(LINKS UPDATED 2017)
I’ve just hit a technological milestone. This month was my 1 year Twitter anniversary, which apparently equates to about 4.3 years in internet time. I can’t believe we’re still together.
I’m pretty old-fashioned when it comes to technological bandwagons. Having left Facebook years ago, swearing on my pencil case never to join social media again, I was a bit suspicious of Twitter. I finally signed up with the intention of trying it for a couple of months to see what I thought.
Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing [tweeting]…
1. Sheer egoism. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive…
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts…
4. Political purpose – using the word political in the widest possible sense. …
George Orwell, Why I Write (abridged text)
A year later, I’m hooked. But it took some time, and a little bit of mild embarrassment, to learn the ropes – I’m still learning! In the short time I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve seen a lot more ecologists, scientists and early career researchers join Twitter. As a scientist, there is a lot of encouragement amongst peers to join Twitter, but there is very little useful advice on how to actually use it…a bit like R, really.
Deciding to join Twitter is 100% a personal decision. Before signing up, I read blogs, news articles, journal articles (yes, there are scientific studies of Twitter!) and discussed the pros and cons with tweeting friends and colleagues for about 12 months before deciding to take the plunge. I’m probably a bit more cautious than most; but, at the end of the day, it was my decision to join. So, if you tend to be overly cautious like me, here are some of the things I have learned about Twitter, as an ecologist, an academic and a person…it may help you make up your own mind.
Twitter is sensational #scicomm
A huge part of doing science is communication – finding the ‘human interest story’ in your work and sharing it beyond colleagues and peers. Blogs and popular science outreach can be hard to manage if you’re not keen on extra-curricular writing, but Twitter is easy – you can share news, opinion and research about your work and general research area, and engage with interesting people, in a lot less time than it takes to write a blog or news article.
Twitter is an active tool, not a passive one
Twitter is not a ‘website’. If you are joining Twitter because having an online presence is important for your career (it is, but probably more so for early-mid career researchers), then Twitter is not for you. If you’re not into using social media, you will find it more effective to use one of the many free ‘webpage’ media (e.g. WordPress, Blogger, Square Space etc.) to create a static online presence to share your contact details and publication lists. Every medium has a function. Twitter is a dynamic media based around conversations, so it needs to be used. Setting up a Twitter account and never using it is like giving everyone your mobile phone number, and then turning the phone off and putting it at the back of the cupboard.
I have also found Twitter works really well as a complementary tool – it’s great for expanding your readership if you have a blog or write regularly for popular media.
Twitter is Open Social Media
Most social media are surprisingly anti-social. You know how you can’t view a lot of people’s pages on FB, ResearchGate, LinkedIn etc. unless you’re a member? They are the online equivalent of an exclusive club. So if you’re into open science, Twitter is the way to go. Twitter interacts within and without; not closed off from the world outside. People who don’t follow you and non-Twitter users can find your Twitter page and read all your tweets (although non-Twitter users can’t reply). Yes, that’s correct, anyone can read what you write on Twitter, even if you think you’re replying personally to another Twitter user.
Some people choose to keep their Twitter accounts locked, which means people can only view your page if they have asked to follow you and you have approved their request. Although that choice is completely up to you, I do think it defeats the purpose of being on Twitter. Think about why you want to join Twitter before signing up. If your account is locked, none of your followers can share your tweets, because all of their followers won’t be able to read it (unless they’ve been approved to follow you too).
Each online social medium has a purpose – you just need to look at their homepages. Twitter is a “social networking service [that] is your window to the world”. In contrast, Facebook “helps you connect and share with the people in your life”. ResearchGate and Academia are for “sharing research and connecting researchers”.
So if you prefer to keep private and stick to friends and colleagues you know, Twitter probably isn’t the best option to choose. If you really want to keep up with emergency news updates on Twitter, but don’t want to be followed or engage with people, it may be best to sign up under a false name and don’t tell your friends/colleagues who you are.
