Tuesday 14 June 2011

A gentle introduction to Twitter for the apprehensive academic

If I tell people I’m on Twitter, I tend to get one of three reactions:
a) Isn’t it all about what Lady Gaga had for breakfast?
b) How do you find the time?
c) You?!!! (Implication: Twitter is for hip juveniles rather than fossilised academics)

This is unfortunate, because Twitter is a valuable resource for academics. If you’re allowing  inaccurate stereotypes to deter you, you’re missing out.
First of all, you have to understand what Twitter is. It’s totally different from email, and more like a news broadcast. People all over the world are continually emitting tweets (very short messages) any of which can be viewed by anyone. You select what you want to attend to. There are two ways of doing this. The default method is to ‘follow’ particular people or organisations who tweet. Their tweets then appear in your timeline, which appears as a scrolling list when you open your Twitter page. The other method is to search for tweets that include a particular word: for instance, if you type ‘neuroscience’ into the search box at the top of the page, you’ll see all the tweets in the twitterverse that include that word, starting with the most recent.
If you want news about Lady Gaga, there’s plenty out there. But if you want information of a different kind, you can follow organisations such as the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, Guardian Science, the New York Times, Nature, etc. etc. Most scientific organisations, newspapers, and science journals are on Twitter, and by following them you have an up-to-date news stream about their activities.
It's OK to be a purely passive user of Twitter, just following people who interest you. In the circles I move in, a high proportion of tweets are messages pointing to a weblink, which may be a newspaper or journal article or a blog. This is where Twitter is such a useful resource for the academic: if you follow those who share your academic interests, they will point you to interesting stuff. When I first joined up I was impressed to find that within the first few days, I’d been directed to two new papers in my field that were very relevant to my work and that I hadn’t known about.
Many people remain as passive users, but you’ll get much more out of Twitter if you use it actively and emit your own tweets. Written an interesting paper? Starting up a blog? Twitter is a great way of informing people, but there’s a catch: you need to have followers, a topic I discuss more below.

How do I get started?
You can Google to find plenty of good guides to the mechanics of tweeting. See, for instance:
However, most of these are directed towards people who do have a keen interest in Lady Gaga’s breakfast, or who wish to use Twitter for business purposes. The suggestions here are to complement the ‘how to do it’ guides with advice geared towards academic users.
Signing up is dead easy: just follow the instructions at http://twitter.com/.
You need a username. Keep it fairly short and avoid numbers or underlines: you want others to be able to remember it and type it easily. You can be anonymous if you wish, but I’d not recommend it: you are more likely to have interesting interactions with others if they know who you are. A brief description of what you do and what your interests are will help kindred spirits discover you. You get the chance to select your avatar, a little picture that appears alongside your tweets. It’s a good idea to have something other than the default picture of an egg - if you don’t want a photo of yourself, you can pick something symbolic, but aim for something to give yourself a distinctive presence. If you want, though, you can start with the egg and change it later.

How do I decide who to follow?
I started out by following my old friend and colleague Sophie Scott, or @sophiescott as she is known on Twitter. We have similar interests and a similar sense of humour, and so the first thing I did was to see who she was following. You can check out someone’s followers by clicking on their username at the top of a tweet. You’ll see their profile on the right hand side, with an indication of how many followers they have, and who is following them. Further clicking lets you see who these people are, and read their recent tweets. So it’s easy to get an idea of whether you’d like to see their tweets on a regular basis: if yes, a single click allows you to follow them.
The people I follow divide mostly into (a) organisations/public media, such as those mentioned above; (b) academics who work in areas that interest me; (c) journalists and bloggers. Although I have friendly relationships with many of those I follow, I don’t use Twitter as a means of keeping up with friends - it’s too public and the short message format is not useful for that.
I suggest you start out by just identifying a few people that look interesting to follow, and see whether you enjoy the Twitter experience. My recommendation would be to keep the number of people you follow restricted to no more than around 100. Many people follow far more than this, but I like my twitterstream to move at a reasonably sedate pace.
Getting fed up with tweets from someone you’re following? You can just unfollow them. They don’t get a message about this, so you can do it without embarrassment.

