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a bit of theory

Twitter, being an example of a collectivising rather than individuating technology (Bell, 2001), constitutes a dynamic environment in which like-minded strangers are likely to bump into each other to form communities of various kinds and fluid nature. The hashtag signifying the topic (=shared interest/practice)  could be perceived as Anderson’s national (=communal) identification typical of an imagined community (in Bell, 2001). The openness, ease of access and partly the overlapping of groups through cross-hashtagging draw enthusiasts from all over the world who get involved in ‘unusual doings’, typical of Bund (Freund, Hetherington in Bell, 2001), the volatile interaction being fed into the hashtag stream, the #ELTchat being one of the many examples.

#eltchat as Bund

The object of interest here is the professional development in the area of ELT (English Language Teaching) and at least the core of the participants seem to be active, passionate and charismatic in the way they share and interact on Twitter. The volume of tweets during a single chat and a high level of activity in other dedicated venues demonstrates the excess of commitment not only to the profession but also community itself.

This is how Marisa (one of the moderators) is describing her own feelings about #ELTchat:

#ELTchat is a great meeting and sharing time every week for teachers with passion, generosity and motivation to be the best teacher they can be. I think this is a thought shared by many. (Source)

One of the participants stipulates on his blog:
For me the core of the event goes beyond all of the great ideas. It lies within the community, and it’s amazing to be connected with so many educators, and to be able to exchange our diverse experiences. (Source)

Connectivity as well as the collaborative and supportive aspects as indicators of a community have been stressed by most participants who shared their views on blogs, in comments and in the short survey. The mention of passion strongly echoes the idea of the community as Bund. It is also reminiscent of Kozinetz’ suggestion that the ‘when moist life [is] breathed into brittle, dry circuitry’, it might be used to manifest culture and build community (2010: 25). This lively passion and charisma might prove infectious and even addictive:

It [is] almost impossible not to be drawn to join in.

Then I got hooked and feel it gives me a sense of ‘belonging’ and worth.

Marisa continues her description, listing some of the features that in her view make #ELTchat a community (my emphasis):

… there is a great feeling of community which has developed over time and this community is very open and welcoming to anyone new who jumps into a chat even if we have never met them before. It’s also a highly democratic community. No one’s tweets are considered to be of higher value than anyone else’s and this feeling of openness, acceptance and camaraderie is what draws people to #ELTchat.

This perception of democracy, flattening of hierarchies, openness, appreciation and value also surfaces in the participants’ confessions:

A lot has been said about this already, but I won’t stop praising this not only wonderful but also humble network of teachers. The word humble reminds me of another word that I read in a book a while back and that struck me: Genshai. As far as I understand, it means that we are all equal, that we should never treat anyone in a way that makes them feel small, including oneself. (Source)

It is interesting to note how many participants comment on discovering their professional value during the chats, which is indicative of the community instigating and supporting identity formation processes. This usually occurs when the participant starts participating more actively and experiences reciprocity and mutuality first-hand, some of the basic features of a community (Bell, 2001:100).

I do perceive #ELTchat as a community, though I didn’t until I started contributing and felt I was offering some value myself and started feeling some personal connections with individuals in the group and felt I was accepted as a valued member.

Given the common interest but also the democratic rules and the welcoming acceptance offered to new members, there is a sense of trust in the group which probably encourages the members to invest more time and effort into ‘weaving webs of affiliation’ (Kozinetz, 2010). There is certainly a feeling of anticipation of developing future interactions, including social bonds, both online on Twitter and via other channels as well as  in many cases offline. The interactions seem friendly even when critiquing others’ contributions and the ties between the participants can be certainly described as positive, warm and supportive. This is probably key in the continuous strong development of the #ELT chat (Wellman, 2001 in Kozinetz, 2010).

the twittorial

People keep coming to Wednesday sessions despite a common belief that the chat itself might look like a chaotic, superficial and depthless affair. This perception is most probably evoked by the nature of the medium itself, for example the 140-character restrictions for the message length.

Sometimes I think the focus is upon the “awesomeness” of everybody and everything, sometimes without a questioning of underlying orthodoxies, unsurprising given the motivation and demographic of contributors. Not really a tool for in depth analysis of issues.

