How to use Twitter for networking in academia

Within the span of two months, I’ve been asked to give essentially the same talk three times. The topic: how to network on Twitter (and other social media). How did this happen? Well, first a group of Parisian post docs organized a day-long workshop and apparently my tweeting is good enough to warrant inviting me back to my former home. Because I was invited, I took some care to prepare, and I think I did a decent job – decent enough, at least, to get some audience members to tweet about it and putting into practice what I just told them. Those tweets generated enough attention from colleagues back in Nijmegen that I was asked to give a version of this talk again at my new scientific home. And this talk in turn led to some tweets, which a colleague from another institute noted. As fate would have it, they ended up needing a speaker on social media, because someone fell sick. My agenda was open and the slides were ready, so I went for it. But what did I tell people? Well, after three talks I might as well also write it down for all of you. But first, a disclaimer: What I say here is completely based on my personal experience, and not some objective truth.

Benefits of tweeting

The story above already highlights one benefit of Twitter, namely that you might create opportunities that you otherwise wouldn’t have at all. Similarly, you might read about grants and jobs on Twitter. This is of course great, and I am sure my CV has benefited quite a bit from my tweeting. For example, I learned about a grant we (Sho, I, and a bunch of other fantastic colleagues) successfully applied for from Twitter.

Another benefit is the opportunity to meet and stay in touch with potential collaborators whom you might not have met otherwise. A big bonus is also that knowing someone from Twitter makes this initial in-person conversation a bit easier, you now have the conversation starter “I know you from Twitter” which I have heard and used quite frequently already. The same holds for writing an introductory email: You have already established a basis with that person. And by knowing your tweets, people can associate much more with your name compared to your “official” scientific output (read: papers).

It’s also possible to get help and feedback. Because Twitter is quite fast you might get a response quickly (if someone who knows more happens to see your tweet). Particularly using specific hashtags can help being seen by the right people. Say you are analyzing your data and get stuck with a specific R package, you could tweet your question and add #rstats. Chances are, someone who has a hint might see it, particularly if some colleagues retweet your question. But there are, as always, no guarantees.  

How to be an academic tweeter

Now you might wonder how this tweeting works. Well, let me start with a short history of my Twitter account: I made my account in 2013 while I was a PhD student. I’ve had a little tweeting experience because I co-administered the official Twitter account for a conference we were organizing that year. I started out slowly, in the first year or two I’d say I didn’t tweet much at all. But at that point already I read a lot of interesting things about something that was happening at that point in my field – the reproducibility crisis. I also used Twitter to learn more about statistics and preregistration. At some point I became more engaged, I can’t even say when that happened exactly. And now, here we are…

Your account

The first step is making a profile, which is a bit like your business card. Fellow tweeters should quickly be able to know who you are and what you are tweeting about. First, there is the handle (mine is @chbergma, a screenshot from May 2018 is below), this is your unique username which everyone can see, so you might not want to go for hunnybunny89 or so. Your name appears next to this handle on top of your tweets and your page, so if – like in my case – your full name is taken, don’t worry.  

TwitterProfileMay2018.jpg

Under your name is your “bio”, a short description of you and your interests. The bio is what people see when they hover with their mouse over your name, either when seeing your tweets or when you follow them. The contents should help them decide whether your interests match theirs. The language of your bio should by the way be the language you (mostly) tweet in. I personally prefer to be consistent, because most people who read my tweets don’t speak all languages I know.

Getting started

Once you have a profile, you can send off your first tweet. But even better, and much more powerful for networking, you can start following accounts whose interests match yours. This way you can start discovering (1) what sort of tweets those accounts share, (2) which tweets you find interesting, and (3) other accounts that are possibly interesting and that are being retweeted by this account. For networking, I recommend to start with colleagues and societies in your field, and maybe some “famous” accounts (= those that have a lot of followers). There might also be a blog you regularly read and which has a Twitter account (cough, cough, @CogTalesTweet), their follower list will contain other readers of the same blog. All these are ways to identify accounts that you can follow, and discover what sort of tweets you like to read yourself in terms of style and content.

It’s perfectly normal to first get familiar with the platform and not tweet and engage, so don’t worry if you’re inactive for some time.

Twitter as your personalized news feed

For many networking opportunities like seeing new papers (filtered by accounts that share interests with you) and hearing about jobs and grants, you are already set at this point. By identifying and following accounts that match your interests, you basically created a news feed that is specifically and uniquely tailored to you (thanks to @annemscheel for that term). You don’t need to interact with anyone and can still benefit a great deal. You can always decide to become more active, or dial down, or ignore Twitter altogether, for example when finishing your thesis or before a big deadline.

What to tweet

Let’s assume that you decide to tweet yourself and did look at a few accounts you find interesting. You might already have an idea which sort of content works for networking. There are a few things that I have noted are more interesting:

  1. Original content, like a paper you find useful (don’t be scared to tweet about your own work, too!) or an upcoming conference (don’t forget to promote your own events as well)
  2. Short tweets, because we have gotten so used to the 140 character limit. Bonus: It’s a good exercise in brevity that will come in handy when writing grant proposals with word limits
  3. Images are also helpful, for example a key figure from a paper or a conference poster. Some links also have previews (but Twitter won’t show them until you have sent off the tweet – Edit: try this tool for previews! Thanks @o_guest!).

