I have used Twitter both personally and for academic work for several years now, and have reached the point where I take it for granted as just one more means of communication. It’s really good for some things, not so appropriate for others, but overall Twitter is a really useful tool.
It comes as a surprise, then, when I hear colleagues saying “I don’t do Twitter”, “Why should I care what total strangers have for breakfast?” “You can’t say anything worthwhile in 140 characters” or even “I tried it, but couldn’t see any point in it”. If you are one of those people then perhaps you haven’t been doing it right, because if you follow the right people and use it for one of the things it’s good at, Twitter really should work for you as an academic Geographer.
There is a lot of literature out there, formal and otherwise, listing possible academic uses of Twitter and providing introductory guides for academics who have not tried it before (I’ll list a couple at the end). I just want to comment on a couple of the explanations that fellow lecturers have given me for why they don’t use Twitter, and list a just a few of things that Twitter can do for an academic Geographer. In fact, I guess, for any academic.
“It’s all about cats, you can’t say anything useful in 140, what’s the point?”
If your twitter stream is filling up with rubbish, that is simply because you are choosing to follow people who tweet rubbish. You don’t have to follow those people. There are a lot of people out there (individuals and organisations) who tweet useful things about topics that you are interested in. You can learn a lot if you just follow the people who are right for you. You can even choose to talk back to them, if you want. If you choose to hear about strangers’ cats, Twitter is good for that, too. You just need to set it up so that it does what you want, and that’s pretty easy.
What is Twitter good for? Here are a few of my own top reasons for “doing Twitter”: information, conversation, and new ways of teaching.
1. Timely, convenient headline news from specific people or organisations that I choose: news, information and advice.
2. Interactions with students, colleagues, and interesting strangers: teaching, collaboration, and networking conversations.
3. A quick and effective way of disseminating information, asking questions and sharing ideas (if I choose to be a tweeter as well as just a reader of other people’s tweets).
4. New ways of teaching: tweet as assessment; tweets instead of “hands up” for Q&A in lectures; all sorts of possibilities!
Four is enough for now, but you get the idea: there are lots of positive things that you can get out of using Twitter in academic work.
Different people will see different opportunities. Some will be interested mainly in Twitter as a news source. Others will want to use it to broadcast (perhaps to specific groups or students or colleagues, or perhaps to the world at large). Like any media, one of the joys of Twitter is that you can tweak it to do whichever you prefer, and you don’t have to do any of the bits you don’t want to.
Personally I go the whole 22 yards and try everything!
Reading. I follow a number of individual academic Geographers and a lot of Geographical organisations that tweet news, information and opinion relevant to me. Even if I just scan through my feed in a couple of minutes each day I am confident that I will pick up the Geography news I need in ultra-compact headline form. If a headline (tweet) seems especially interesting I can follow the link it might contain to get more detail, or I can look up the topic in another outlet. Whether it is a volcanic eruption starting, a new educational policy announcement from the government, or a new set of data about arctic sea ice, I will almost certainly pick it up first, and almost effortlessly, through my twitter feed. Part of the trick is to make sure you don’t follow so many people that you can’t keep up with the flood of information, so choose carefully. You don’t have to follow people just because they follow you: just follow people that tweet things you find valuable.
Writing. I post as several different twitter accounts so that people can follow whichever category of tweets is appropriate for their needs: I tweet bits of course news aimed mainly at my own students and colleagues through @KeeleGeogs, I tweet more general Geography for the world at large through @PKGeog, and my personal “what I had for breakfast” tweets go through @petergknight. That way, colleagues who want the departmental news don’t have to suffer my breakfast announcements as long as they just choose the right account to follow. People who just wonder about my breakfast plans don’t have to read my thoughts on glaciers. Once you build up a number of followers (people who routinely get your tweets) you can post things that you know they will find interesting or helpful. Your followers then become a friendly extended family of people who you can ask advice from, share ideas with… or plug your latest paper to, up to if you are that way inclined! It’s up to you how you use it.
Teaching. I am starting to experiment with Twitter as teaching tool. There are a lot of really innovative teachers out there trying out all sorts of smart ideas, and I expect I will say more about some of those in future posts.
Not being an old fogey Luddite. It’s getting to the point where a lot of people would regard it as a seriously misjudged waste of opportunity if you go around saying “I’m a serious academic, twitter has nothing to offer me”. Twitter can do what you want, and if it isn’t working for you just do it differently.
Having said all of that, of course, that’s another of the great things about Twitter:
Twitter: you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to! But if you give it a chance and use it carefully you will probably find it very useful.
A little further Reading
For a quick blog post on the academic benefits of Twitter try this (from some academic anthropologists):
For a slightly longer report from LSE on “Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities: A guide for academics and researchers” by Amy Mollett, Danielle Moran and Patrick Dunleavy go here:
If you want more, it really isn’t hard to find… You could always just ask somebody on Twitter to send you some stuff!