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Twitter As a Lifeline

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I wrote before that Twitter was like a magic cafe or an eternal, really good TESOL conference, but it can actually be a lifeline in times of disaster.

When the Tohoku Earthquake hit Japan, I was in California, but I was using Twitter at the time, on my @readable account with a lot of Japanese users. Many of them quickly tweeted 地震だ–”it’s an earthquake.” I realized something was wrong when, even fifteen minutes later, they were tweeting things like まだゆれる–”it’s still shaking.”

For people who were and are in a disaster area and are not totally fluent in the local language, the situation can range from stressful to life-threatening. Even being in the Tokyo area (distant from the tsunami and major quake damage), with aftershocks, confusing power outages, train stoppages, and food shortages, is proving a challenge for many people. People who have made a good effort to learn Japanese are still finding that a whole host of new vocabulary is cropping up–planned power outage, aftershock, evacuation, contamination, nuclear power plant, and so on.

For the first couple of days, information from official sources was hard to get (at least overseas) in English–people kept saying to watch NHK World News, but when I turned it on, it was often just a loop of tsunami warnings, or a loop of translated news that I knew to be many hours old. (I knew the news was old because Twitterers like @makiwi, a food writer, and @TimeOutTokyo, an entertainment magazine site’s account, were tweeting live news in English–read about Six 6 Tokyo Tweeters Who Kept the City Informed here. And while NHK World News was behind, CNN and MSNBC and so on were woefully behind, and just so bad overall that I quit bothering with them. Meanwhile, BBC’s radio announcers mangled Japanese place names so badly that I couldn’t understand where they meant, which was pretty useless. While there was some good mainstream reporting later [caveat], I would not currently rely on these news outlets in a crisis where I needed to make decisions.)

During this time, and even (to a great extent) now, if you wanted to get information about things like the current status of the nuclear plants, who could help with emergency translation (seriously–medical experts were volunteering on the spot!), what all those microsieverts and millisieverts meant, where you could get shelter, how you could get from Point A to Point B with the expressways closed, where get temporary medication refills, which train lines were running, where to buy bread and batteries, how to use Google People Finder to check on survivors, who would take English-speaking volunteers, where to get information on cooking with limited resources, how to extend a visa or replace a passport, and so on, you could find the answers on Twitter. And during the aftermath, many of my Japanese friends say that Twitter has also helped them feel less alone, more reassured, and constantly encouraged, despite the stress and confusion. Some people have criticized Twitter for spreading hoaxes and rumors, but those spread by word of mouth, too (and for, heaven’s sake, even newspapers). Critical thinking, asking questions, and checking with reliable Twitterers all go a long way.

People rapidly came together on Twitter to help each other find information, connect users to other users who could translate something or supply an answer, and otherwise assist each other (even outright offering spare rooms to strangers). I noticed people’s lists of followers exploding, and not just those (like @makiwi and @TimeOutTokyo) who were valiantly translating NHK live and otherwise providing information you couldn’t get anywhere else.

Anyway, I can tell you that if I’d been in Japan, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been without Twitter. At the moment of a crisis, of course, it’s better to head for high ground, get under your desk, or whatever rather than checking Twitter (although at least one person was apparently rescued from a rooftop due to Twitter, since he wasn’t able to make a call but could send a tweet!). After that first moment, though, Twitter’s usefulness really kicks in. Disasters of one kind or another–floods, invasions, earthquakes, wildfires, uprisings–can happen almost anywhere. And despite the way we humans naturally tend to think, you’re not immune to disasters if you’re an outsider who is only there for a year or two: without fully-developed family and social networks, high-level language skills, knowledge of your surroundings, a fully-stocked household, and so on, you are probably more vulnerable.

Of course, you can’t necessarily sit there and wait for information to flow in–you need to either already have a well-developed Twitter network or be willing to seek out and find additional useful people to follow (or both). And you need be adventurous and creative in your use of English and the local language to search Twitter for the information you need (and not hesitate to ask people who might be helpful). Two places to start are 1) my Twitter guide for ESL students (simplified, but suitable for anyone, including people who use Twitter but haven’t explored its various functions–hashtags, for example, became very useful for regional information-sharing), and 2) my Twitter lists. To use Twitter lists, click on the name of the list and then the “Following: ” tab at the top. You can choose to follow individual members, who will show up in your Twitter timeline as usual. Or you can follow the whole list, but the members won’t show up in your timeline unless you also follow them individually. To read tweets from the list, you’ll have to go look at the list in your Twitter app or on Twitter.com.

Anyway, sorry for the length, but I hope this is useful to someone (although I suppose it’s better if it’s not, eh?). If you have any questions, let me know–and take care!