Active tweeting and attracting followers
You can have most fun with Twitter if you tweet yourself. For the beginner, there is a major problem: if you emit a tweet, the only people who will see it are your followers, and at the outset you have no followers. You may have something very amusing to say, or a really interesting paper just published, but it’s like standing at the top of a cliff and shouting into the wind. To get started, it helps to either be well-known, or to have tweeting friends. You can look for friends and colleagues by clicking on the ‘who to follow’ button, and if you find they have a Twitter presence, send them an email with your username to let them know you are there. With luck they’ll follow you, and tell others about your presence. It’s only worth doing this, though, if they are active Twitter users with followers: lots of people sign up but never use Twitter.
You may also drum up followers by following others. This is where it is important not to be too secretive: if I get a new follower, I’ll see their name and the brief bio that comes along with it, and if they look interesting, I may check out what they’ve been tweeting to see if I want to follow them. Twitter etiquette does not require that you follow someone just because they follow you, but following someone is a way of indicating your presence to them.
Another way to draw your tweeting to people’s attention is to use hashtags in your tweets. These act as keywords and are just words with the hash sign attached at the front, such as #neuroscience or #psychology. People who are searching on these topics will find your tweets and may decide to follow you.
If you are sending interesting tweets, the message will spread around the twittersphere and you will gradually get a following. You may wonder how on earth you are supposed to generate those interesting tweets that will persuade people to follow you. You don’t always have to. You can act as a transmitter for other people’s interesting tweets, by using the Retweet button below the tweet. This will just resend the tweet to your followers, preceded by RT and your username.  
You should not despair if at first you don’t have many followers. Although it’s true that a famous name will attract followers in droves, there are plenty of people who aren’t famous, but who have hundreds or even thousands of followers just because they give good value. And at the end of the day, you should not get too hung up on follower numbers. The charm of Twitter is that it lets you reach out to communicate with people all over the globe whom you might otherwise never encounter: a handful of like-minded people who appreciate your tweets is more important than a horde of followers who seldom read your messages.
What about spam?
Many newbies are worried that they will get followed by odd people. That certainly will happen. But the nice thing is that it has no impact on you. I attracted lots of provocatively dressed pouting followers when I started out. But they can follow me as much as they like; they won’t affect my stream of incoming tweets unless I follow them back. Various unsavoury characters will appear as followers for a day or two and then drop away. They hope that by following you you’ll take notice of them and buy whatever product they are purveying, but you just ignore them and they go away. Twitter discourages users who simply see it as a marketing opportunity, and is set up so you can readily report people for spam if it looks like they are doing that, but mostly the only bad thing that happens is that you have a fleeting moment of excitement at gaining a new follower, only to be disappointed to find they are someone who sees you as a potential client.
The one place where you may get more intrusive spam is if you press the @Mentions button at the top of the screen. [Update: in later versions of Twitter this is called @Connect]. Now, instead of your usual stream of tweets by followers, you will see just those tweets that mention you by username, and these will not necessarily be by your followers. In general, if you get people mentioning you in tweets, this creates a warm glow that others are interested in your tweets, but there are people who will try to exploit this, and so you may find tweets that mention your name in a tweet to lure you in to clicking a link to their website. In my experience, these are very rare, and when they occur they are usually easy to spot: if you click on their username, you’ll see they’ve sent the same message to many others. You should just report them for spam.
What should I tweet?
Quite simply, tweet to others things you think will interest them. Looking at tweets by others should give you an idea of what makes for a good tweet. Some very famous people are hopeless tweeters, because they just describe the mundane details of their life. What I actually want are either amusing observations, or useful information. Some people use Twitter to record their stream of consciousness. Unless you’re James Joyce, this is very dull for everyone else, and just makes you look egotistical. Come to think of it, James Joyce would have been a disaster on Twitter.
When you start tweeting, the 140 character limit seems impossible, but you learn by experience.  If you want to include a link to a website in a tweet, you will almost certainly need to shorten it. There are various programs for doing this, e.g.
As mentioned above, if I read a tweet by someone that I think will interest my followers, I'll retweet it. That’s a single click operation, one of the options given below each tweet. Retweeting is what makes Twitter such an effective communication medium: if an interesting message is retweeted by several people with many followers, who in turn retweet to their followers, it can rapidly spread all over the world.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll start to appreciate that tweets are a kind of currency; your status on Twitter is tied up with the extent to which you emit popular tweets. It is therefore as important to acknowledge the source of a good tweet as it is to reference an idea in a scientific article. If you use the retweet function, this happens automatically: the retweeted tweet will be marked RT and will show both your name and that of the originator. What’s a definite no-no is to copy someone else’s tweet and resend it without acknowledging the source. Etiquette is less clear on the extent to which one should send a tweet to thank others who promote one’s tweets. This may seem polite, but if over-used, it can descend into a rather irritating form of self-promotion -  in effect you are publicly drawing attention to the fact that others liked your tweet. A lot depends on how it’s done, but there’s a narrow line between being seen as courteous, and coming across as a self-congratulatory dick.
How much should you tweet? I’m more likely to unfollow someone who tweets too much rather than too little. Anyone who keeps repeating the same self-promotional message is quickly dropped from my list. If you have a blog or article you want to promote, it’s reasonable to plug it a few times on different days and at different times of day, to make sure the message gets out, but you’ll turn people off if you overdo it. If it’s interesting enough, your followers will do the work of promotion for you, by retweeting. On the other hand, there's not much point in following someone who tweets less than once a week, unless their tweets are really something special.
Remember, Twitter is totally public. I can search for someone’s name and then look at all their tweets. I would therefore strongly advise against tweeting anything at all that you would not want your friends and colleagues to see, or that could be deemed defamatory. There is a Delete option you can use on tweets that you come to regret, but by the time you select it, your tweet could have been sent all around the world.
How do I find the time?
It’s a big mistake to think you have to read every tweet that appears in your stream. I just turn to Twitter when I need distraction or entertainment. So you really don’t need to spend very long on Twitter unless you want to. The difficulty is that what’s happening on Twitter is often more interesting that what’s happening in other areas of life, and it can become quite addictive for that reason. I usually resolve not to look at Twitter during the working day, especially if I have a paper to write or an analysis to run. But sometimes the resolve faulters.
I hope that’s enough to persuade you to give Twitter a try. Happy tweeting!

