Friday, April 27, 2012

The Vendor Corollary to Lord-of-the-Flies: an open letter to edtech companies on Twitter

Save Our Tweetups
When the head of the Indiana Department of Education and I agree completely on something, it is a special time. So when I heard him refer to twitter as an excellent source of professional development, I noted it as that rare convergence of educational worldviews.

I currently devote about 5 hours of my life (more for curation) each week to the low-impact professional development, personal learning networking, and link-and-learning available on Twitter. Hastag chats are near and dear to my geeky little heart: #byotchat, #edchat, #flipclass with a strong pull to #isedchat, #pblchat, and, if i ever figure out when they regularly converge I will add, #digcit and #edtech.

These are great places to be affirmed, to learn new techniques, to ask questions, and to pull tons of resources (which i routinely tag and then go back to read and add to @pearltrees -- although they need an ANDROID app in such a bad way. *hint*).

But, in a variation of what often happens in a capitalistic society, whenever two or more are gathered in the name of anything, someone is going to try to sell you something. And so, it is with a heavy heart but a great deal of optimism over the power of the human spirit that i offer this corollary to my Social Media Lord-of-the-Flies Rule: Student, left to their own devices in social media, will create their own norms of behavior.

The EdTech Vendor Corollary: 

Educational Technology Vendors, without guidelines of appropriate conduct, will attempt to hijack, dilute, and flood every professional development opportunity. (or something like that)

Follow the Trends:

This has happened in all sorts of social media spaces. I was following the trend with mommy-bloggers a couple of years ago as the social media mommy market exploded and the brands took notice. Over the course of time  I saw partisan lines develop over the affiliation with branded products, I saw an increasing amount of posts about that issue rather than about the things that made mommy-blogs popular, and i watched  new entrants to the medium fail to see value because it had been diluted with pitches, thinly veiled paid endorsements and little real content.

This happens with celebrities too. Fans like to follow the real lives of celebrities and call foul when a celeb who has been so good at interaction and personal sharing gives the account over to a professional media company. The cool and slick varnish of a marketing person sticks out like a sore digital thumb in the twittersphere. I have not investigated if there is a decline, but i have seen the backlash first hand.

My Proposed Rules of Conduct for #EdTech Vendors:

1. Keep Chat Times Generic Ad Free
It is to the advantage of an advertiser to post information when the most eyes are looking at it. This rules has been true since the Mad Men days. Thus it makes sense that Advertisers will want to set up their auto-ads to play when fifty or a hundred or a few hundred are looking rather than just a few.

But when i log into #edchat, it is with dread that i wait through the rush of generic ads from vendors large and small that often have absolutely NOTHING to do with the topic which has been voted and deliberated by educators who are a part of the community.

Solution: use the 5-10 minutes before the chat and after the chat. Many of us log in early and stick around afterward. Those who visit later scroll through. It's not as many eyes, but you will get more respect from those of us in a position to take advantage of your services.

2. Robo-Responses are NOT appreciated and should be avoided.
Samsung's twitter support has won awards because it is responsive to real people. Many educational technology vendors have actual educators on the payroll who have valuable experience and can contribute in a realistic way -- This is great! Do not set automatic replies, even if they are on topic, particularly if they are a link to your boffo-wow website.

The point of the hashtag conversation is, in part, to be introduced to new resources. But those resources should exist within a context of conversation, recommendation, enhanced learning, and problem solving. Even well intentioned participants occasionally fall into this trap, sending out timed responses and then leaving @-replies hanging in the air. In short: if you fall during the hours of an actual tweetup, we want to talk to real people about the topic -- no a robot, not a generic link

3. The Blogger's Conundrum
Self-confession: I struggle with this one. When you are an avid blogger about a specific topic or when you have been blogging for a long time, there is a good chance that a) you have more than 140 characters to say on the topic and b) you would love for other people to see what you wrote about. The problem is that, much like generic vendors, the blog announcement can seem out of place if it posts in the middle of an hour long chat outside the topic. So some guidelines:
  • When possible, post a blog link in reply to a specific question or comment
  • Indicate what the blog is about and its relevance (link to posts, not the general blog)
  • Avoid new blogpost announcements during chat times (if you don't know when the chat is, why are using that hashtag, you troll? :) )
Again, I have been guilty of this and appreciate when some of my hashtag friends call me on it. We have to hold ourselves to at least the standard we expect out of corporations.

On Reflection

This is not unexpected. And some of what I have posted is to get the #edtech vendors to start thinking about self-regulation in deliberate way. I do not want to see one of the most organic wide-spread professional development movements in the last decade collapse under the weight of unsolicited advertisements. We get that it is a cheap and easy method to get your name out there -- heck, i will even acknowledge that some of the content/product is decent.

But if you ruin the experience of users who are seeking to connect with real people and have real conversations, then they will go away...And you will lose your audience. And nobody wants that.

So please, educational technology vendors: Come play in our digital reindeer games. But come as a person...with insights and thoughts and contributions and experiences. Link only when its relevant and appropriate. 

We will appreciate it. We will retweet. We will buy...

and we might even improve student learning while we're at it.