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.