P.S. 18th June 2011
The Reply Option
I’ve been asked about the Reply option that appears when you hover over a tweet.
You can use this even if you aren’t following someone. Your message will automatically be prefaced by the username of the person you reply to. It won’t appear in their regular stream of tweets, but they will see it if they look under @Mentions. This can be a way of getting yourself involved in a discussion, even if you don’t have followers. And if the discussion develops well, the person you reply to may decide to follow you.
Twitter won’t show your Reply to your followers unless they are also following the person you reply to. Complicated, huh? The reason is that otherwise your followers will be treated to just one side of a personal conversation. But if you think your reply may be of interest to a broader audience, you can make it visible to all by just putting a full stop in front of the @ at the start of the Reply. (In fact, any character will do, but . is traditional. The rule is that provided tweets don’t start with @ your followers will see them).

P.P.S.28th October 2011
I've written a short piece about blogging for academics that may interest readers of this post.

26.3.12. PPPS. A final warning! There is one bad thing that can happen to you on Twitter, that won’t happen to you provided you are forewarned. These are what I call “drink me” tweets, after the tempting bottles that Alice was confronted with in Wonderland. They say things like “Someone is writing bad things about you”, or “Here’s a funny photo of your”, or “Find out your Twitter ranking”, and point you to a link. Usually they come from someone you have never heard of (and so will only be seen on the @Connect timeline). NEVER CLICK ON THE LINK. These are attempts to take over your Twitter account (they may actually ask you to click to confirm this is OK. It isn’t). Once your account is compromised, the fun begins. Your account will be used to send messages to all your followers, typically advertising something, and often encouraging them to respond in a way that will compromise their account. Deeply embarrassing. For the same reason, if you get a message from someone you ARE following which looks weird - e.g. “My Twitter ranking is 5.5, find out yours!”, don’t go near it.
There is useful advice on what to do if your account is compromised here

And a note on Favourites. I didn’t mention Favourites in my original post, as it was pretty self-evident how they worked. However, the good folks at Twitter then updated the interface, and it’s no longer obvious. If you want to keep a Tweet - perhaps to read later, or to refer back to - select the option to Favourite it. To see your Favourites, you need to go to My Profile.
On other Twitter platforms, such as Tweetdeck, you can have a column showing Favourites without additional clicking.

