 that it made sense to rethink the way I covered it. I think my decision to cover it in more depth also reflected a change in my own view of Twitter over the past year.

For the way I like to get information, life was a lot easier before Twitter came on the scene. For the most part, the Web was asynchronous. I could visit blogs any time I wanted, read the content, and comment on posts. Especially with RSS, once I was subscribed to a blog, I would never miss any content coming from it. I would never miss a good conversation and I could do it in my own time-frame. With the growth of the real-time web, this has changed. It’s so easy to miss an important conversation or a useful link. With Twitter, the conversation is going on 24X7, and if you’re following more than a very small number of people, you can’t easily go back and see what you missed while you were busy doing other things. While I do know people who seem to spend endless hours on Twitter and/or FriendFeed, most of us just try to jump into the conversation (or the stream) when we can and have to accept that there will be things we’ll miss.

Twitter (and FriendFeed, and other microblogging and lifestreaming apps) has been an amazing boon to those looking for connection and conversation. Now, the playing field is so much more level. You don’t have to have your own blog or write long-form posts to make a name for yourself and become a part of a community. You can just follow people, start a conversation with them. I’ve become friendly with people I’ve never met in real life, but connected with online because we had something in common (babies, libraries, etc.). Maybe they commented on some of my tweets/posts or I on theirs, but over time, through those comments and back-and-forths you build connection. You build community. I know people who have created proposals for conference presentations with people they don’t even know in real-life through Twitter. And it’s very different than the blogosphere where each person had their own “home” that they controlled. Even when people can comment on your blog, you own the conversation because it’s your blog, your destination. While I do like having my own space too, I think there is a powerful draw to these real-time web spaces where everyone is welcome and anyone can jump into the conversation.

Many of my students commented — during the week they were required to use Twitter — that they were pleasantly surprised that Twitter was a lot more useful than they thought it would be. Some students had already used it before, and found additional professional uses for it through the week’s activities. Some students who had never tried it before are still using Twitter over a month later. Others tried it and realized that other social networks (mainly Facebook) were a better fit for them. It’s certainly not for everyone, but a lot of my students were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t just all about what people are eating for lunch that day.

I know I’ve had moments where I’ve hated Twitter and found it pointless and frivolous and there is certainly a lot going on in Twitter that is less than useful. However, even beyond the personal and professional networking and community-building that goes on in these spaces, Twitter has a lot of utility for those who use it. Here are just a few ways that Twitter can be practically useful:

1. It’s great for querying the hive. When I was looking for examples of Facebook pages to share with my class, I asked people on FriendFeed, Facebook and Twitter what Facebook pages they like the best. And I got a lot of great responses from people I knew and people I don’t who follow me in those spaces. I’ve gotten feedback on websites and tutorials I’ve created on Twitter as well.

2. It can be great for sharing knowledge. It’s so easy to post a useful link, tell people about a tool you used that you really liked, etc. in Twitter, and for other people to amplify those messages they find useful through Retweeting them (RT).

I use TweetDeck (an external Twitter client) to manage the people and organizations I follow, and I’ve separated them into the various subject areas I’m interested in keeping up with. I have a feed of library and tech-related people who share useful content, a feed of parenting-related stuff (shopping deals and safety info mainly), and I have a feed for Vermont-related info from news sources, people, and local stores I frequent. So many of the librarians I follow share useful blog posts, articles and studies that I’d probably have never discovered otherwise. One parenting Twitter feed shared with me the fact that several babies had died using a product we had for our son. It’s more than just hearing what people had for lunch or how cool the library is; it’s actually about getting useful news and resources.

While it’s a great medium for sharing knowldge, it’s not great for storing knowledge, since Twitter wasn’t really designed for doing anything with Tweets other than favoriting them (which isn’t exactly an effective way to store thousands of useful ideas you may want to save). Some sites and applications have been developed to help with this, but tweets are still so much more ephemeral than blog posts, which, as a librarian (and in light of some historic events that have unfolded on Twitter) concerns me.

3. It can be great for conferences. When you’re at a big conference, it can be difficult to find people and figure out which are the best sessions to attend. With Twitter, you could be walking around and hear about people who share your interests who are at a session that you realize would be perfect for you to attend. Or you could be in a session, tweet that you’re looking for people to go to lunch with, and have plans by the time you get out of that session.

On the flip side, this makes me worry about Twitter taking our attention away from the sessions and important learning going on at a conference. I think sometimes it does, and it can do worse, creating a distracting and hostile environment for speakers, as you can see in the case of danah boyd’s speech at the Web 2.0 Expo. I’ll be attending Computers in Libraries in just a few days, and I do not plan to use Twitter much, even if it makes me more “out-of-the-loop.” I’d rather be out-of-the-loop and get more out of the sessions I’m attending.

4. It can be a great advocacy tool. Libraries and non-profits are using Twitter to promote their services and get the word out about projects they’re working on, current needs, and the news on issues related to their cause. And people who support them can amplify their messages through retweets. It’s also a great way to join conversations happening among their community of users.

I think it takes time to figure out how best to manage the flow of information from Twitter and how many people you can realistically follow. Before Twitter Lists came out (which I haven’t really used) TweetDeck was a godsend for helping me to manage the stream of information. I could separate the people I follow by the reasons I follow them and also made a list of favorite people (most of whom I’m friends with) which is the list I keep track of the most.

I think how you feel about Twitter is all in how you approach it. I think some people still don’t like it because they feel like they’re always missing something. If you see it as something you can easily pop in and out of (as interest and time allow) without missing a beat, it’s a great platform. It took me a while to realize that it didn’t matter if I missed a big conversation, argument, useful link or clever quip — if it’s important enough, someone will retweet it or blog about it and I’ll see it at some point (can I just tell you how much I love Bobbi Newman’s weekly Top 10 Links on her blog? Awesomely useful!). For people who approach Twitter as I do now, it can be a great tool for learning that requires so little of you and allows you to be as social (or unsocial) as you want at your convenience. It’s an always-on social gathering that you can enter and leave at will. And while it messed with my Type-A personality for a while, I’m now getting a lot out of Twitter.