The success of Twitter hashtags with students

I’ve decided to consolidate the blogs The Edu-Engineer and Tres Boucher so that I can provide a richer experience. Part of that includes moving all the posts from Edu-Engineer over to Tres: here’s one of many.

The success of Twitter hashtags with students
Originally posted June 15, 2011

I’m going to talk about my off-duty activity for a moment to show the power of hashtags with students. I’ve been involved with the competitive robotics circuit since 1999. Competitive robotics usually involves one or many people building a robot to compete against other robots. I’ve been involved with FIRST and it’s competitions for many years but I am a fan of them all – Battlebots, Vex, National Robotics League, National Underwater Robotics Challenge, you name it, I’ve probably seen it. If you’re looking to get a student excited about science, this is by far the best way to do it.

Here’s Morgan Freeman talking about FIRST in a video for those of you who like visuals:

The hashtag #omgrobots, like most great ideas, started out of the blue. It started at the FIRST Robotics Competition Kickoff in 2010 to serve as the backchannel for the people who were either in the audience at the site in Manchester, NH or watching the live NASA TV feed across the world.

Capturing the Data

Did you know that hashtags were never a design feature of Twitter? The idea of using a hashtag to search tweets was popularized by Chris Messina, a developer advocate at Google. If you’re interested in capturing Twitter stats, you’ll need to go outside of Twitter as they only search tweets for a certain amount of days. I highly recommend TwapperKeeper, who offer freemium archive services for every tweet based on a twitter handle, subject, or hashtag, and also provide stats through another service called Summarizr. The #omgrobots archive is open to the public for anyone to view.

As of Feb 13, 2011 (when I started the archive, 121 days ago) the hashtag has been used 5,725 times, an average of 47 times a day. Although this does include the entire competition season plus the Championship, this archive does not include one of its highest use days, the Kickoff itself. Even with the usually very slow off-season occurring for over a month now, the average is still very strong.

What I am most proud of is the cross of the hashtag into promoting other events, such as Soledad O Brien’s “Don’t Fail Me” CNN education special on May 15th, or the showing of the documentary Bots High at SXSW. It also was used by other competitions, such as the Vex Robotics World Championship and the Battlebots / BotsIQ National event.

Here’s some tips to grow your hashtag with students:
– Provide exclusive information.

This is key at live events, and a great way to build your audience. Since the Kickoff is the place where the year’s FRC game is revealed, there’s lots of things going on off-camera that the twitter universe is dying to know about. Even if it’s taking a picture of the giant black curtain covering the game, people not at the event will eat it up. Using a hashtag allows people to be part of the conversation without first having to follow the heavy hitters in the community.

Get influencers to start using it. #omgrobots has been used by @iamwill (Will.i.Am of the Black Eyed Peas), @Soledad_OBrien of CNN, @PopMech (Popular Mechanics), and @ConnectMinds (the Connect a Million Minds Project sponsored by Time Warner), as well as many FIRST official twitter users, such as @FIRSTweets. But that didn’t happen overnight. This first means start using Twitter heavily with people in your community. Provide meaningful discussion and engage your community (personally, this is my favorite part and should be easy if you like your topic). Eventually, as you start to use the hashtag more, more people will pick it up and use it.

– Introduce it to newcomers. At the 2011 Championship this year they filmed a FIRST TV special which is slated to air this August. The host, actor Ryan Devlin, is a relative newcomer to the community and was trying to engage the audience by reading tweets sent to him on stage. Once he was introduced to #omgrobots, he started using it and was able to both understand his audience faster but also gain credibility by the community by talking in what the NY Times calls “their secret handshake”.

Tweet as if your grandmother is following you. FIRST Co-founder Woodie Flowers encourages students to “act as if their grandmother is watching”, which is good practice anywhere on Twitter. As robotic competitions have moved to use more official hashtags for their events, #omgrobots has become the official backchannel of competitive robotics. I encourage this because as Twitter use becomes more official within robotics, there still needs a place for the community to be less official and grow. That being said, just because you’re allowed to take your shoes off, does not mean that you should wear socks with holes in them. Many people read the #omgrobots feed and can still read your tweets – strive to be funny without being mean.

Meet in meatspace.
Opening ceremonies on GalileoAs a Volunteer Coordinator at the FIRST Championship I have the honor of being able to choose the crew on my field. The four fields, Curie, Newton, Archimedes, and my personal favorite, Galileo, all compete to become the Einstein field, which is the crew that works the Championship final rounds. We choose our crews carefully so that they work well together and have a great time while donating their time to FIRST. This year I was able to get a bunch of volunteers from Twitter who I was then able to hang out with for 3 days. These kids and mentors are from Michigan, South Carolina, Washington, California, Connecticut…they are all very smart, and it’s so great that they were able to network and see how we’re changing the culture all over the world. For you, this may mean putting together a meetup, or all getting together to watch an event…whatever works for you and your community.

For technologically-savvy students, hashtags are the chatrooms of my teen years. As mobile and tablet usage increases, especially among youth, the conversation just keeps on going, and travels with them. The question is, how do we as an industry keep up?

Now that I think about it, I’ve been tracking for the majority of 2012 – I should do an update post.


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