31 Mar 2009

Stephen Fry's 'tweet' sparks rush to devolve

Stephen Fry, a well known Twitter user, prompted a surge of traffic to an Open University (OU) website after posting a message on the micro-blogging network that the OU’s online evolution game Devolve Me was “Coolissimo”. The number of unique visitors to the Devolve Me game peaked at 52,523 on 12th February, Darwin’s bi-centenary, with many of those directed to the website from social media networks.

Hosted at, Devolve Me is a face-morph game which was launched as part of the OU’s Darwin celebrations and allows people to see how they may have looked as an ancient ancestor, from an Australopithecus afarensis (3.7million years ago) to a Homo heidelbergensis (500,000 years ago).

Fry’s note on Twitter was quickly followed by a comment from Jack Schofield, The Guardian’s computer editor, a ‘tweet’ from Robert Llewellyn of Red Dwarf fame and hundreds of other Twitter users who ‘retweeted’ Fry’s recommendation. In the ten day period before the activity on Twitter, the site was receiving around 1,500 visitors a day. On the 12th February, following the celebrity endorsements and with many visitors being directed there by bloggers, the Devolve Me web-page outranked every other page within the OU’s web presence.

The spike in traffic to the OU website illustrates the growing influence that social media is having in today’s communications, with people increasingly sharing links and sourcing their news feeds online.

The OU has a strong presence on many social networking platforms, including an official @OpenUniversity Twitter account, its own YouTube channel and regularly updated content on iTunes U. The University is also the most popular UK based university on Facebook with more than 16,000 fans and applications developed to help students find each other and share experiences.

Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the OU said: “The OU has been exploring a number of new social media networks, web 2.0 sites and tools. This type of social interaction is particularly exciting and relevant for a distance education establishment as it helps remove the barrier of distance.

“We know that forming social bonds is one of the strong motivations students have for continuing their study, and that a peer network is as important as the official one when it comes to support. We are exploring a number of different ways in which the new tools can be used both within the course of formal study and more informally to help students learn."

Picked up as a hot topic in the social networking world, the OU’s Devolve Me game is now being used by a huge variety of people and institutions in formal learning and informally shared just for fun. Schools are using it as an extra resource in the classroom and many people are posting up pictures of their devolved selves on Facebook or sending the images via email to friends.

Since the OU’s Darwin website launched, it has had over 300,000 unique visitors and the next stage is the development of a Facebook application for the Devolve Me game.

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