7th Nov 2012. PPPPS. Email and Twitter
Unfortunately, whenever Twitter produces an upgrade, it seems to make the experience worse. One relatively recent change has been the irritating expansion of Email Notifications. The last thing I want is Twitter stuff intruding into my email, but when you first sign up to Twitter (or upgrade to latest version) these notifications are On by default. It's easy to switch them off though.
From top menu bar select Me, then Edit your Profile.
Then from menu bar on left, Email Notifications will allow you to select or deselect specific kinds of email that Twitter can send you.


  1. thank you so much - useful and thoughtful .

  2. That's lovely! I will share it (in the world outside of twitter, obviously...)

  3. Thank you very much for this post. I am a virgin tweeter myself, and found it very helpful. One day I might be brave enough to start to attract followers!

    It is not academics that use twitter in this way. I am a home educator and have found it very useful in the same way that you do. I started by following Jim Al-Khalili, which lead to a lecture he did on Rutherford, which lead to a lecture by Melanie Windrush, which lead to a talk at the Chentenhan Science Festival! My son is into physics!

    And as I also follow your good self, I can keep up to date with neuroscience and autism and often have a list of articles to read out to my son. Why worry about GCSEs when you can read the papers from the scientists themselves!

    So thanks for all your tweets and your guide to using Twitter

  4. Bravo. This is spot-on. I reposted it on my FB page--no need to Tweet it! @nccomfort

  5. Dorothy Bishop, you are truly a mine of information!

  6. a lovely post, i will be forwarding the link to quite a few people:)

  7. Useful post, thanks. A question: I'm so far a rather silent reader of tweets, mostly because I don't know what to tweet about: all my scientific interests (there are several branches)? stuff related to the university, city, and life in general? Hobby-related stuff? Should I be an English-language tweeter, and thus be part of a global conversation, or should I tweet in Spanish and go local? The question is, from your experience: do mixed topics / mixed language / mixed whatever tweets work, or should one focus on one aspect/subject? The key problem, I guess, is that media outlets have each a focus (and we pick them accordingly), while individuals are multidimensional.

  8. Thanks for all the comments. I'm pleasantly surprised at all the interest in the post, as I was worried I was just stating the obvious!
    @dilefante raises an important question:
    What to tweet about? I think the simple answer is, whatever interests you. Obviously, the narrower your interests, the less likely you are to find followers, but those you do find will be kindred spirits.
    Styles of tweeting vary hugely. Someone like @bengoldacre has a huge following because he is witty and informative, as well as passionate about evidence-based medicine. Most people aren’t going to be as funny as Ben, but if you do find something quirky and amusing, it’s worth tweeting it, as this kind of thing can provide light relief in a boring day. But you can also attract a following by being a good source of up to date information: for instance, I enjoy following @mariapage because she keeps abreast of the literature and has a good eye for titles of neuroscience papers that might be of broader interest. Many of her tweets are links to recent articles. Alongside she sends occassional tweets about her life as an impoverished grad student in Sheffield, which can put my own difficult day into perspective.
    Personally, I tweet about a very wide range of topics: I’ll put out links to research papers in my area, links to blogs I like (mostly on science topics), political stuff on the state of universities and the NHS, articles on women in science, and any really funny stuff I find. Yesterday, I even tweeted a couple of cute animal pictures, though if I did that a lot I think I’d lose my more serious followers. I only rarely tweet about personal issues. A lot of my tweets are just retweets: the trick is to find interesting organisations and people who will tweet stuff that you can then pass on.
    Whether your tweeting will attract followers will simply depend on how many people share your interests. But I will, for instance, follow some people who tweet about subjects that bore me rigid, like cricket (yes, @j0ns1m0ns, this is you), or the Apprentice, provided such tweets aren’t so numerous as to get irritating.
    I hope that helps!

  9. Great post.
    But... shouldn't we find a 'tweet button' somewhere on this page? :-)

  10. Thanks cjt.
    I have worked out how to do this now!

  11. And, if anyone who has taken up Twitter is tempted to move on to blogging, @Stephen_Curry has just posted an ace youtube piece explaining why it's a thoroughly good thing.

  12. Hi deevybee, great post. I'm a PhD student at Edinburgh trying to spread the benefits of Twitter for academics. Would you mind if I put it in our internal Edinburgh university science magazine "EuSci"? I think your post is just what people here need to help them understand what it's all about.

