⚡ Lightning Talk ⚡ Starting Big Conversations on Twitter

This is the script of a “lightning talk” that I gave on June 14, 2018 at the UBC Okanagan Library Leader in Residence event. The talk had to be under 7 minutes, so I deal with some big topics very briefly! If you have questions about anything I bring up here, please feel free to post them in the comments below.


Hello everyone. Thanks so much for having me here today and for inviting me to do a Lightning Talk.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathering today on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Syilx Peoples, represented by the Okanagan Nation Alliance. I also want to thank my supervisor at Indigitization, Sarah Dupont, and the Indigitization steering committee, including Gordon Yusko, who is here today, for the guidance they provide to the project.

Today I’ll be discussing how to talk about “big conversations” on Twitter, drawing from my experience working for Indigitization from January to April this year. For Indigitization, “big conversations” means topics such as decolonization and open access.

I hope the ideas I share today will be transferable to your institutions and the “big conversations” relevant to you, whatever they are: copyright, children’s services, open educational resources, or something else entirely.

What’s Indigitization?

indigitization logoTo begin, let me introduce Indigitization. We are a project that has existed for about 5 years now, and are jointly run by the UBC Irving K. Barber Learning Centre; the Museum of Anthropology; the University of Northern BC; and the iSchool at UBC.

We support Indigenous community organizations to digitize audio cassettes through:

Indigitization & Social Media

When I started working for Indigitization in January, we were mostly using our social media for broadcasting events and promoting our grant opportunities. We decided that we wanted to use social media to share and discuss our experience, awareness, and knowledge of Indigenous information practices with others in a more social way.Tweet from Indigitization: We are pleased to announce 2018 #Indigitization grant applicationsa re now open! Find out more: [link]

So, we started to respond to hot topics arising in news articles or that were being discussed at events like conferences in Twitter threads of about 10-15 tweets. In our threads, we offered our opinions and expertise, discussing the impacts of colonialism in the information professions.

Offering this kind of commentary required us to change how we prepared our social media content. Instead of posts being written by student employees independently, we needed to collaborate more intentionally with our steering committee to effectively share their knowledge and experience.

Typically, we students would identify a topic and draft a thread about it from Indigitization’s perspective. Then, steering committee members would revise that draft and add their expertise. I’ll show you a couple of quick examples now, but if you’re really interested then I’d suggest going to our Twitter feed to see more.

Thread #1: Decolonizing Library and Archives Canada?

Tweet from Indigitization: This is an interesting article that highlights some important points related to archives and decolonization, and leave the reader with a lot to unpack too: [link]This is the start of the first thread we tweeted on a big topic. It was in response to a CTV News article that came out on February 19, 2018, titled “Archivists look to ‘decolonize’ Canada’s memory banks.”

As I’m sure you’ve also experienced with the “big conversations” you’re an expert in, we were underwhelmed with how this article addressed decolonization in archives, which is a central question in our work.

So, we composed a thread looking at some of the inaccuracies and omissions in the article. While acknowledging that Library & Archives Canada is trying to do good work, we wanted to be sure that people reading this article understood the context in which LAC’s so-called “decolonizing” initiatives are taking place.

What really impressed us was the amount of response we got to this thread. Beyond just liking or retweeting our comments, people were adding to our commentary, sharing other resources with us, and boosting our message to their own networks.

We were no longer broadcasting about what we were doing, we were engaging with others in discussing why and how we are doing it.

Thread #2: Defining “Decolonization”

This is the start of another thread we posted this April, after the Society of American Archivists shared “Decolonize” as their “Word of the Week”. Tweet from Indigitization: 1/14 The @archivists_org Word of the Week is "Decolonize." It is great to see an organization with its level of influence talking about decolonization. At the same time their definition risk perpetuating misconceptions. #SAAWords [link]

As you can see in our tweet, we were happy to hear that an organization with the SAA’s reach within the archival community was talking about decolonization. But, as you may have experienced in your area of expertise, this was an example of an organization with good intentions failing to realize their own blind spots on an issue. The definition that they shared contained many common misconceptions about “decolonization”, which we responded to in our tweets.

Along with their definition, the SAA had a feedback form set-up where people could comment on their word of the week. By the time we posted this thread in April we knew we had an audience of well-informed people, so we directed people there at the end of our thread, to leave comments.

We believe this, in combination with our Twitter thread, was quite effective in gaining the SAA’s attention because we did receive a reply that they would be considering the feedback they received and revising their definition.

If you are looking to effect change in a medium-sized organization such as LAC or SAA, Twitter is a good place to start. Organizations their size really do notice when they’re being discussed on social media, and Twitter allows you to demonstrate that others also care about and potentially share your perspective on an issue.

What We Learned

I’ll now share a bit about the things we learned from doing this that I think you can draw on in your own organizations should you decide to engage in more big conversations on Twitter, shifting out of the broadcast-only mode that is so easy to slip into.

First, the numbers showed us unambiguously that this worked. Since we started using social media in this more engaged and interactive way, the number of Twitter followers we have doubled (in red on the graph below). The number of people seeing our tweets also grew by 500% (in blue on the graph below). This cooled off somewhat in May, as we were not as active, but it indicates that when we were putting out that meaningful content, it was generating attention.

By identifying your organization’s areas of expertise and sharing your thoughts on them, you will engage and inspire your existing followers and attract new ones. People will want to learn from you.

At the same time, your Tweets don’t have to be the final word on a topic. In all our threads we prioritized sharing the work of Indigenous information professionals and scholars, and we provided a lot of links for people to learn more if they were interested.

This can be reassuring as you may feel you can’t do a big topic justice on Twitter.

Second, social media moves quickly, and we had to be on the ball to notice what topics were emerging and to prepare a response before something was yesterday’s news. Our collaborative editing process helped us generate really strong content, but we couldn’t spend weeks going back-and-forth on things.

In order to get things out in a timely manner, it should be clear who decides when something is ready. For Twitter, good, timely content is better than perfect irrelevant content.

Our Recommendation

Overall, the time and energy that it took to for us to engage in big conversations on Twitter was well worth it for Indigitization. Our audience grew, we pushed influential organizations to reconsider how they are addressing decolonization, and we are now more deeply connected to a group of information professionals who care about the same topics we do. I would encourage each of you to reflect on what big conversations you and your organization might wish to start within our field, and to considering using Twitter as a venue to do so.


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