Twitter in the workplace – Communities of practice, phatic communication and knowledge sharing

On: October 8, 2009
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About Gwen Keupe
Gwen Keupe is a New Media Master student at the University of Amsterdam. She graduated her Bachelors degree with a thesis titled 'One Million Strong for Barack - Openness and involvement through online deliberation'. Her research interests lie within online social networks and the way people use them to accomplish real things offline.


Twitter is easy. When you want to start tweeting you only have to enter your e-mail address, think of a screen name and you immediately can start tweeting your every thought. You can make the choice of starting to follow other people on Twitter and you again will easily find out that almost every celebrity and news-making agency you can think of is involved. Tweeting is a fun practice if you can get into it. I did. I must confess I have already past the 700 tweets mark (and counting) and only have 22 people following me.

What did I tweet about these 700 times (and counting)?  Well, besides a lot – A LOT – of nonsense, I use it to communicate with my classmates about upcoming assignments, share links, articles and frustrations. It makes me feel good to know that somebody is also feeling miserable behind a computer and it makes me feel even better when somebody helps me out with a problem that I have run into while doing my homework.

All this tweeting with my classmates has led me to think about the way one could also use Twitter in the workplace, people there too encounter problems and probably encounter the same types of problems when working on a shared project.

Chun Wei Choo argues that when one tries to apply a new technology in the workplace, one must first look if the new technology is compatible with the social values that are embedded into a workplace.

Twitter, having very low key and easy to use characteristics (you only have to state what you are doing within 140 signs), could be perfect for a community of practice within a workplace. A community of practice is a group of people that is not formally organized, but comes up naturally and spontaneously. Within a community of practice people share tacit, explicit and cultural knowledge in a non – official manner.

Vincent Miller argues that the way in which people communicate on social network sites like Twitter is a form of communication that he defines as ‘phatic communication’. By ‘phatic communication’ Miller is referring to the flattening of communication that is occurring on social network sites. Communication is not in a dialogue form, but is mostly in a monologue form and is of a low informative nature. For Miller, the true value in technological aids like Twitter lies within the feeling of ‘connected presence’ that occurs when one uses the medium, which means that people feel more connected to each other through the use of a medium like Twitter.

Twitter could therefore be compatible with the social values that are characteristic to a community of practice. It is a low key, easy to use technology, where people can express themselves by placing short messages in their own and informal language. People feel more connected through these practices of short messaging and problem sharing (just like I do with my classmates). And although one could argue like Miller that communication on Twitter is mostly a monologue instead of a dialogue, this characteristic does not have to be negative. To tweet about what you are doing when working on a project is a way of directly making tacit knowledge explicit, thus making information sharing through the use of a medium like Twitter even more practical.

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