Why I use twitter

As mentioned in my intro post, I am pretty active on twitter. Some academics have jumped right into twitter, but most still seem to be hesitant. There are already a number of posts listing reasons why academics should use twitter, including this one from Deep Sea News and this more recent one from COMPASSblogs. Here, my goal isn’t to list all the possible reasons why twitter might be useful. Rather, it is to give some of the reasons why I find it useful, and to give a few tips that I found helpful when getting started.

1. Keeping up on the literature: this was the initial thing that made me decide to join twitter. A Facebook friend of mine, Jarrett Byrnes, has it set up so that his tweets also appear on Facebook. Thanks to that, I could see that he was regularly tweeting links to new papers (or blog posts related to new papers), and often I was interested in those papers/links. Now, I follow many of the journals that I read regularly; between that and tweets from other scientists I follow, I am better able to keep up with the literature (because that “Table of Contents” folder in my email might as well be a black hole).

2. Stats help: If you are trying to learn R, or trying to do something new in R, twitter is definitely your friend. You can tweet a question and add the #rstats hashtag (where a hashtag is a way of indicating a keyword or topic), and all sorts of people will chime in to help. People may even send you code! As an example: this spring, I was trying to figure out how to make figures in R. I knew that I wanted to make a plot where I had symbol size indicate one thing (population) and fill indicate another (pre- vs. post-epidemic). I tweeted that, and was immediately pointed to ggplot, and various help pages for ggplot, and then also sent some code. It saved me many hours of poking around online trying to figure it out – which was good, because my initial attempts at googling for answers (which presumably included “R” and “plot” and “group” or something like that) led me, on the first page of results, to the Wikipedia page for the Wizard of Oz (or maybe it was Return to Oz – either way, not a useful result!)

3. Conferences: This summer, because I was moving to Michigan, I wasn’t able to make it to either Evolution or ESA. I was, however, able to follow along with both meetings, by following tweets with the conference hashtags (#evol2012 and #esa2012). Following the tweets from Rosie Redfield’s plenary at Evolution was a particular highlight. For people who are at the meetings, it helps them to connect – and, for ESA 2013, some people are even working on planning an “unconference” (also see #ESAun13). (By the way, if you were at ESA this summer and use twitter, Chris Lortie would like you to take this survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/esatweets to help them figure out whether twitter helped facilitate networked and discovery at the meeting.) At the EEID meeting this spring, I ended up meeting up with Sadie Jane Ryan because we were both tweeting about the meeting.

4. Live-tweeting talks: I’m planning on a whole post on this, but people also use twitter to live-tweet departmental seminars (in addition to the conference talks mentioned above). This is nice, both for people who are elsewhere who are interested in the topic, and also, I think, for me as the listener/live tweeter, since it makes me focus more carefully on the message. There are also other things to consider, though – Is it okay to live-tweet unpublished results? What if the talk ends up being awful? Should you clear it with the speaker ahead of time? – which is why I plan on making a whole post out of this.

5. Community: I have definitely gotten to know some fellow ecologists and evolutionary biologists much better as a result of twitter. There is also a whole twitter community of academic/scientist moms, which has been really nice, too. This sense of community takes a little while to develop, though – at first, I definitely felt like an outsider looking in. So, while this is something I really like about twitter now, it isn’t something that is likely to draw you in right away (unless, perhaps, you already know a fair number of people who are on twitter).

6. Science writers: I also really like following the many science writers who are on twitter (Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and David Quammen are all on twitter, and all are excellent science writers who write on subjects of interest to ecologists).

7. Being concise: This one is minor, but tweeting forces me to be more concise. I’ll write something, think “there’s no way I can get that to 140 characters” and then find that I can quite easily, while retaining the meaning. Extra practice at tight writing is probably something all scientists can use.

8. Examples for teaching: I regularly end up with posts in my twitter feed that contain materials that are useful teaching — for example, a link to a video about climate change. And, in some cases where there is something I want to include in a lecture (e.g., an animation showing the decline of Arctic sea ice) but have been unable to find, I will ask for examples on twitter. People are usually quick to respond, and suggest things that would have taken me quite a long time to find on my own.

