Reflections on #sachat

Tomorrow, the members of the #sachat community will be engaging in introspection and discussing “The State of #SAchat” instead of their usual weekly discussion of topical student affairs topics.  I have been conducting research on the #sachat community for a couple of years now so I thought it might be helpful for the community if I could organize and share some of my thoughts.

I won’t spend time describing the basics of #sachat; if you are interested in this particular conversation, I assume that you are familiar with the community and its tools.  If I wrong and you are not familiar with #sachat, the official overview is here.  An annotated visualization of one chat session – a February 10, 2011 discussion about job searching – is below (my original blog post discussing this visualization has some of its background details).

The chart below shows Twitter message traffic from six hashtags – #highered, #sachat, #sadoc, #sagrad, #sajobs, and #studentaffairs – during the week of June 27, 2011.  This illustrates how #sachat differs in that it not only has consistent traffic everyday (although not as much as #highered) but it spikes during the scheduled chat session on Thursday afternoon.

In a book chapter Laura Pasquini and I have in press, we examine #sachat as a case study of informal learning using technology.  One of our conclusions is that #sachat is doing several things right to overcome the significant limitations of Twitter by:

  • Allowing participants to direct the discussions as much as practical.  For example, potential participants vote on each week’s topic and do not have to register to participate (in the voting or the actual discussion).
  • Using other tools to supplement the core use of Twitter.  Most of these tools reside on the SA Collaborative website.  One of the most important may be the chat archives that give the chats a sense of continuity and history beyond the typically ephemeral nature of Twitter.
  • Employing a well-prepared and clearly identifiable moderator in each discussion.  This account helps impose order on the Twitter chat, allowing conversation to run for a bit before drawing it back to the core topic by using clearly marked, pre-prepared questions.

We also identify several specific concerns and challenges:

  • Can the participants continue to overcome the inherent limitations of Twitter, especially its (a) short message length, (b) lack of threading, and (c) ephemerality?  Although some participants attempt to overcome the first limitation using multipart messages, this is not very successful; the 140 character limit of Twitter is one of its core features and unlikely to be overcome.  The second limitation has been addressed with some success with the use of MOD messages and Q# replies.  The third limitation has been partially overcome by regularly making transcripts of chats publicly available.
  • Is the small community of volunteers that run the chats – those who use the moderator account and the SA Collaborative website – sustainable?  These volunteers and the tools they provide and maintain are essential to the success of the community.  For how long will these volunteers sustain their energy and will there be a smooth transition as members come and go?
  • How representative of the larger student affairs community is the #sachat community?  Is that important?
  • How diverse are the members of the #sachat community?  In what ways are they diverse and in what important areas is diversity lacking?