To deal with these shortcomings, the moderators and participants have developed various strategies. So for instance, the moderators and more experienced chatters seem to be on a particular lookout of participants expressing the feeling of being lost, providing them with answers to their queries and reassurance that it is normal to feel sometimes overwhelmed by the volume of tweets.

I’ve been involved since near the beginning, so I also try to support new chatters and the moderators, not that they need it.

Another strategy is the use of RT, that is re-tweeting. It seems that rather than being a result of random clickage it is related to the quality of the message. Those with links to important resources, crucial questions and suggestions that can possibly elevate the discussion by channelling it into more interesting and challenging areas are more likely to be re-broadcast. This is to ensure that more participants benefit from the discussion.

I am mostly a lurker! I occasionally contribute if I feel it might be useful, or I RT (ReTweet) messages if I feel they are important, in order to amplify them and give them a wider audience.

To redress the volatility of the medium and to make the #eltchat (which stands for a tool, a place and a way of being in experiencing the online community in Markham’s words in Kozinetz, 2010) ‘more durable’ (Latour, 1991 in Bell 2001: 101) and thus allow the members to ‘imagine’ themselves part of a community, other online platforms like facebook, blogs and wikis have been integrated and it is maybe the group reliance on textuality and connectivity of the texts that gives the community greater permanence, solidity and depth, helping develop higher reflexivity and a tighter and denser social texture.

Twitter in general is a fairly superficial interaction, though I believe it leads to deeper interactions through other social networks and blogs.

bonds beyond the tweets

Twitter is an example of a social networking site and the popularity of the #eltchat might be attributed to the pre-existing affiliations. It is true that some of them met each other prior to the #eltchat. However, many have connected via Twitter in various ways, the main method being co-following the hashtag. Some of the relationships have become stronger, leading to interactions elsewhere, including offline.

Someone posted a video from an afternoon tea at the IATEFL Conference this year on Facebook, and as I was watching it, I felt like I knew all of those present, even though I’d only ever known them online, and mostly from the tiny picture in Twitter!

I’ve met one other regular summary writer when she came to stay with me a few weeks ago, and will meet many other people this week. I’ve also Skyped with four or five people and received support from them on my blog.

So, following Kozinetz’ online communities classification (2010:36), #ELTchat could be considered a building community. Even thought, there is a sense that informational exchanges are in the foreground, there is a strong emphasis on relations and without them the commitment to the consumption activity would have probably been less strong. For instance, it could be speculated that the priority given to certain tweets depends on the relational importance of the author. Democratic and equal as the group might claim to be, insiders seem to be listened to more willingly. My tweet about the survey got a better response once it got retweeted by the moderator and one of the most active members (after I sent her a direct request to take part in the survey without asking to retweet the information).

power to transform

While talking about online communities, one cannot dismiss Olaniaran’s remark that the community participants’ impact on other various cultures and communities as they act as social agents for cultural transformation (2004 in Kozinetz, 2010:39). The transformation he is talking about might take place offline, in a narrower context of each participant’s real staffroom but also in a broader ELT community. During the birthday party, one of the moderators was sharing her dream of getting more professionals involved, which can be achieved by members bringing in their offline and online colleagues.

One of the participants describes the beginnings of her involvement on her blog and its immense impact on her life:

At the end of December [...] I needed to get both my blog and my Twitter participation off the ground. Since then, the two have been intertwined, and have changed my teaching and my life. (Source)

Her later posts describe offline workshops she gives to other teachers on how to use Twitter, certainly inspired by her personal experience with the medium, echoed in another participant’s contribution:

Online interactions have proven priceless for idea sharing/discussion and resource sharing. Through these two avenues, I have conducted “offline” staff professional development sessions which I never would have done without using Twitter and ELT chat.

Another member speculates on the wider effect of Twitter interactions on conference attendance, developing a PLE and interestingly on the existing gender imbalance in the ELT world:

eltchat and Twitter in general, when used for professional purposes, strike me as being the future driving force behind the profession.

Conference attendance has risen as PLN members encourage each other to go, and people are motivated to go and meet each other.

Also, the community encourages blogging, initially by guest post and then members’ own blogs.

With the chance for women to be heard ‘unhindered’ via communities like eltchat and blogging, women’s voices are on the increase.

This is a trimmed version. Full text can be found here.


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