A few tips for getting started with twitter:
1. Choosing a username/handle: This isn’t something I gave much thought to when I joined twitter, but one thing to consider is whether you want to tweet under your real name or a pseudonym. It seems like most scientists use their real names, and, if it had occurred to me to possibly use a pseudonym when I joined twitter, I think I would have been worried about whether people would figure it out. Plus, I like being able to brag about my lab members, which isn’t really possible with a pseudonym. But, if you use your real name, you need to remember that anyone can see your tweets (ANYONE – your chair, your tenure letter writers, your mom, etc.), even if they’re not on twitter; for one thing, tweets appear in google search results.

There are definitely good reasons for having a pseudonym, especially if you want to write/tweet about things that might be more controversial. For example, ProfLikeSubstance is an evolutionary biologist who tweets and blogs under a pseudonym, which has allowed him to post more easily about topics such as, say, the new NSF BIO preproposal system.

An intermediate option is to have your handle be something that is not your name (perhaps your study organism – for example, if I did this, I would get something like @Daphnia if it weren’t already taken). You can then start out with your real name associated with that handle, and then switch over to a pseudonym (e.g., Dr. Daphnia) later if you decide you don’t want to be so googleable. Dr. Wrasse is someone who used this approach successfully.

2. Don’t try to read everything! When I first joined twitter, Al Dove gave me some great advice: don’t try to read all the tweets! I am a bit obsessive, and was tempted to try to read back through all the tweets that had appeared since I last checked. But it’s impossible, so don’t bother trying. Just dip your toe in the stream of tweets when you get a chance, and accept that you’ll miss out on some things.

3. Find people to follow by going through the list of people that other ecology folks (including possibly the ones I’ve linked to above) are following. That will give you a good start; and, if you decide later you would rather not follow one of them, you can always unfollow them and they are unlikely to even notice.

4. Tweet! People will only follow you if you tweet. So, post a link to a new article you found and liked, brag about a lab member, reply to other people’s tweets (or retweet them), etc. However, I do find it gets tedious if someone only tweets things like “Here’s a new paper from my lab” or “My grad student won X award”. I prefer if I get to know some other things about the tweeter, too, but I’m sure this is just an area of personal preference.

I’m sure I’ve left out some good reasons to use twitter, and some important tips for new twitter users. Please feel free to point those out in the comments!

Last minute update: I just learned about two “twitter/social media for ecologists” type posts that readers might be interested in. One is by Jarrett Byrnes, who gave a talk at ESA on taking the ecological conversation online. The other is by Sandra Chung, on building a community — online and offline — at ESA2012.

Edit after posting: Margaret pointed out in the comments that I didn’t give my twitter handle. Sorry about that! It’s duffy_ma. My profile page is here.

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42 thoughts on “Why I use twitter

  1. Great commentary and resource! Thanks! As we build a critical mass, I’m really excited to see how building up your conversations with colleagues everyday can really change us as a discipline.

    • You weren’t fast enough to be first to comment on this post? How did a slowpoke like you ever get a reputation as a social media guru???!!! ;-)

      Just kidding Jarrett. I too am interested to see how social media (which mostly means blogging for me, but for many people, twitter) changes how we do science.

  2. do you just use twitter for work-related material? or is it easy to co-mingle with twitter feed that is more related to personal life? your tip #2 seems daunting – how will I ignore the potentially important stuff I’ve missed? ;)

    • Thanks for commenting! And great question. At first, I just used it for work-related stuff, but it’s migrated to include more work-life stuff. I have definitely vented on twitter about homework from my former daycare. :) I think adding in some of the non-work stuff helps build a sense of community, especially with other academic parents. But there are some conversations that I feel too inhibited to jump in on (e.g., on the specifics of pumping at work). That feeling would be reduced by a pseudonym.

      Regarding missing things: if it’s really, really important, people will tweet about it for a while, so you’ll probably still see it. Does that make you feel better? :)

      So, are you going to join twitter now?

    • I would strongly discourage mixing both streams. On one hand, it is great when tweets from professional scientists aren’t all business, and some mention of work-life issues makes the person seem more human. However, using the same twitter account as a personal one and going completely off message (tweeting endlessly about politics, four-square checkins, yelp checkins, and endless cat/baby pictures) would only serve to alieniate one’s audience. The reverse situation is annoying too. When a grad student friend (who happens to be in a completely different field) flooded my personal twitter stream with 100s of live tweets from a humanities conference, I had no choice but to unfollow (that was before twitter clients allowed muting for various lengths of time).

