The Twitter Tutor

At Columbia’s esteemed school of journalism, one guru is gently guiding old-media refugees into the 21st century

Recently, some 65 middle-aged authors, editors, producers and publicists, and other survivors of New York’s battered old-media landscape, gathered at Columbia’s Journalism School for the first installment of a four-week course on how to use the social media sites Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. It was taught by Sree Sreenivasan, a 39-year-old professor who was introduced, to applause, as one of Ad Age’s “25 Media People you should follow on Twitter.”

Sreenivasan stressed that the course was about more than sharing photos efficiently. This was about long-term survival! As with agriculture and economic development, sustainability was crucial. “How do I do social media and keep my family intact?” he said. “How do I do social media and keep my day job?” Left unsaid was the inverse question, the one that is increasingly nagging an entire generation of anxious, anti-Internet Nellies: Can I ignore these silly sites and keep my day job?

Tuition for the course was $495. The class would meet once a week for 2½ hours. Setting up a Facebook and Twitter account was a prerequisite. Homework would be assigned. Twenty would-be enrollees were too late and were turned away. Demand for Facebook and Twitter instruction was booming, according to Sreenivasan. Later in the week, he would be giving workshops at The Washington Post and National Public Radio. “I want you to get in the habit of seeing things around you and using it to bring people together,” he said.

Sreenivasan has been teaching at Columbia’s J-school for 17 years and is now a dean there. During that time, he has written extensively about technology for a wide variety of publications and reported on tech issues for local TV stations in New York.

Recently, Sreenivasan has become something of a Twitter celebrity. He has more than 11,000 followers. Earlier this year, he told the class, he served as a judge at the Shorty Awards, which honors excellence on Twitter. His fellow judges, he said, included MC Hammer and Alyssa Milano.

The four-week course for media pros was adapted from one Sreenivasan regularly teaches students at the J-school. On the first day of those classes, Sreenivasan said, he always tells the students that if their parents found out they were paying Columbia tuition for their children to learn Facebook and Twitter, they’d probably ring up the school and call for his head on a shiv. But social media in 2010, Sreenivasan argued, was like the Internet in 1996, TV in 1950 and radio in 1912: a revolutionary medium still in its infancy.

Since social media was so new, Sreenivasan assured his class, it wouldn’t take them too long to catch up. They should all be reading the website, Sreenivasan recommended, describing it as The Wall Street Journal of social media.

The professor told his class that there were no hard rules on Twitter. That said, etiquette was important. Don’t Tweet more than three to five times a day, he suggested, because too much tweet from one person gets annoying. Most importantly, be concise. Twitter allows you to express yourself in a maximum of 140 characters. But Sreenivasan advised his class to use only 120—the better to encourage re-tweeting.

Along the way, Sreenivasan also demonstrated a number of third-party Twitter tools, including Twitpic and Tweetstats, HootSuite and TwitterSheep. At one point, he showed how you could use a website called Twiangulate to find compelling people to follow on Twitter.

As the workshop wound down, Sreenivasan gave a new assignment (live-tweeting an event) and reviewed the previous week’s homework. “How hard was it to tweet twice a day?” he asked. “Anyone have trouble?” Hands flew into the air.

Sreenivasan said it was OK. Remember the early days of e-mail, he asked? Back then, you probably checked your e-mail once every two days. Over time, you learned to check it obsessively. “And now you don’t get anything done,” he joked.

Give it time, he promised, and Twitter, too, would become an addiction. Get a smart phone, he said, and tweet when you’re standing in line or waiting for the bus. “Unless you get into the habit now,” Sreenivasan said, “you won’t be comfortable on Twitter when you really need it.” He paused. “Of course, you may never really need it.”

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