Why A Course Hashtag

Collaborative Curiosity: Designing Community Engaged Research, VCU’s openly networked connected course, had its first twitter chat last Thursday with the course hashtag, #curiouscolab.  It was an AMAZING first Twitter chat, particularly since so many people were new to the concept.  However, many of us sometimes forgot to use the hashtag (including me) or used a course mention (@curiouscolab) instead of the course hashtag (#curiouscolab).

What’s the difference between a hashtag and a mention?

In Twitter, a “mention,” is the @ symbol followed by a specific Twitter handle.  For instance, if you wanted to mention me in a tweet you’d type @Googleguacamole.  It’s how you direct a comment towards me.  Imaging you were at a chatty cocktail party and you wanted to make sure I knew you were talking to me.  You’d say my name before you made the comment (e.g.”Laura, how was your day?”). A mention on Twitter has the same function as saying my name at the cocktail party.

When you put @Curiouscolab in a tweet, you’re directing the comment to whichever one of the course instructors or assistants happens to be manning the account at the moment. It’s kind of like calling the phone company and talking to a customer service provider – someone you know is affiliated with the company and is trained to offer some help or information, but is kind of faceless and nameless on a personal level. (Aside: tweeting @CuriousCoLab should be a better experience than calling @Verizon, though cable and phone services are notoriously better with customer service when you do it in public through tweets then in private over the phone.)

When you use a hashtag on Twitter, you are employing a keyword system that facilitates searches, so that people can follow conversations around topics rather than around people. Entire communities (I prefer the term affinity groups, technically) emerge around certain hashtags: #BlackLivesMatter. #ConnectedLearning. #DataViz. #CuriousCoLab.

Therefore, when you include #CuriousCoLab in a tweet you are adding a keyword that allows anyone interested in #CuriousCoLab tweets to see your tweet through a search.

Why is it important to put the course hashtag in the tweet?

  • Course hashtags allow the people in the course to see the entire conversation in a twitter chat. This is particularly important in larger courses where students don’t know each other, or in courses where students might read the conversation after it has occurred, or in courses where some students might be big tweeters who follow many people other than the other students.
  • Course hashtags allow for easier curation.  Collaborative Curiosity, like many online learning experiences, uses Storify to archive the conversation for documentation, later reading, or reflection.  Here’s an example from last year’s course. Storifying a Twitter chat can be a great experience because it allows you to read through all the tweets, reorganize however you like (chronologically? thematically?), add other explanatory pieces (ex. blog posts, images, or videos, or free text to help tell the story), and discover all the things you missed the first time around. However, Storifies are only possible if most of the conversation is hashtagged with the course hashtag.  A Storify creator can’t be expected to poke around all the corners of the Internet looking for stray pieces of the conversation.  That’s not reasonable.
  • Course hashtags are part of the mechanics of academic Twitter. It’s like indenting a paragraph or using an Oxford comma. As Academic Twitter continues to grow (FYI: Bonnie Stewart is my favorite Academic Twitter researcher if you are interested), it behooves us to learn a bit of the mechanics so that we can better engage in professional conferences and digitally mediated professional development.
  • Course hashtags allow for easier documentation. As I wrote last week, Collaborative Curiosity is designed to help you reflect on your connections – connections across ideas, people, and time. Reflection requires documentation, because – Schon aside – reflecting in action is notoriously difficult.  The appropriate use of mentions and hashtags allows us to automatically capture and visualize your conversations through social network analysis.  On the course website, we use TAGS Explorer.  In my research, I use NodeXL.  This crazy map was created with netlytic.org.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 8.27.41 AM

Social network analysis is a way to visualize interactions in space. By pushing a few buttons, I collected all #curiouscolab tweets from last week.  Netlytics.org mapped out who was talking to whom on Twitter via their mentions.  The dots (“nodes”) are people, and the lines (“edges”) are the connections.

For the purpose of participant privacy, I hid all the node labels other than my own (@googleguacamole) and that of the lead instructor (Valerie Holton).  Later we’ll get into what I could have done to make this a much more meaningful piece of data visualization, but my point right now is this…See how big I am?  Yeah, I talk frequently to a lot of people using the #Curiouscolab hashtag, but my prevalence is also related to the fact that I captured many of the other participants’ unhashtagged Twitter chat contributions and retweeted them with the hashtag.  I got credit for their work.

Collaborative Curiosity does not grade based on number of tweets.  However, the lack of adequate documentation matters because later on in the course, we are hoping that participants will start to engage in (hopefully deep) reflection on how they engage others on social media platforms.  Are you good at networking? Do you seek out new voices? Do you only talk to the instructors? Do you spend time mostly talking to a small cluster of people? These social network analyses, when properly created (and not my mess shown above) can help people see who they engage and how often.  It’s a tool for self reflection that only works if course tweets are hashtagged.

How can I remember to use the course hashtag?

“Practice” is the most accurate but least useful piece of advice I can give you.  So here are some strategies for remembering to use the course hashtag:

  • Type it (or copy/paste) at the beginning of a tweet?  That way you know you have enough characters and you don’t forget it in a fit of passionate microblogging.  It’s perfectly fine to leave it at the front of the tweet (because in a sense you are addressing the #curiouscolab community as if it were a collective mention).
  • A sticky note to the computer screen?
  • A ribbon tied around your wrist?
  • Do whatever works for you.  The point is…course hashtags are important because they enable community, documentation, and self reflection.
Sylwia Bartyzel
Remember that course hashtag! Photo by Sylwia Bartyzel (CC BY 2.0)