At a recent presentation on social media that I gave with Liz Covart, several of the attendees asked questions both during the session and at the social gathering afterwards about our strategies for using Twitter. In particular, they were concerned about using Twitter in the “right way,” to try to use the correct social conventions in order to be effective on the medium. We had a good conversation about the question, but it’s worth thinking through in a bit more detail. (I’d advise that what follows is my personal approach. Your mileage may vary.)
The first thing I said—and I usually start here when talking about Twitter—is that there isn’t really a correct approach, or at least certainly not just one. I recognize that it can often seem that way, and it’s hard for me as an insider at this point to see some of the unspoken conventions of academic Twitter (and at this point I’ve been on long enough I’ve also shaped those convention in some small way). And I’m deeply cognizant of the ways in which those conventions or the appearance thereof can seem daunting. But they really are less set than they seem to be, and I hope they don’t deter people from trying to be active.
In any case, I’m not a Twitter absolutist. I’m comfortable with a world that includes academics who are power users and include their Twitter work in their academic tenure and promotion materials, people who use it casually in one way or another, and people who don’t use it at all. It’s just not a required service by any stretch of the imagination, and suggesting that it should be seems to me misguided. Does one miss out on certain conversations that way? Yes, of course. But all of us miss lots of conversations, and there’s not anything that makes Twitter more useful than going to AHA or OAH or being in an R1 department with a regular seminar series or being in the classroom regularly.
In any case, some of the people in the conversation use Twitter essentially to serve the function of reading recommendations. They follow users whom they think tweet interesting links, articles, and occasionally have interesting discussions. That’s great! If that’s what works for you, it’s actually an effective and defensible strategy for Twitter, and takes advantage of something that Twitter is actually pretty good for.
For me, the most important decision to make about using Twitter is to decide what you want from it and use it clearly that way. My own strategy, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is to treat Twitter like the hallways of a conference, where you can discuss serious matters about academia and the news, but also shares stories with friends about one’s kids, sports, pop culture, and the news. (For this reason I don’t include my Twitter account as part of my academic reappointment materials.)
There is one important caveat: privilege and topic matter a great deal. When I write publicly (whether on Twitter or elsewhere), I do so as a white man who writes about things that occasionally interest people, but rarely make them angry enough to harass me. I have not received threats of death, rape, or other harm to myself or my family. (I’d like to keep it that way.) We need to work to counteract that as best we can, but today, right now, the terms of engagement are different and more challenging for women, people of color, those in the LGBTQ community, and anyone who writes about sensitive issues such as race, slavery, the Holocaust, to name just a few of the most obvious.
Taking that into account, I would encourage anyone considering social media engagement to think first about how and how much they want to present themselves. If you don’t want to put yourself out there, but instead want to lurk and read? You can. Do that! But if you want to interact, the best thing you can do is present yourself exactly as you would like to be seen in that space. You can be incredibly specific in how you choose to do that—starting a Twitter feed solely about your research, or about your favorite sports team, or to share blog posts you’ve written—or be a bit more eclectic. The best and most interesting accounts in my feed are the ones with what we might call a high “Polonius factor” (to thine own selves are they true).
And in closing, if there’s any way someone feels I might be able to help in thinking through these issues, please feel free to contact me.
A Few Resources
“Perfectly Practical Tips for Using Twitter” by me and Liz Covart
Patrick Iber, “A Defense of Academic Twitter,” Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 19, 2016