Twitter in Print

Thanks to the recommendation of author and Twitterati star Mayumi Ishihara, my Twitter account for English learners (@readable) was featured in a Japanese business magazine. I think it’s still on the stands in Japan–look for the 9/21 issue of 日経ビジネス Associe. On page 98, Ms. Ishihara introduces a few Twitter accounts and hashtags that can be useful to Japanese learners of English. She’s the author of a recent popular book on using Twitter to practice actually using English, so I was really pleased that she liked my account enough to recommend it to others. I enjoy being in touch with international English learners via Twitter–as a US-based teacher (at the moment), it’s an interesting way to get in touch with the concerns of learners in EFL situations.

The Twitter Divide

(Note: This post contains lots of speculation and generalizations based on some extremely subjective observations, without any hard data to back it up. I’m not claiming I’m right about any of this! I’d love to get different points of view, so please comment. Thanks!)



 

I’m on Twitter as talkclouds. Since I’m currently working as a private instructor/editor, it’s been invaluable for staying connected. The e-mail groups that I joined as part of my various professional organizations are mostly dormant, and conferences are infrequent. Twitter lets me ask questions, discuss issues, and (best of all) share resources. In the last couple of days, I’ve found out about an event in San Francisco with the Japanese ambassador, two open-source textbook websites (more on that soon!), a JapaneseEnglish iPhone app, a new Pearson Longman site for teachers, an article on teaching English in Taiwan, where I could watch part of a Pecha Kucha session at the IATEFL conference in the UK live online, etc.

That leads to me my next question, which is — is it just me, or are UK-based teachers more with it when it comes to twenty-first century communication tools like Twitter and Pecha Kucha*? It’s frustrated me for a long time that technology seems more alien to English teachers than to, say, librarians–ALA (American Library Association) conference websites are usually more advanced than TESOL/affiliate conference websites, there are librarians all over Twitter, and so on. Meanwhile, CALL and TELL are basically niches, and even many of their advocates focus mainly on twentieth-century “language lab”-style stuff.

At any rate, I thought it was English teachers as a whole that were behind, but when my Twitter list exploded with #iatefl tags (see above), I realized that might not be the case. (Putting a # in front of a word in a post/”tweet” makes it into a “hashtag,” which makes it a clickable, searchable term collecting all the tweets on that particular topic/at that particular venue/etc.) So many people were tweeting from the conference, whereas TESOL’s conference just a couple of weeks before in Boston hardly even registered on my Twitter radar. One person I chatted with, who was at both TESOL and IATEFL, indicated that not only were there very few “tweechers” (Twittering teachers) at TESOL, but mentions of it were not received with favor or interest.

(Alternatively, is it not a North America/UK divide, but an ESL/EFL divide? If IATEFL is really focused on EFL, as the name indicates, and is not a general UK-based ELT association–I confess I don’t know–then that might be part of the difference. Most of TESOL’s membership is composed of ESL instructors, and many of them teach composition rather than or in addition to communication-oriented English classes. The former generally have less in common with EFL instructors than the latter. I’ve noticed a relative lack of interest in using technology other than basic computer applications among many composition instructors.)

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should get on Twitter.** It’s not for everyone; lots of people will just find it annoying even after putting in the time needed to get used to it and learn its culture. (After all, I’ve tried Second Life twice and just can’t get into it.) But I think more people need to try it out–after all, teachers also need support and “personal learning networks.” Twitter is great for that. It’s also very casual; there’s not a lot of Twitter etiquette*** to worry about. You can follow (add) and unfollow (remove) people freely, and you don’t need to worry about catching every tweet.

My Twitter stream is like a magic cafe filled with English teachers from all over the world, plus some international journalists, cultural critics, general educators, linguists, and so on, all chatting to each other and to me. No one is making speeches, since it’s not a lecture hall–although someone may hand me a paper to read later. If I pop in, I can catch all kinds of interesting things and share my own thoughts (and due to the magic properties of the cafe, I can rewind a bit too). I have three other accounts–one for my personal life, one for English learners, and one where I post local news and events for my area. I just think the people in these “cafes” would be bored or confused by each other, so I’ve kept them mostly separate. Most people don’t go quite that far, although a lot of people have both professional and personal accounts. Fortunately, many Twitter clients and apps (small programs that just run Twitter) make handling multiple accounts easy.

CATESOL is in a few days, and I would love to propose a tweetup (a meetup organized through Twitter)–however, I’ve only heard from two other people who are going. I wonder if there are enough of us for a tweetup. You would think California would be cutting edge, right? So far that hasn’t really been my experience.

Any theories on what’s up? Am I and the other people I talked to just wrong and just not hooked into the North American ESL twitter community? Anyone want to talk about how it is in other places and disciplines?


* Pecha Kucha is not especially high-tech, nor are unconferences, but you could argue that both are part of the spirit of TED Talks and other tech-communication related innovations, and Pecha Kucha first came to the attention of many outside Japan though Wired magazine.
** I included this digression because I knew some people were going to think “What is the point of Twitter, anyway?” — as I did before I started using it and, to a certain extent, while I only had my personal account and didn’t have my @talkclouds account.
*** Previous link deleted due to a malware report [on the site I linked to, not here] by Google.