  13. Hi mattmiell.
    Yes, that's fine with me, so long as you acknowledge source and link to my blog.

  14. Naturally. Thanks again for a great post.

  15. clear, enthusiastic,interesting....do you have a Spanish translation to resend? how can I resend some of my tweets into my facebook wall?

  16. Hi Dominique

    I'm not a Spanish speaker but I would be very happy for anyone to translate this post into another language, provided they acknowledge the source.
    And I have to confess I have no idea what a Facebook wall is, let alone how send a tweet into it. But I am hoping that some of my readers will be able to answer your question!

  17. Hi I can translate the post I am ecuadorian and spanish native speaker

  18. Dominique:
    I've had some replies to your questions (via Twitter, of course, a very good way to get advice!)
    @mariawolters recommends selective tweets, great service. Put #fb at the end of tweets, up it pops on FB. http://www.facebook.com/selectivetwitter
    @JoBrodie recommends Graffiti app for Facebook http://www.facebook.com/graffitiwall or Google translate for Spanish.

    A.B. Many thanks for the offer. Feel free to post a Spanish version if you have a blog - I assume a version by a native speaker will be better than Google translate! Or I can post on BishopBlog if you email it to me.

  19. This is a great introduction. I will be sharing it with several people that I have been trying desperately to convince. Twitter is great. It has changed MY life. I have met many new friends and gained so much over the past 2.5 years that I have been tweeting.

    You forgot to mention DMs though. :)

  20. Nice post I liked it thanks

  21. It's really best intro. I am sharing on twitter as well as on facebook, Thanks for it.

  22. Thanks for explaining how replies work.

  23. Great advice, but academics be wary: having your University/Line Manager not use nor really understand Twitter and pull you up for every tiny little thing is hard to bear. Having the sheets of paper revealing your recent list of tweets waved in front of you and the constant feeling of having Uni eyes hover over you means I now feel I want to start again as anonymous as possible - but hard to then gain followers. Some Uni's have a policy, but others don't, so check. It all feels very exhausting sometimes.

  24. Great Post. I run a lunchtime seminar in Oxford (in OUCS) called 'Tweeting for Academia' - I'll definitely be pointing attendees to this.

  25. Thanks for the information. I am a little bit closer to signing up.

  26. great introduction, very useful for beginners

  27. I found your approach to Twitter so encouraging I gave it a try this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised. Despite repeated tries I will never, ever warm up to Facebook, however. Compared to Twitter Facebook seems swarmy and even nauseating: as if anybody could ever find comfort in accumulating "friends" Pokemon style. What did Ezra Pound once say? "'Friend' is the greediest word in the English language."

  28. Thanks Mark. Glad you had a good experience. It does take a while to really get into it, and it is odd at the beginning when at times it seems like you are listening in on a conversation but nobody can hear you.
    I once heard someone say that Facebook is where you contact lots of people you know but have nothing in common with, whereas Twitter is where you contact people you don't know but have lots in common with.

  29. oooops... the link to the introduction to blogging seems to take us to something else... But this post on Twitter is very helpful. thanks!

  30. Thanks Celia. It's a hazard with links to external sites that they can move. I have updated the link so it is now OK

  31. The twitter followers activity is really attractive, so as soon as possible person is able to attract followers it becomes interesting
    Maria Jones

  32. Very good article. Twitter is about the only social media thing I use and I like it for various reasons:
    My husband and I share an account as a low key way of keeping in touch with our kids when either we are travelling or they are away eg at uni. Any of us can respond to each other's little comments, without actually feeling as though we are checking in with each other. Doing the same with Facebook isn't possible as our 17 year old quite rightly doesn't want to be our friend!
    I also love the personalised news stream element, but found that I need to have a separate Twitter account at work via Outlook/Chrome - now I can snigger at immature and rude tweets at home, while keeping updated professionally at work!

  33. This is one I share with my clients who are nervous of Twitter. It's a great summery of how to use it.

  34. Your article has helped me to read this subject on a different level. I would like to thank your efforts for exploring this issue. Thank you for your information.

  35. Great info. I love all the posts, I really enjoyed, I would like more information about this, because it is very nice., Thanks for sharing.

  36. I have to say that buying retweets is a truly terrible idea, just as is buying followers.
    It's sad that human ingenuity is deployed on such pointless ways of misleading other people.

  37. Still useful for another beginner - thanks!