      It’s quite easy to maintain more than one twitter account (I have 3, a professional one, a personal one that I keep locked, and another for an organization that I run) and all twitter clients have great support for it.

      • I agree that lots of mixing of streams is not good, though, as I said in my original post, I do like it to not be quite all business. But I definitely don’t want to see 4Square check-ins. Some politics is okay with me, but I don’t feel comfortable tweeting political things personally.

        Do you have a preferred client for maintaining multiple accounts? I mostly use the native twitter app, so don’t have a lot of experience with the other twitter clients.

    • I guess one thing that would be obvious (and that probably some people already do) would be to put one’s twitter handle right on the name tag at meetings like ESA, EEID, etc. It would be another way to connect with people there.

  3. As an addition to your ‘keeping up with the literature’ section, the hashtag ‘#Icanhazpdf’ has become a vital tool for those of us in institutions which have a somewhat frugal approach to journal subscriptions! I’ve gained access to a lot of papers via this – just provide a link to the abstract, the hashtag, and the email address to which you want it sent, and some helpful soul will get you it in a jiffy! My top tip is to delete your tweet as soon as you receive the paper (having once sent out a request, gone to make a cup of tea, and received 10 copies of the paper during that period).

    Also, for those of us who didn’t take the standard academic route (eg, I worked in a completely different industry for 8 years before coming back to university to do a PhD in something I didn’t really have a clue about), it’s very helpful if you ‘know’ some people online so that you don’t feel quite as left out when you go to conferences and have no contacts from former labs like everyone else seems to! I’ve also used twitter to keep in somewhat informal contact with people I’ve met at conferences who I might not otherwise want to bother with emails.

    I also agree HARD on trying not to be too obsessive about things. I’ve lost way too many hours to twitter on stuff that could definitely be construed as work-related, but not as work-related as actual, you know, work.

    • Great points! I’ve never used #icanhazpdf, but it does seem like a really useful tool. Thanks for mentioning that, since I had forgotten.

      I agree with your other points, too — including that it keeps me in touch with people I met at conferences, who I would otherwise lose track of (aside from the occasional hallway greeting at the next meeting).

      And, it’s hard for academics not to be obsessive, isn’t it? :) But, yes, totally agree with your last point.

  4. One other way I’ve been using twitter lately: getting feedback on lab equipment options, and senses for whether the quotes I’ve been getting have been reasonable. It’s been quite handy.

  5. This is a great list, and if you don’t mind, I’d love to cite it in future social media workshops. Thank you very much for sharing it and for the link to my post! Let me add that it’s really important to have your Twitter testimonial and others like it out in the world. I’m a full-time science communicator now, but I also have a master’s in environmental science, and I’ve found that many (but not all) scientists’ reactions to me correlate fairly well with how I introduce myself, i.e. as someone with a science degree versus a science journalist or communicator. For a practicing scientist audience, you’re what climate communication experts would call a more credible messenger about the potential uses of social media than I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t still try, of course :)

    • Hi Sandra. It would be great if you cite it in your social media workshops! I’m glad that it seems useful. It’s disappointing that people’s reactions depend so much on how you introduce yourself, but I guess I’m not all that surprised, unfortunately.

  6. yay, Thanks for plugging our survey. It’s amazing how many people participated on twitter during ESA this year. Definitely enriched my conference experience. You should see something about it from Chris Lortie and me shortly.

    • No problem. I have a question about the survey: is it intended just for people who went to ESA and tweeted, or also for people who followed the ESA2012 hash tag?

      • It’s meant for anyone who participated in the conversation whether or not they were physically present in Portland. These include people who retweeted. For e.g., Ethan White wasn’t there but participated in a lot of twitter conversations during that week and we want to hear from those folks (in addition to tweeps who did attend).

        So, short answer, anyone who followed the tag and participated either by tweeting or retweeting with the tag (we have no way of knowing who followed the tag if they didn’t also tweet).

