The micro-blogging web site Twitter is often crowded with extraneous posts and comments that distract from the site’s meaningful content. To bring order to this chaos and help make Twitter a more useful tool for educators, web developers at Purdue University unveiled a tool this week that would help Twitter members find the most popular and relevant tweets.

The Twitter program, called Need4Feed, is being used for the first time at the HighEdWeb 2009 conference in Milwaukee, where attendees can sift through hundreds of posts to find the tweets grabbing the most attention.

Purdue technology officials first considered the idea of Need4Feed during the university’s Teaching and Learning with Technology Conference last spring. Conference goers used Twitter to discuss technology topics, but unrelated conversations on the web site made it difficult to find important information.

"There’s a lot of noise on Twitter," said Kyle Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue and a developer of the Need4Feed program. "We wanted to really extract the meaningful content. … We wanted to find out how we could make this tool more effective."

Need4Feed operates on an algorithm that uses several indications of how popular a tweet is. The tool measures how many Twitter users mark the tweet as a favorite or repost it on their Twitter page, how many replies the message receives, and whether the post creates an extended conversation between a mass of members.

All conference goers have to do to is use the conference hashtag–which groups common tweets together–and the Need4Feed function helps identify individual messages that are making the biggest impact on the social networking site.

The Twitter tool, Bowen said, could attract college faculty who have not used the site for classroom purposes. A recent study examining higher-education use of Twitter showed that 69 percent of faculty respondents did not use the site in any capacity. Almost 13 percent surveyed said they used to tweet, but did not find the web site useful, according to the report, published by Faculty Focus. (See "Twitter unused by most faculty, study says.")

"We are seeing faculty at Purdue who are more open to using Twitter" for educational purposes, Bowen said. "And any time we have faculty embracing new technology, it’s exciting to see."

About 50 percent of those surveyed by Faculty Focus said they didn’t know how to use the web site, where members write statements that must be less than 140 characters.

Mihaela Vorvoreanu, an assistant professor in Purdue’s Computer Graphics Technology Department and a frequent Twitter user, said weeding out superfluous responses to tweets could help the web site become an outlet for professor-student interaction online.

"I can see how, especially for very large classes, Need4Feed would help teachers and students keep track of Twitter class conversations," Vorvoreanu said. "So, assuming the tool is fast and reliable … I think it will catch on in educational circles."

Vorvoreanu said Need4Feed wouldn’t necessarily make Twitter more inviting to professors who don’t use the site, but it would be welcomed by Twitter frequenters looking for a way to make their time on the site more productive and less bogged down by long strings of comments unrelated to the original topic.

"I think Need4Feed solves a problem experienced by advanced Twitter users," she said. "It’s not a tool that reduces the entry barrier to Twitter."

Twitter has seen steady growth in the past year, boasting more than 6 million members–about 4 percent of internet users–in 2008, according to eMarketer, which tracks Twitter usage. The site hosted more than 14 million unique visitors in March, according to market research. eMarketer projects that about 10 percent of the American adult population will use Twitter by next year.

Although 20-somethings were early adopters of the micro-blogging service, a market report released in April shows that an older demographic has gravitated to the site. People ages 45 to 54 are 36 percent more likely to use Twitter than any other demographic, according the ComScore, a digital market firm that monitors online behavior.

Twitter use in the United Kingdom increased tenfold from January 2008 to January 2009, according to the web site marketing site Hitwise. The average time that web surfers spent on Twitter surged from 10 minutes in 2008 to an hour this year, according to the analysis. 

Need4Feed’s filtering feature also could help students track down tweets and posts that offer advice on research projects, homework, and upcoming tests, Bowen said.

"I expect to see expansion of these kinds of tools in the [classroom] environment," he said.

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