On being an academic twit

June 15, 2011 - Geekiness

On the Welsh Crucible course last week we investigated engagement with media and the public, and twitter was one of the channels we discussed. A few of the other participants expressed an interest in getting into (or more into) twitter but we didn’t have time to talk it through at any length so I thought I’d write a general “Engaging with people on Twitter for beginners” blog post. So if you’re an academic/scientist who wants to have a go, this post is for you.

The basics

  • Twitter is fundamentally a collection of tweets, which are just very very short blog posts. Just like normal blogs, you get to choose what you read, you can follow (subscribe to) different people, and they’re ordered by time. A collection of tweets is referred to in twitter terminology as a stream or a time line.
  • When you join twitter there are four main streams you can access – the people you follow, replies to you, the global stream (kinda pointless as it’s too big), and your own tweets.
  • On twitter, things that start with an @ are people, and things that start with an # are topics. @things are called “at-replies” as you use it most to reply to other people. #things are called “hashtags” as it’s a bit like tagging on other web2.0 sites.
  • So if you want to talk to me or about me, type @handee and twitter will automatically turn that into a link to me and simultaneously add that to my replies stream.
  • If you want to talk about a particular topic, just start a word with an # and it’ll automatically link to all other tweets that have that word with an #. This is used at conferences and events to discuss the conference, or political questions, or cascades of cheesy jokes, or tv shows… for the Welsh Crucible, check out #cruciblecymru; for general higher education grumbles and cheer check out #loveHE; for Question Time check out #bbcqt. If there isn’t a hashtag for a conference, just make one up.
  • You can organise twitterers you follow into lists – this can be good for prioritising tweets if you follow loads of people (as you can view each list’s tweets as a separate stream), and for finding people to follow (from other people’s lists). Bill (@DrBillyo) has made a list of cruciblists.
  • If you see something you like, you can “Re-tweet” it to your followers by pressing the re-tweet button which appears when you hover your mouse over it on twitter. Or you can just copy the tweet and put “RT” at the front. The re-tweet button is fairly new so a lot of people still use “RT” – there are other reasons for doing the RT thing (you can add stuff to the tweet, for example). This is another way to find new followers or gain new followers.

Interacting, following, dropping – the etiquette

  • You choose who you follow, and there’s no stigma attached with dropping and adding followers as often as you like. So if someone’s boring you, drop them. If someone interests you, follow them. You don’t have to follow everyone that follows you, and vice versa.
  • Twitter is best when you treat it as conversation. If you only use it for announcements, you’re missing out on most of the fun and all of the engagement.
  • If someone tweets something you’d like to respond to – do! Even if they don’t follow you back, they’ll see your @-reply. In this way you can have conversations with people you’re not connected to. Maybe you’ll end up connected, maybe not. But this is where twitter can really come into its own: social discovery.
  • You don’t have to read it all. As soon as you’re following more than a handful of people, you’ll either end up losing your life to twitter, or you’ll get selective about what you read. Lists can help you prioritise, but there’s no shame in missing out on tweets. Whilst it’s true that tweets are out there forever, there’s also something ephemeral about tweeting – don’t assume your followers have seen everything you’ve written.
  • You’ll get followed by scammers and spammers. You can report them for spam (there’s a button), block them (there’s a button) or just ignore them. It’s up to you.

So who should you follow?

  • Some media orgs, e.g.: Times higher education Guardian education
  • Some research orgs – VITAE, EPSRC, whoever’s likely to fund your work.
  • Some famous people – Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox (isn’t he lovely?) and of course Stephen Fry
  • Your professional organisations and groups (e.g. I follow the BCS feeds)
  • Any colleagues, other researchers, journals, etc. in your field.
  • Some journalists in your field (twitter can be a great way to build up a relationship with the media)
  • Your uni
  • Your students (if you can find them, or if they find you)
  • Your mates on twitter (of course)
  • Your local cinema/theatre/pub/museum

What should you tweet?

  • If you blog, post a link to your posts – this will drive traffic to your blog, improve your google pagerank, and give your twitter feed more depth (as your followers can see what you’re writing about in more depth).
  • Tweet your successes: conference and journal papers, grants, experiments… From a public engagement perspective, I think it’s good for people to see what we researchers get up to and what motivates us.
  • Reply to any interesting tweets you see – the real value of twitter comes when you’re having conversations on it.
  • Research suggests that tweeting academics are more credible when they tweet a mixture of personal and work-related stuff. So there’s not a need to be 100% professional (although try not to be 100% unprofessional:-).
  • Links to cool articles – shortened using bit.ly or tinyurl.com or similar – are a good idea.
  • Re-tweet stuff you like that other people have tweeted. Although there’s no point re-tweeting anything by Stephen Fry as everyone follows him already.
  • This shouldn’t need saying, but don’t tweet anything confidential – if you’ve got cool unpublished results, or see the PVC for staff snogging a student, well… don’t.

How do you find the time?

I read twitter on the train, whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for code to compile, taking a break from marking… it can become addictive, or it can be a stream you just dip into from time to time. It is a great source of real-time information so if you’re a bit of a news junkie like me, it’s fun to check twitter when there are breaking stories. It’s uncensored, so if you want to know who the latest superinjunction involves you can find that out. The key thing to remember is that you don’t have to read it all, and you can take a break from twitter whenever you like. It’ll still be there in a couple of weeks time, and it’s highly unlikely that anybody will have unfollowed you for not tweeting.

Anything I’ve missed out? Leave a comment (or tweet me on @handee).


  1. Paul Brennan says:

    @hannah, this is great and perfect timing. Thanks for the effort. Big smile.

  2. Yingli says:

    Great stuff, Hannah. Perfect timing – I teach E-commerce and have been thinking of designing one coursework around Twitter. Therfore your blog is very useful and just in time.

  3. Fenny says:

    One of my colleagues is doing a session on Social Networking at staff training week next month, so I’ve sent him this.

  4. Martin O says:

    Thanks Hannah, very useful for a digital immigrant like me.

  5. Sally H says:

    I think I actually understand this now. thanks so much for the clarity.

  6. Blanka says:

    Thanks for the heads-up from the RS blog, this is exactly the sort of thing I had been thinking of when I posted my question…

  7. Ann Blair says:

    Excellent. Thanks.

  8. Thanks Hannah – great short intro. I’ve been trying to tweet about research – but it’s difficult. a) time b) when revealing realtime thoughts may have possible interaction with ongoing research – when people are your subjects! c) protecting intellectual property (ie. ideas!) d) related – concerns about recrimination – especially from employers and/or funders.
    I’ve also wondered about conducting research on twitter – I searched for any kind of vote / poll facility, but I guess this isn’t possible. Just have to analyse comments on a particular theme…

  9. Thanks Hannah, This is really useful.

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