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Getting Started on Academic Twitter v2.0

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At this year’s MLA Convention, I was invited to give a workshop on getting started on social media, namely, Twitter. It was an interesting full-circle moment for me, as is writing this piece; my first ProfHacker appearance was because of my virtual participation at MLA11.

I’ve written recently for ProfHacker about why I still find Twitter valuable. And apparently, many academics are, if not seeing the value, then at least interested enough to attend a session by me at the MLA Convention in 2017. I realized, while preparing for the workshop (who am I kidding, it was on the fly while I was giving the workshop), that the landscape of Twitter has changed tremendously since us “early adopters” fumbled around on the platform back in the late Aughts.

So an introduction to Twitter for Academics necessarily has to be different in 2017 than even a few short years ago (I’ve been doing this for a while). What I provide here is an expanded version of what I said in the workshop.

The first thing to do is to set up your handle, which (say it with me) doesn’t have to be your name. Nor does your real name have to be present. Nor does where you work or live be included in your biography. Nor do you have to turn on your location. Nor does it have to be your picture in the avatar box. It does not guarantee full anonymity, but it does give you a layer of protection.

However…

Twitter is only as good as the people you follow and thus populate your timeline. If you want to make the most out of Twitter as an academic network, then you have to at least give Twitter some hints as to what you are interested in. The handle, name, short description, and image should relate to the community you are interested in connecting with (Victorianists, adjuncts, pedagogy, etc). Select those keywords that don’t identify who you are, specifically, but instead reflect what you are interested in, and thus the reason you are on Twitter to begin with.

This is important because this will help you narrow your corpus. Now, what do I mean by that? Twitter has gotten so large and so overwhelming because the corpus is too big. Of course it’s almost impossible to make heads or tails of what you should be doing on Twitter if you’re looking at all of Twitter. We’re academics, and one thing we’ve learned as academic is that in order to make any research project manageable and doable, you have to narrow your focus.

Twitter wants to help you do that, with their algorithm. When it sees that you are a Victorianist, it will start suggesting that you follow other people who have identified as Victorianists, as well as suggesting that other Victorianists follow you. By putting keywords into your bio and uploading an image, you are signaling to Twitter that you are a serious user, as well as who you are interested in following.

Other way to narrow your corpus is to strategically follow hashtags and then follow the people who are tweeting using those hashtags. Giving a workshop at #MLA17 is a great way to show the power of the hashtag to connect with people on Twitter who share the same academic interests. But most sub-disciplines have their own conferences with their own conference hashtags which allows you to not only follow along if you’re not there, but also to find your disciplinary colleagues. Google can be your friend here; simple search for “[name of conference] hashtag” and it will typically show up. You can also search for “[name of your subfield/interest] hashtag”.

Once you have narrowed your corpus, it’s time to do what we do best as academics, and that’s analyze (or, to put it in proper Twitter terms, lurk). Many academics I spoke to at the conference expressed a great deal of anxiety over not knowing what to tweet, or about potentially tweeting the wrong thing. Study the community you want to be a part of and figure out what the norms are for that particular group. What are they saying? How are they interacting? What are they sharing? Each community/subfield/discipline will be different, and so find the people you want to join, or emulate, and then learn from them.

Next (or even simultaneously), you can start sharing resources, materials, articles, etc, on Twitter. This is a low-stakes way to start tweeting yourself. This is a way to also signal that you can bring value to the community, by providing interesting, relevant, and useful materials. You can give a bit of editorial commentary in the tweet (“hey, this might be useful for those teaching X) or even rely on a great pull-quote from the piece to generate interest. You might also start experimenting with using a hashtag to increase the reach of your tweet to specific, targeted audiences.

And if, while you’re sharing, you happen to share something that you have written or produced that the community would be interested reading or using, then fantastic! Share away. Also, don’t forget to retweet resources your community shares.

Next step is interacting. One of the easiest ways to start interacting is to answer questions people in the community have asked. And then asking questions ourselves (“Looking for resources related to X”). Again, these are low-stakes way to start really engaging with the community, and showing that you are a member in good standing. Again, interact in ways that you noticed others interacting during the first phase.

Finally, we’ll want to start talking, as ourselves, in our own voice. Or what most of us would consider tweeting (although you have been tweeting the whole time if you’ve worked through the steps). There is a lot of anxiety around what is appropriate to say, to share, to reveal about yourself. But what I would say is share whatever you would feel comfortable sharing with your co-workers at your job. This advice might not always works (maybe you hate your co-workers and want to use Twitter to find people you can actually talk to; maybe you’re really, really close to your co-workers and can’t imagine that level of intimacy with strangers on the web), but think about all the things your co-workers know about you (and you about them) simply by working alongside them every day.

You probably know their favorite food, or color, or their hobbies, or their favorite sports team, or favorite band, or where they like to take vacations, just by simple making small talk or even by observing their day-to-day behavior and routines. That tweet about what you ate for breakfast, or that you’re rocking out in your office to Journey are the same kinds of signals to the community that you would signal to your co-workers, the people who are already a part of your professional community.

The caveat of course is to be mindful the norms that you observed during the first phase, in the same way a workplace dynamic will dictate how open you are with your colleagues. And everyone has a different level of comfort with what they are willing to share about themselves online. Those are lines and boundaries that you need to set with yourself, and they will inevitably change the more comfortable you get on the platform and in the community.

And, finally, only go as far as you are comfortable with. I know people who exclusively lurk and find Twitter to be a tremendous resource. I also know people who exclusively share and are valuable parts of the community because of the resources they provide. And I know a lot of carefully curated professional twitter personae whose private lives I know nothing about, but whose rich professional lives have helped inspire me. And, finally, there are users like me, who do all of the above, while also chronically over-sharing.

And while Twitter (and really any social media) can be a time suck, it doesn’t have to be. Invest a few hours at first to set up your profile and start curating your timeline, and then stick to a plan of only checking for 20-30 minutes a day. While it can certainly drain away the hours, it is also impossible to become proficient on Twitter, or to find the benefit of it, without investing a little time.

If you’ve made it this far, and need further motivation, I want to share my colleague Aimée Morrison’s (@digiwonk on Twitter) words that she so eloquently shared in her excellent Hook and Eye blog post, The Internet I want to live in:

To say we live in a moment of powerful backlash against acknowledging and celebrating the always-there-but-often-suppressed diversity and plurality of our shared world would be an understatement.

West deserves a break. Alexie, too. Leslie Jones deserved a break. Hashtag activists deserve a break. It’s time for those of us who have remained behind the front lines, benefiting from their cover, to step forward. We are going to have to fight for the internet we want, because it’s not a given. I’m collecting strategies and resources, and trying to do my part. You might start here, with Femtech Net’s Centre for Solutions to Online Violence. Or, if you you want to get down and dirty, consider something like Sleeping Giants. And, crucially, stay online. Stay on Twitter as a progressive. Stay on Facebook and keep reporting those fake news sites. Keep blogging, keep linking, keep sharing.

Representation matters. Women, people of colour, disabled people, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, rural people, the underemployed, we’ve enjoyed a really good run with online publishing tools, producing vast troves of amazing content, and cobbling together amazing communities. This is all at risk. Fight. And maybe someday Lindy West will come back.

Do you have advice for getting started on Twitter? [Not, "don't"--actual advice for people doing it.] Please share in comments!

Photo “Up, Up, and Away!” by Flickr user Wendy Cope / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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