When do readers scroll past? Well, most prominently, “old news” aren’t very popular. A week after everyone talked about a solar eclipse, you might not be interested in the topic any more. There is an important exception, though, namely when promoting papers or events. You can acknowledge that you tweeted about this already by adding ICYMI (in case you missed it). Another thing that might not be super interesting is very little variation or not adding your thought. If you tweet the list of new papers of journal X every month, that might not be the most useful occupation. Again, there is an exception to this, namely specialized accounts that for example only tweet job ads. Another problem is being cryptic, because most likely the people you talk to come from diverse backgrounds. Think of giving a talk to a broad audience or a lecture in an undergrad class. This should give you a good idea of the amount of jargon you can use. Finally, “humblebragging” and defensiveness or negativity don’t seem to be quite popular. This is based on my own observations and on a non-scientific poll of colleagues who are also on Twitter.

When to tweet

Now you know what a tweet could look like, but when should you actually tweet? I am not talking about precise times like 15h Central European Time, although you might take into account what time it is across the globe if you want specific people to see it. European evening tweets are more likely to reach colleagues in the Americas, and early morning tweets are more visible in Australia and the eastern parts of Asia. So it might not hurt to tweet a few more important things twice at different times of day.

Occasions to tweet

A very good way to ease into tweeting is a retweet of something you find useful yourself. As next step, add comments to the retweet, and before you know it, you’re an active tweeter yourself.

There are a lot of things you can cover in a single tweet. As soon as you find an item that might be interesting to share, be it a new paper, news item, or blog post. Don’t be afraid of self-promotion here! But if you want to be active, you will of course want to find other content as well (unless you’re hyper productive, of course). Other options include conferences and events, job ads, and “wise thoughts” or snippets of your life as a researcher. The last one is tricky for many reasons, I will come back to that in the end of this post.

You can also fire off a series of tweets, for example when you livetweet a talk or conference. Some events even have official # which you can use in your tweets to let others who either are at the event or read along remotely see what you write on the topic, a few good examples are the following: #NijLec and #CogSci2017. Those interested in the conference can see it and don’t need to follow you, and it’s a good way to reach a broader audience. Maybe some people get to know you this way, too, because they realize you are at the same event and share some interests.

An important note: It may be that the pictures on a slide are not meant to be public, for example when they come from patients or sensitive populations. So caution is important before tweeting pictures of slides – not everyone will be aware that you are taking pictures for the whole world and not just as a sort of private note. If you plan on tweeting, make sure the presenter knows or err on the side of caution and skip slides with people and/or results that might not be ready to be shared with the world.

What is helpful to know at this point is the Twitter option to tweet “threads”, which are essentially responses to yourself. These threads appear in the correct chronological order, and once others see one tweet, they are made aware that there are connected tweets from you. Twitter has made it easier to post threads, just make use of the +-button at the bottom of your tweet window.

NewTweet

Pitfalls

There are a number of things that can go wrong with Twitter, after all you’re using a new platform and write things that are visible to everyone.

Thinking you have to keep up

Twitter is by design fast and there are always more tweets to read. That means that you can spend ages on Twitter and might feel like you are missing something if you don’t. This all gets overwhelming quite quickly, and I have repeatedly heard this “feature” of Twitter being what keeps people away. So I strongly recommend to not let Twitter become a time sink and quickly say goodbye to the idea of catching up. If a tweet is super important, others might retweet it and you will see it. Or people might send it to you. Remember, it’s okay to not know everything.

Tweeting sensitive materials

I mentioned one version of this pitfall above: When you tweet about someone else’s work, be sure it’s OK to take pictures of their slides. Published materials are a different matter, you can generally share photos. But there are other kinds of sensitive materials, for example taking pictures of participants and sharing them without getting proper consent would be very unethical. Even if those participants are fellow researchers, they might not have given you permission to be depicted in this or that funny position.

Finally, caution is advised when you tweet about controversial topics. Remember, in principle everyone can see your tweets, and people regularly get in trouble with careless tweets. Imagine you are doing important animal research to cure a serious disease. It’s great that you do this and that you talk about your work, but it would be good to keep in mind that not everyone thinks animal research is ethical and necessary.

At that point I want to note that I have no personal experience with any form of large-scale negative feedback or targeted harassment, but I am fully aware that this might happen. It sometimes feels that you’re one false tweet away from the abyss, but so far I was lucky. If you feel that Twitter is not a positive, enriching experience for you any longer, it might be a good idea to set your account to private or deactivate it. In those cases, I would value self-preservation and mental health above all else, and being exposed to continued negative feedback, even from anonymous people online, is certainly not good for anyone. (Added 13.05.2018) Dorothy Bishop provides some very useful advice on her blog regarding this topic.

A simple rule

These are just two examples of Twitter pitfalls, and I might not even know others. But to avoid making mistakes that are hard to erase, I follow a simple rule: I only tweet things I could tell my (current or any imagined future) boss in person.

Now, of course when that was tweeted, the boss pricked up her ears… Well, you can’t have it all, but now you can have some of the fun and benefit of academic Twitter.

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