  7. A great post and a real service to an old geezer like me. I’m also a self confessed social media Luddite ever since they tricked me by telling me that email would make my life better and more efficient 20 years ago. So I’m going to break the stream of Twitter inner circle posts and ask some questions other old geezers like me are probably asking. So these questions are sincerely reflecting my ignorance, not questions driving any point or agenda.
    1) I used to think the key feature of Twitter was that it showed up like texts on a cell phone (i.e. more real time than anything on a computer). But most people I talk to tell me they now just scan them when they have a few free minutes on the twitter website using a computer. Is it true that most people check and send Twitter by computer these days? (Of course with smartphones you can be checking the web interface with a cell phone …)
    2) If most people don’t Twitter by phone now, then for all intents and purposes as best I can figure it out, Twitter is just cross-linked listserves (I subscribe to mass mailings and I can run my own listserv that sends out mass mailings) except that they all run off one server with a common interface (i.e. Twitter) and have the 140 character limit. Admittedly the listserv version is much uglier, but am I missing anything?
    3) Here’s the uber question. What is Twitter’s unique niche in social media? What does it bring that email, listservs, Facebook/LinkedIn/ResearchGate plus blogs don’t do? Is it the character limit? Is it just newer and hipper and hence more critical mass? Or the opposite – newer and so less crowded and more selected to a certain crowd? Is it the fact I can do all 8 of your different Twitter usages on Twitter but they are disaggregated across email, blogs, etc without Twitter?


    • Hi Brian. Great questions, and hopefully other twitter users will jump in. I don’t have time for a super lengthy response right now, but I’ll give some first thoughts, and then come back later.

      1. Regarding your first comment: nope, I don’t get twitter texts. I think that would be really annoying. I do have a smart phone, though, and do check twitter from there regularly.

      2. Related to listserves: I think I’d need to join a *lot* of listservs to get from them what I get from twitter. I follow people like Emily Willingham (https://twitter.com/ejwillingham), who write about science that is generally not ecological. But, I find what she writes about really interesting, and am glad to have an easy way to follow her work. Maybe if I was better at using RSS feeds I could get some of this through that, but I find twitter does a good job of it for me.

      Also, I find listservs much less thoughtful, despite (or maybe because of?) the ability to compose longer responses. The listserv I follow the most closely is ecolog. It is always wandering off on tangents, but it feels like it’s a very few people going on those tangents. And, I often find I don’t really want to read those people’s thoughts on the matter, because they tend to be rants that are not that well thought out. If it was twitter, I just wouldn’t follow those people, but could still follow other parts of the conversation. Does that make sense? Of course, knowing about those opinions is useful — I was dismayed to see how people responded to a grad student’s request on ecolog for a recommendation for an infant carrier for field work (someone suggested that it might be necessary to surrender custody of one’s children to be a successful scientist!), but it’s probably good to know that that is still a pervasive mindset that young women in science have to deal with. So, I haven’t given up on listservs (and they’re more useful for job postings, since those things are likely to be missed on twitter), but I prefer twitter for discussions.

      3. For me, facebook is for personal stuff (including too many pictures of my daughter, since I just can’t help myself), while twitter is for work stuff. Sometimes the line is blurred, and then I post things both places. I think that’s a fairly common distinction that people use, but I may be wrong about that. I’ve never tried LinkedIn (isn’t that for business people?) or ResearchGate, so can’t compare there. And it’s much more effort to start a blog and maintain a following than it is to tweet.

      Other thoughts: I spent time yesterday afternoon and this morning live-tweeting seminars. I don’t see how I could do that sort of thing with other social media. I might turn the Stearns talk into a blog post, but that is the exception. The talk yesterday was interesting, but not close enough to my interests for me to write a whole blog post on it. But, there were apparently at least a few people who found the live-tweeting (which gives the main messages of the talk in 140 character chunks) interesting, and who were able to hear about that research, despite being far away (including in different countries). I think that’s pretty neat. For an example, here is a way to see some of the live tweets from the talk this morning:

      The links to interesting papers (which just highlight the most interesting ones, and so help filter out a lot of other stuff) and blog posts (again, filtering out a lot of less interesting ones) are also things that I don’t get elsewhere that I really like about twitter. If not for twitter, I would never read Ed Yong or Jonathan Eisen’s blogs, for example, but I find myself often really enjoying their blog posts. Again, better use of RSS feeds might allow one to do this without twitter.

