The Union Building ballroom was bustling during the lunch hour Feb. 15. Faculty, staff and students gathered for an open-ended discussion of political uprisings and change in Egypt and around the Middle East and North Africa.
But those interested in the discourse didn't have to be in attendance — they just needed access to Twitter.
"Discussing neighboring nations.... Algeria is second most corrupt in North Africa. Libya is most corrupt in North Africa," tweeted @DePauwU.
"Faculty comment: Difference between democracy and process of democratization? Process will probably involve great deal of turmoil."
From the ballroom, Jonathan Coffin, director of strategic communication, used the university's account, or handle, @DePauwU, to inform followers about the discussion.
"We live-tweeted the entire thing, and we got a number of comments from followers and alumni who really enjoyed it," Coffin said. "The opportunity to try things like that was good."
Followers — Twitter's term for those who receive feeds from a certain handle — or those who visited www.twitter.com/DePauwU also got some of the flavor of the event.
"More folks keep stopping by the ballroom. President Casey currently listening from a seat on the floor," @DePauwU tweeted during the forum.
Adding Twitter to the mix
The @DePauwU account on the microblogging site launched last summer, Coffin said, because the university wanted to augment its other social media initiatives like Facebook pages and YouTube accounts with Twitter feeds. Twitter is a social media site that limits entries, called tweets, to 140 characters each.
Many organizations are moving into social media, and DePauw wanted to be part of that.
"The conversation is taking place regardless," he said. "I think we have some level of an obligation to participate, or be available."
The account has three main goals: to provide a window on the vibrant nature of campus, to remind alumni why they love DePauw and to keep current students aware of events and programming on campus.
"We're constantly seeing an increase in followers," Coffin said. "Anecdotally, you see a whole lot of use of the @DePauwU handle — so folks will mention us in their tweets."
But @DePauwU isn't the only account operated within the university. DePauw Libraries, the Management Fellows program, the office of Campus Living and Community Development and the office of Spiritual Life are among the groups operating feeds on campus.
"It makes sense that there would be a number of different voices on campus," Coffin said. "I can decide who I want to follow."
Bill Wagner, the director of sports information, is the man behind @DePauwAthletics, the second-most popular Twitter feed at DePauw. The account started in Aug. 2009 after a sports-information conference where the importance of Twitter and Facebook was discussed.
For Wagner, last fall's nail-biter football game between DePauw and Trinity University demonstrated the power of Twitter. The Tigers had never beaten Trinity at their home in Texas, and the game was a back-and-forth battle until the end.
A reporter from FOX 59 in Indianapolis saw tweets about the game and started re-tweeting and commenting on the game on his account. He then wrote an article about it on the TV station's website — great publicity for DePauw after a 32-31 victory that came on a two-point conversion.
"It came down to social media of him actually following what we're doing," Wagner said. "It allows you to link everything together."
An atmosphere for social engagement
When she found out about Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales visiting campus as part of the Ubben Lecture Series, senior Rhonesha Byng — @NeshasAgenda – was quick to get the word out.
"I tweeted about how excited I was he was coming, and I used his Twitter name in my tweet," Byng said. "And he started following me."
Byng saw friends using Twitter in early 2008, and the whole idea of tweeting seemed "a little strange." But during an internship at a magazine, she decided to try it as a way to get content out to others.
"I thought it would be a good way to get people interested, kind of build a following," Byng said.
Her account now has more followers than @DePauwU — 941 as of Feb. 27 — and she was named one of Clutch magazine's top 50 African-American women to follow on Twitter, on their list of Top Tech Tastemakers.
Byng said she uses Twitter as a way to give others a "behind the scenes look" at what she's working on, and she usually tweets about media and entrepreneurship.
Byng also introduced senior Quiaria Ray to Twitter while in a computer science class together in 2009. Ray now uses Twitter as a way to stay up on things with friends.
"It's really convenient. You can get on it through your phone, and it's kind of like, you stay updated with what's going on," she said.
The social atmosphere of Twitter, and the ability to share links to articles and funny things, make it fun for Ray, who tweets at @Qui2TheCity.
"It's a good way for me to talk about the things I do on a daily basis," Ray said.
Ray said DePauw's presence on the site is positive and helps keep students in the loop on campus happenings.
"It's really cool that they can share that we won a big game or who's going to be the speaker," she said. "DePauw's straight up in your life all the time."
Byng said the ice storm demonstrated the possibilities of connecting students to DePauw with Twitter.
"It's just the most direct way to connect with the students, because we're all in the social media," Byng said.
Not every student is as excited about Twitter. Senior Lauren Clark, who said she tweets maybe three times a week, said Twitter is a "platform for a cause," and on campus it isn't always popular.
"There's a stigma to kind of be ashamed for it," she said.
Clark said she usually uses Twitter to distribute advice.
"If I think it's something one or two people might find interesting, or that might make your day better, I'll tweet that," she said.
Freshman Andrew Hooley doesn't use Twitter, and he said the reason is simple: he doesn't have a smartphone.
"There's really no point," Hooley said.
Learning as they go
With the new nature of Twitter and changing tastes of those who have accounts, Coffin said it's important that the university's feeds develop and grow. Hermen Diaz, assistant director of multicultural student services, operates the @DePauwMIL, a newer account that tweets about multicultural and international events on campus and around the world.
Currently, the account is more of "an informative, here's what's happening," Diaz said, but he hopes to eventually make it a place for conversation and dialogue about important multicultural issues.
Diaz says he logs into the account at least once a day to inform followers about upcoming events or re-tweet information about an issue.
"It's relatively new for us, and so we're trying to get more followers to our account," Diaz said.
Other users, too, are still learning the ins and outs of Twitter. Wagner said that the athletic department recently received some news from a prospective student on Twitter — the student was not going to attend DePauw.
"They didn't have the heart to tell the coach," Wagner said. "Well, we found it [on Twitter]."
The incident illustrates how social media has changed communication. While Twitter allows users to protect their tweets from public consumption, many users do not, meaning many tweets are public.
"Be careful what you put out there," Wagner said.
A connection for alumni
Strengthening alumni connections is one of the goals of @DePauwU and other twitter accounts, and Nathan Hand ‘03 — who tweets about non-profits as @nathan_hand — says the Twitter presence has helped keep DePauw in his mind each day.
"I can, at least it seems like, interact with the campus as a whole through tweeting," Hand said. "I think it is probably strengthening my tie to the university."
The speed of Twitter means that alumni like Hand no longer need to wait for an alumni magazine to appear in their mailboxes to hear the latest news about campus.
"As an alum, DePauw is in front of me in my e-mail inbox, on Facebook and on Twitter — and that's more than it had been," Hand said.
Hand said he doesn't follow many of the other DePauw-related accounts, because he is seeking out those things he was a part of at DePauw. If the Hartman House or Delta Upsilon fraternity at DePauw were tweeting, he said, he would follow their feeds.
"You're going to follow the things you participated in, or were involved in, while on campus," he said.
Coffin said the goal is to connect everyone back to the exciting nature of the campus.
"To have a little bit of a reminder of that conversation with faculty about tough issues while you're checking your Twitter account over lunch is, I think, valuable," he said.
Byng said she'd like to see more students taking advantage of Twitter as a service.
"I'd really like to see more DePauw people on Twitter," she said. "I think that Twitter is an amazing tool."