The microblogging format of Twitter — which has become increasingly popular on campus — may bring administrators and faculty members like Harris-Lacewell closer to students, as they divulge personal details of their lives in an informal setting.
With an estimated 5 million users, Twitter is the third largest online social network, after facebook.com and myspace.com. On the website, founded in 2006, users can post messages of up to 140 characters that are listed on the site’s public timeline. Users can also choose to “follow” the posts, or “tweets” of other Twitterers.
Lacewell, a regular commentator on MSNBC, sometimes directs tweets at Rachel Maddow or informs followers of her television appearances.
“I disagreed with Paul Krugman on CNN this morning. What was I thinking? I’d had no coffee. Was delirious. I apologize. The man has Nobel!” she tweeted on March 24.
Wilson School professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman also has a Twitter account with roughly 5,000 followers.
Last month, the Office of Communications took over the Princeton University Twitter account. It has acquired 191 followers, paling in comparison to the accounts run by Stanford, Cornell, Harvard and other elite universities, which boast up to two or three times that number of followers.
Communications director Lauren Robinson-Brown ’85 said Twitter posts from the communications office are less formal than updates on the University homepage, adding that the University only “follows” other University offices and departments.
“These platforms by nature are social and therefore much more casual than the official news that we manage,” she said. “We intend to adopt a casual style so that the intended audiences will find the information we post relevant.”
Guidelines for individual department Twitter accounts are currently being developed by the University, Robinson-Brown said, noting that the University does not monitor employee Twitter accounts.
“Professors should be constrained as little as possible,” Center for Information Technology Policy associate director David Robinson ’04 said.
“Obviously, if professors want to use Twitter or blogging or Morse code, the University should be totally fine with that,” he said. “Even the staff who speak for the University as a whole should have room to experiment.”
“Eventually, norms will emerge, but for now, it has evolved naturally, and we don’t need a policy.”
Many politicians, including President Obama, have accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and use the tool to let their fans know when and where events are being held.
Meg Whitman ’77, who announced her bid for the California governorship two months ago, has used her Twitter profile, “Whitman2010” to link to articles written about her and provide updates about her life — both on and off the campaign.
“No campaign activities today. My son arriving with 30 members of his rugby team — 8 staying with us. Lots of games this week. Should be fun!” Whitman posted on her profile last month from her Blackberry.
Sean “Diddy” Combs, an American rapper, is ranked among the top 20 Twitterers, with more than 400,000 followers. Other profiles in the top 20 include CNN, the Times, Britney Spears, Barack Obama, former vice president Al Gore and Coldplay.
Combs, who has the username of “iamdiddy”, regularly posts about his day-to-day life, parties and other famous artists.
On April 4, Combs wrote, “Happy saturday people! Eating corn flakes and watching some PORN! Hey its saturday and I’m a scorpio! What can I say? Lol.”
News outlets and institutions like Princeton, however, have found more serious applications for Twitter.
During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Times reported that posts about Mumbai were being published at a rate faster than one message per second. Many of the tweets were being posted from cell phones of journalists and citizens at the scene of the attacks.
Robinson said he uses Twitter as a professional tool, adding that he considered it to be a sort of “meta-application.”
“If I didn’t study technology, I probably wouldn’t be a [Twitter] member,” Robinson said. “The irony of the technology is that a very high fraction of users are people who study or work in technology. A lot of the content on Twitter is about Twitter, which does not bode well for Twitter.”
Robinson added that he uses Facebook, which he considers to be more versatile, to communicate with friends and mainly uses Twitter to share links to interesting articles.
Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin recently had a meal of scotch and lasagna and prefers tequila to the number “pi,” according to his Twitter feed.
Dobkin said he joined the site a few months ago to understand how tools like Twitter affect social interaction.
“I have been a member of Facebook for the past four years and have watched it grow and change over time,” he explained. “I hope to be able to do the same with Twitter as it will inform some of the discussion I lead in WWS 451 [The Internet and Public Policy] that I co-teach.”
Dobkin noted that that it initially took some time for him to feel like an “active member” of Facebook because most of the other users belonged to a different generation.
“Recently, that has changed as the membership of Facebook has broadened,” he explained. “Twitter is still in the place where few of my peers are active, so my use of it has been limited. I expect that will change, but I’m not sure when.”
Robinson said it was difficult to estimate how many Princetonians use Twitter but noted that between one quarter and one third of his friends use the site.
Schuyler Softy ’11 said she thought most Princetonians who used the site were seniors, adding that roughly 20 of her friends have Twitter profiles.
She noted that it took time for her to adjust to the site. Though she initially used it to receive news updates or find out about online trends, she now uses it once or twice per day to update friends on what she is doing or thinking, she said.
“The concept was weird at first, since it seemed like it was just a collection of Facebook status updates,” Softy said. “Now I’ve connected it to my Facebook profile and blog, and I use it to connect with friends and follow my favorite bands and bloggers.”
Susan Lyon ’09 estimated that there are between 300 and 500 Princeton Twitterers and that the number was “growing quickly.” She explained that she joined Twitter recently as a procrastination tool during midterms.
Robinson said he thought Twitter served primarily as a distraction for most of the site’s users.
“In the long run, the real thing that’s scarce on the internet is attention,” he explained. “We can’t generate more time and attention, and I think that Twitter can be an interruption and distraction.”
Robinson added that he thought human psychology would probably play a large role in the site’s continued success.
“Clearly, there’s some pattern of people wanting to confess and display and reveal their inner thoughts,” he said. “I think it’s an interesting and deeply human phenomenon.”