Are you a member of the Twitterati? You've heard of MySpace and you're probably a whiz when it comes to Facebook, but it seems that we should be all of "a-Twitter" now.
Twitter is the website on which users post statements called "tweets", which can have up to 140 characters. More than 300,000 tweets are already sent every day in the UK.
The actor Stephen Fry is one famous exponent, and MPs have jumped on the bandwagon too. Jim Knight, the schools minister, is a regular tweeter, whose recent posts range from the inane "realised I never had that pancake yesterday - does that mean I can ignore Lent?" to the more waspish "wondering for how much longer we'll have to listen to Michael Gove".
The further education minister, Siôn Simon, has just started tweeting and the higher education minister, David Lammy, even appeared on the BBC's One Show extolling Twitter's virtues.
Now even a few further education colleges have caught on. Sort of. When it comes to writing succinctly, we further education sorts do struggle. We're used to using eight words when one would do, and flabby paragraphs with 50-word sentences. And we do love our jargon.
Twitter pioneers include Deeside College, Havering College, Regents College, Sunderland College and my own college, Cornwall.
News of the Chinese earthquake last year broke on Twitter, as did the first images of the US Airways plane that had to crash-land in New York's Hudson river and last week's crash at Schipol airport near Amsterdam. The FE sector isn't tweeting on such a grand scale, but it's interesting to see the difference between how colleges and universities are using this forum.
University tweets are "talking" to their current students: they warn of campus disruption, inclement weather and current research. Nottingham Trent University is looking for past and present cannabis users - it wants to establish whether users are more prone to developing schizotypal personality.
Meanwhile, some colleges - struggling to see the wood for the trees - are tweeting about the "special of the day" in the canteen.
It gets worse. Delve deeper and you will find some very odd posts on colleges' Twitter pages. One college tells us "network upgrade takeing [sic] place service interruptions possible during next 30 minutes". And that "all studio (gym) classes this week canceled [sic] due to the adverse weather conditions".
Another college "tweets": "Adapting my 'Ldap Active Directory users to SQL database' webpage, Ldap queries are so intuitive (ha ha)." Yet another says: "Just opened a Twitter account." It's gripping stuff; you can see why students would want to enrol.
But is there a right way to use Twitter, and what could colleges use it for? I know my college currently has around 100 "followers" but I don't know who is reading the posts, or where they come from - because you don't have to be a "follower", or even be logged-in, to read a Twitter page. This means it can't be used as a robust marketing tool; I can't measure if it's helping to put "bums on seats".
Colleges can build a "personality" using Twitter; a faceless institution can communicate a sense of humour, passion and even quality through this medium.
Cornwall College's Twitter page isn't "talking" directly to students because younger students aren't yet the ones looking at Twitter. We have seven campuses, 40,000 learners and 3,000 staff, so we need to appeal to a wide community. Students, staff, parents, businesses, alumni - they're all out there, and we need to keep them engaged and interested in the college and what it's trying to achieve.
"I do think it's important for colleges to engage with social media," says Heather Yaxley, a lecturer at Bournemouth University and social media expert. She says it's too soon to see where the real potential lies. "At the least they need to monitor and understand what's going on."
Twitter might not be here for the long term, but colleges should take advantage of the hype. There's such a lot of noise around Twitter - it's free, and easy to get involved in. But be careful, look at what your college is tweeting, and, for goodness' sake, use a spellchecker.
• Ruth Sparkes is PR manager at Cornwall College
Top Twitter tips
• Register your college's name at Twitter, even if you don't use it - or someone else might, and its reputation could be at their mercy.
• Connect with others - start following other colleges, students, media, MPs, quangos, etc.
• Use facilities like www.search. twitter.com to monitor what's being said about your college.
• Never forget that what's written on Twitter is immediately live and public.
• Don't get obsessed about your "followers". Remember, the quality of the people and organisations you communicate with is far more important than the raw numbers.
Mariana Ludmila Link Autor