How much should I tweet?
If social media is a two-tailed test distribution, you want to be non-significant. At p > 0.05, you are safely in the non-rejection region…which is what social media is all about.
There is a fine line between tweeting a constant stream of information overload and never tweeting at all. And don’t be afraid to tweet during the work day! For most researchers, Twitter is about engagement and networking.
Learn how Twitter ‘works’
There are functional differences between direct replies and commenting on tweets. Direct replies may not be seen by others, but they keep an important piece of relevant information in the same thread as the original tweet for others to find. Commenting on someone else’s tweet creates a new conversation thread, but excludes the original tweeter. If you do this and want them to get credit, or see replies, make sure to include their handle in your comment.
Twitter changes functions pretty regularly, so keep up with these by searching the Support pages and following tech news feeds.
Hashtags are not essential for all tweets! There are two types of hashtags, useful ones and useless ones. Useful hashtags align a tweet with an initiative, event or trending topic, or create a humorous context for your tweet.
#Painful #hashtags are the #ones that are #overloaded on to #every #keyword in the #tweet. #This is a #sure #way to #annoy #people and #there #really is no #reason to do it.
Hashtags don’t make much difference if someone is searching for tweets on a particular topic – I’ve searched for “ecosystem services” and seen tweets that use “#ecosystemservices”…and vice versa. The main reason to use hashtags is so a tweet is picked up by collation tools (e.g. Storify) or for other people that may not follow you to find your tweet (e.g. during a conference, or for Twitter ‘communities’ like #ECRchat etc.). And if possible, try not to include too many hashtags in the main tweet text – put them at the end.
If you hate followbots like me, choose your hashtags carefully. From a sample size of 1, I have discovered that an increased use of general hashtags (e.g. #bees #nature etc.) in my tweets correlates with a subsequent increase in the number of robot followers. So try more specialised hashtags instead, e.g. #solitarybees, #naturalhistory.
Searching a hashtag before using it is a great way to find out how people are using it. Also make sure to do this before you try and coin a new hashtag! For conferences, citizen science and other engagement initiatives, it helps to come up with a unique hashtag that doesn’t have a twitter history.
Pick your moment
Twitter is ephemeral. That is why it is a great complementary tool for an online presence – don’t rely on it as your only presence. Most active engagement happens immediately. If you really want a particular person to see your tweet, it’s best to tag them in the tweet (by including their Twitter handle), as they may not be looking at their feed at the exact moment you tweet. This works for sharing links, but don’t overdo it. If you are sharing your new paper/blog post, including specific people in your tweet may put other people off. A better option is to tweet about it few times, over a few days or at different times of the day, to catch a wider audience.
Lists are your filing cabinet
Lists are one of the most underrated Twitter tools. They are the best way to override Twitter’s annoying ‘immediacy’. If you don’t get on Twitter very often, or you just want to keep track of everything, create topic lists and add people you follow to relevant lists. That way, you can keep up with people who don’t tweet very often, or who are rarely on at the same time as you. You can choose to keep your lists private, or make them public so that other people with similar interests can check them out and find new people to follow. (To create a list, go to your Twitter homepage, click on the Lists tab, and then click on ‘Create new list’ button.)
Don’t give up
Twitter works on an audience basis. That’s just how it is. It is not egotistical to care how many followers you have. You want more followers because you will be more efficient at sharing and discussing other people’s (and your own!) ideas. It takes time and lots of effort to build up those numbers and, like everything, quality matters more than quantity!
Here are some other posts with great tips and tricks (I will keep updating this as I find more). Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips!
From Errant Science: What is Twitter? – a crash course
From The Chronicle of Higher Education: 10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics
From Royal Society of Biology: Twitter: A guide for the sceptical scientist
From SciComm Unit at UWE Bristol: Tweet or perish – practical tips on post-publication digital engagement