      Okay, I need to get back to course prep, so sorry this can’t be more thoughtful. But thank you very much for turning this into a conversation. I was starting to think we’d all just start singing Kumbaya soon, given all the twitter love that was going on. :)

    • Hi Brian. I’m relatively new to Twitter, so the jury is still out as to whether my enthusiasm for it will fade in the coming months. For me, the mobile, character limit, and diverse community aspects are appealing. If I am at a computer, I may open a Twitter tab in the web browser, but nine times out of ten, I use my cell phone. I don’t receive Tweets as texts, but use a Twitter app. Meg actually solicited feedback on your post through Twitter, which I saw on my iPhone, prompting me to return to the Dynamic Ecology blog on a computer. Without Meg’s Tweet, I probably wouldn’t have seen your query.

      The character limit is nice because it must be concise. If a short URL provides a link to more detail, I can seek it but only if I’m motivated to do so. If all of the details were right there, I might be tempted to keep reading, which isn’t always the best choice. I have subscribed on and off to ECOLOG-L over the years. To be honest, I find it more frustrating and a greater time suck than Twitter due to the ranting tangents noted by Meg. In the past, I’ve found listservs great during job searches but now tend to avoid them otherwise.

      Finally, I connect with a larger, more diverse group of scientists on Twitter than I do on Facebook. I share Meg’s distinction between the two. I use Facebook to connect with family, friends, and old high school classmates. And I post far more pictures of my toddlers than Meg (she really doesn’t post that many). On Facebook it is kinda creepy to “friend” strangers. On Twitter, it is OK to follow people you don’t know; although, this took a little getting used to at first. I’ve found it interesting to see what people at the outer bounds of my expertise are talking about and what people within my field (with whom I may rarely connect) are working on these days. I also follow a local pub which lets me know which microbrew keg they’ve just tapped. “@ManitoTapHouse Laughing Dog Bourbon Barrel Dogfather at Manito Tap House #ontapspk” warranted a recent visit.

      Will I be Tweeting longterm? Only time will tell. For now, those are some of the distinctions that, for me, make Twitter complimentary to or more appealing than other forms of social media.

      • Great thoughts, Scott. Thanks for posting! (And glad you don’t think I post excessive pictures!) I agree with you about it being okay to follow someone you don’t know on twitter, but it would be creepy to friend them on Facebook. So, I definitely interact with a much more diverse set of scientists on twitter.

  8. Thanks Scott & Meghan. What I take away is:
    1) Twitter is more immediate than email, listserv, blog etc, though not because it can arrive as a text on a cell phone but probably because the 140 character limit makes it more smartphone friendly than more verbose forms (and also probably the 140 character makes it possible to only interrupt yourself for a few seconds to check, unlike email or blogging)
    2) Twitter is a network expanding tool where it is socially encouraged to “follow” people you don’t know whereas Facebook (& LinkedIn which is the professional version of FaceBook that I use) frown on connecting to people you don’t know (I know I have a pile of people I don’t know who have tried to LinkIn to me that I have refused so I agree). Similarly, for email it is rare (but occasionally acceptable) to email somebody you don’t know from out of the blue (Unless you live in Nigeria and work at a bank and need help settling a bank account ;-) ). In this aspect it seems very similar to blogging. I met Jeremy through this blog before I met him in person and I still have never met Meghan in person despite coblogging.

    So to me it seems like Twitter is most similar to blogging except it operates on different time scales/information packet sizes (probably this is obvious to most people but I’m slow on social media).

    Thanks – very helpful!

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  14. Great article. One small comment on just point 2 (stats help): isn’t the R tag on Stack Overflow a better first port of call than twitter? With its 37,000 searchable questions in the R tag, the best answers should rise to the top rather than accepting the first tweet reply you get. http://stackoverflow.com/questions/tagged/r.

    I’ve just joined twitter and tweeted and included the #rstats tag, but when I look on #rstats it hasn’t appeared. Is there an extra step? Thanks. I’m https://twitter.com/MattDowle

    • Hi Matthew. Thanks for the info on the R tag on Stack Overflow. I didn’t know about that, but it sounds really helpful. I’ve had problems (as I’m sure many have) with googling for help with R, given its name.

      All you should need to do is use the #rstats hashtag on twitter, so I’m not sure why it wasn’t appearing. It looks like it appeared properly on my end, so maybe there was just a delay?

      Welcome to twitter! And glad you found the post helpful. :)

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