I must start with a confession. Until a couple of years ago, I really couldn’t see the point of Twitter. To me it was just a cacophony of show-offs shouting about what they’d had for lunch. Suddenly, however, I started finding useful information, meeting interesting people, and getting helpful feedback. I’m perhaps not yet an evangelist, but in my social media workshops I do encourage researchers to give it a try. At first, they would just sit there slowly blinking at me, like so many lizards, but now they’re starting to realise the power of a well-placed tweet.
One of the main advantages of Twitter is its reach. It boasts 200m active users (the other 300m are lurkers), and provides a platform for more than 400m tweets every day. I’d be the first to admit that 399m of those are drivel, but the remainder comprises a rich source of information to the hungry researcher. It’s also now a valid academic source, with most major referencing styles including a format for tweets.
Twitter also facilitates real-time chat through the use of hashtags, those now almost ubiquitous labels that people use to label their utterances on social media. Regular hosted sessions such as #phdchat and #ecrchat provide a forum in which researchers can exchange ideas, discuss problems, and build networks beyond geographical boundaries. While these are two of the better-known hashtags, there are dozens of others for different academic disciplines. The Inside Higher Ed blog hosts a very good list and you can submit your own for inclusion.
If you’re unable to participate in the live chat, organisers often aggregate the best tweets using services like Storify. Inger Mewburn, editor of the legendary Thesis Whisperer blog has just done that with some of the popular topics. Hashtags are also used at conferences, so you can find out what’s happening even if you can’t be in the room.
Another good way of locating the good stuff on Twitter is through lists. This functionality is buried quite deep and many users don’t know about it. By creating a list, you can effectively filter out all the rubbish and just read the tweets from people who matter. To create one, click on ‘Me’ on the Twitter toolbar, then ‘More’ and ‘Lists’.
To add someone to your list, click the cogwheel icon in their profile, then choose ‘Add or remove from lists …’.
It can be either public or private. Many kind-hearted souls have made their lists public, so everyone else can benefit from them, and the LSE Blog maintains a handy directory by academic discipline. Once you’ve found a list you fancy, you can either follow tweeters directly, or subscribe to see all of their updates in a feed.
Viewing your lists on Twitter is a bit cumbersome, so I’d recommend using a tool like Hootsuite, a social media management system. That makes it sound very grand, but it’s essentially a web-based dashboard that allows you to view activity across Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and various other platforms that I’m too old to use. You can configure the columns to display whatever you want – hashtags, lists, mentions, specific tweeters. Here I’m using columns to display tweets from Arts Academic Tweeters and Amber Regis’ TweetVictorian list.
Hootsuite is also available as a smartphone app, so it’s very easy to keep up-to-date on the move. The benefits of Twitter are neatly encapsulated by technologist Nigel Cameron:
“I have 400 researchers, key thinkers and doers and scanners of every possible horizon, who funnel their best finds and their smartest comments to me: every day, all the time, and for no cost. The value added to my thinking is so immense I find it impossible to think of reverting to other modalities of gathering intelligence and intelligent commentary.”
So, free information delivered to you every day, wherever you are – what could be better than that?
You might also be interested in my ebook Making the Most of Twitter: A Step-by-Step Guide for Academics or my free online course Making the Most of Twitter for Academics.