An alternative academic guide to twitter

I wrote this originally nearly a year ago but never pressed ‘publish’. I’ve been seeing lots of calls to twitter of late though that seem to encourage exactly the kind of thing I think twitter shouldn’t be used for, so I decided this might be worth posting after all. Comments welcome!

Rule #1: Stop tweeting at conferences.

Perhaps more than any other suggestion, I’m seeing this recommended as a good thing for newbie academic tweeps to do, as it’s a good way of mastering twitter and gets you attention on a hashtag, and also is a fundamentally useful thing for people who couldn’t attend the conference to follow. I have no problem with tweeting about conferences per se (I’d be a hypocrite if I did). My issue is the kind of bland, no-comment tweeting that seems to emerge. Increasingly people seem to be kindly tweeting the conference agenda rather than adding any value – tweets like “Now Prof X is on stage to talk about his study on Y”, “At the Z workshop learning about Z”. You don’t have to dissect every talk or make very personal observations, but add a little something – are you enjoying the Z workshop? Would you recommend it? Are there resources you got from it that you can signpost other people to? Was the study interesting? Is Prof X a fab speaker that other people should catch? Are you pleased to see Y getting more attention?

At the very least try to capture something of the content of the talks, if you’re aiming for the ‘roving reporter’ style tweets aimed at people who couldn’t attend the conference themselves. Saying “Prof X argues largest study of Y to date shows it should be a priority for GPs”, or “Study confirms previous findings that Y particularly affects BME groups” for example rather than just “Prof X reports his study of Y”. I increasingly see conference streams filling up with the latter, which makes it into a sort of pointless narration of exactly what’s happening. “Prof X is taking the stage.” “The audience is made up of people who are attending the conference.” I wonder if this is because people are nervous about adding any kind of opinion or worry about tweeting ‘the wrong thing’. I think this is natural, particularly if you’re a student or junior researcher and worried Prof X might read your tweet. I think in this case it’s fine to stick to the facts, but try to make the facts about the research, rather than describing the conference itself in rather inane detail.

Rule #2. Don’t link to your papers. (Or do, but Own The Brag).

Another rule recommending the exact opposite of all the standard advice, because I’m a contrary so-and-so. Do not use twitter to post links to your academic papers!

If you follow me on twitter you will have spotted I’m completely cheating here because I do this quite regularly. But my issue is that you should at least acknowledge this for what it is – shameless self promotion. Own it! Be proud! “I worked bloody hard on this and I’m delighted it’s finally published and EVERYBODY READ IT!” Don’t do a humblepromote (a variety of humble brag that I’ve just made up) – “Can’t believe little old me has a paper in Lancet #crazy”.

Also, and I’ve discussed this before, don’t think that your citation rate is going to skyrocket because of twitter. I think if you post a link to a paper on twitter than you should be doing so because you genuinely want your followers to look at and potentially engage with you about it. This engagement might well be criticism or disagreement. I see some academics post links to their papers and then ignore any tweets sent to them about it, which just adds to the frustrating sense that academics use twitter as a one way advertising stream.


Twitter is best when you interact, not announce.

 Rule #3: Follow loads of people.

I’ve increasingly seen recommendations to limit your followers, because you can’t possibly keep up with that many accounts, as if twitter is some darling bonsai tree you need to keep tidy. I think this assumes though that you’d ever try to read everything that everybody posts. I experience twitter more like a rolling news feed and I catch whatever I catch, and following lots of people means that news feed is more diverse, more interesting and I find out about lots of things I never would have otherwise.

 Rule #4: Post pictures of cats! (Be informal)

It’s become the standard at ‘social media workshops’ and the like to make some comment about how, yes, twitter is more informal, but you don’t have to go crazy and be one of those people who keeps tweeting pictures of their cats. Usually at this point I post another cat picture immediately out of spite. (I shall hereforth refer to this as Knowles Law – Every time you tell someone not to tweet personally, someone tweets a picture of a kitten.)

kittens in mugs

In fact, have two kittens!

I must admit though that when I first started on twitter I was a bit surprised by how personal some accounts were, and how personal in often quite a mundane, ‘this is what my bus journey today was like’ way, in contrast to the perception that you use tweets to distill and disseminate Thoughts of Note. My primary interest in those early days was following Ben Goldacre about science whilst thinking about how lovely his hair was, and he would tweet quite often about his lunch or tv shows he was enjoying. What I noticed was that this kind of rounded out the other tweets, about bad science or trial design. They stopped sounding like lines that could just be taken from an article and became actual comments that a genuine person was making. I think this gave an authenticity to the tweets, and it’s something I think in research particularly we could use more of. It makes researchers into real people, who really do care about what they do.

I think it changes the tone of debates as well. One of my favourite sayings is “Truth springs from argument amongst friends”, because of that last part – I think being friends, respecting the other person, assuming the best of them (rather than assuming they’re just being difficult or contrary for the sake of it) means that an ‘argument’ is more fruitful and certainly more amicable. I get into various friendly conversations with people, about cats (of course) but also tv shows, music, etc, and I think this means that when we talk about ‘professional’ issues such as research, it makes those conversations into genuine interactions rather than two people sparring with each other. I think realising that someone you professionally disagree with is someone that you personally get on really well with is always a useful lesson.

I would also genuinely query what people who are on twitter in a purely professional sense get out of it. If it’s all just vanilla statements about your work or retweets from University news accounts, then you might as well just set up a bot that randomly spews out lines from your Uni webpage. Or just post a single tweet linking to your Uni webpage and leave it at that. My personal suspicion is that these people don’t know what they’re getting out of it either, would often rather not be on it, and are only because someone told them to be (probably under the guise of some rubbish about it improving their citation count).

One final note here though: I want to take care to distinguish being ‘informal’ from being ‘unprofessional’. I see some academics who don’t talk about personal things but they also seem to think the informality of twitter means they can be a bit of an unprofessional jerk. If you’re playing the role of Researcher With Opinions – as opposed to Individual Owning Those Opinions – you can perhaps fall more easily into being rather unpleasant, because it’s not really You that’s being sarcastic or mocking or dismissive. It’s all just part of the debate after all, you’re a devil’s advocate (bleurgh), you’re professionally rather than personally disagreeing (even if the person you’re disagreeing with finds it very personal indeed). But if you’re You, and You are being sarcastic or mocking or dismissive, then You might want to stop. I think of informality on twitter as the kind of informality I might have with colleagues at a conference. I will talk about ‘personal’ things (though not necessarily private things – talking about likes and dislikes isn’t the same as confessionals) but, I hope, I’m still being a ‘professional’ in terms of how I behave toward others and how I represent myself. You can be informal and still respectful, and I think showing respect toward people you interact with on twitter is hugely important, and something twitter itself could do with more of.


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