Sunday, June 11, 2017

How to Tweet

I was a reluctant convert to social media. Ten years ago, I didn’t see the point of it. I didn’t have facebook, twitter, Instagram, a blog, or a youtube channel. Now I have all of these and am quite active on several. I will first outline my social media development as a background for the advice I will then suggest about social media for scientists. This advice needs to be tempered by the fact that I am not a social media icon – nor that I am especially good at it. However, I have found it very useful professionally, and often entertaining personally. (My instagram and flickr accounts are used for showing nature photos I have taken over the years, and so are not really discussed here.)


The transition started about eight years ago when my newer students convinced me that a blog would be a good idea as it was an increasingly common way for people to get scientific information. I started the blog but, at first, just kind of did it lip service without much effort and resented the need to have to generate content on a regular basis. But then people started reading and responding to some of my posts and their value became clear. Then, a few years ago, I started a series of “How To” posts that provided advice for young scientists. This series became surprisingly popular (see the table below) and useful to people to the point that I have numerous people come up to me at meetings to say they follow my blog and find it helpful. It was even featured twice in Nature magazine.


A couple of years into this blogging adventure, it became clear that twitter was a great way to promote the blog – and so I signed on in March 2014. Again, I didn’t really pay much attention at first but, as time went on, I realized its usefulness at both send and receiving information and quickly gained a reasonable number of followers. I don’t have any viral tweets – not that I seek them – but several have been retweeted more than 1000 times (an example is below). My favorite current use of twitter is to promote my book through a fun #PeopleWhoFellAsleepReadingMyBook thread, storified here.

At about the same time as I started on twitter, I initiated a YouTube channel. The goal was not to be a famed “youtuber” but rather to simply share some of my wildlife and nature videos, mostly with family and friends but also with colleagues and with students in my classes. I then added a number of teaching-oriented videos, especially the drunkard’s walk, and some personal climbing parody videos. (In retrospect, it would have been better to keep the professional and personal youtube channels separate.) Again, I am very surprised by how many times some of these quick productions have been viewed, such as those shown below.


In short, social media has become an integral part of my professional life and I think it is a great way to provide information and advice to a much broader range of people than otherwise possible. Hence, my goal in the rest of this post is to make a case for the value of social media for scientists and to provide some suggestions on how to engage, with some of these suggestions being different from those you might hear elsewhere.

Why use social media?

1. A lot of scientists not on social media think it is a triviality for which they “do not have time.” I don’t agree with this proposition; indeed, I am sure I don’t have any more time than they do. The reason I disagree is that, for me, social media has simply replaced other time-wasting activities. When working on my computer, I get bored just like anyone else and I used to procrastinate by going to cnn or espn or cbc or whatever other traditional media sites. Now, I simply replace most of that procrastination time by looking at twitter or instagram, which is much more useful as it is related to my work.

2. Some scientists are of the opinion that social media is just filled with a bunch of uninteresting stuff that will swamp them with nonsense. This proposition is certainly true if you aren’t careful and selective. However, the great benefit of social media is just the opposite – you can tailor your own news feed, making it much more targeted and useful to you than more traditional forms of media. For instance, I follow colleagues, students, journals, universities, departments, and so on. If the information I am getting isn’t useful, I simply unfollow that person. Indeed, I how have my twitter feed whittled down to a great set of complementary news sources.

3. Social media is a good way to get scientific information. If you tailor your feed appropriately, you can get lots of pointers to good new papers that are coming out that you wouldn’t otherwise see. In the old days, you could pretty much cover ALL the relevant literature by just skimming the contents of a dozen or so journals. Now there is an order of magnitude more science out there, making it impossible to find everything – but the right feed can reveal to you some of the best stuff coming out now.

4. Social media helps you reach a broader audience – and, hence, better promote your work and ideas. As just noted above, it is impossible to keep up with all the publications of others. For the same reason, your own papers are likely to be lost under in the avalanche of information that is out there. It is not enough to simply publish your work any more – you need to promote it. Social media is one way to do so as students and colleagues in your field will often follow you and see your posts.

How to use social media?

The following suggestions are based on my experiences over the past five years or so. Again, these are just my opinions, with which others will not necessarily agree. I tend to refer mostly to twitter below, but the same basic points apply to other platforms such as facebook, instragram, blogging, youtube, and so on. I also image they will be most useful to people who have not already “found their own way” on social media – but perhaps a few will be interesting even to experienced folks.

1. Be selective in who you follow. Some people will argue that the “contract” of social media is to follow back – that is, when someone follows you, you immediately reciprocate. However, this approach doesn’t work for me. To not be overwhelmed, and to be sure to see the stuff I want to see, I keep the number of accounts I follow to a manageable number – about 100 on twitter. The alternative is to follow more but “mute” them. However, the muting strategy seems to me rather dishonest. If I follow you, then I don’t mute you.

2. Be selective in what you tweet. Analyses have been done about how often one should tweet/post. I don’t know the details of those analyses but I am sure that they all say that too-frequent posting is not beneficial. Instead, retweet/post those things that are truly interesting and that you think would be interesting to your followers.

3. Re-tweet interesting posts from diverse people and feeds. Although I don’t follow everyone that follows me, I do periodically check out the feeds of my followers to find interesting posts of theirs to re-tweet. I think this help can be especially helpful to graduate students who don’t yet have a large following on social media.

4. Add a visual. Almost every one of my tweets includes an image of some sort. Images are much more likely to catch the eye of someone who is skimming quickly and thus inspire them to stop and actually read it. This comes partly from personal experience – I generally don’t pay attention to tweets that are text only. This isn’t a philosophy or anything – it is just the practicality of not having time to read everything and, while a tweet is only 140 characters, a picture is worth 1000 words!

5. Acknowledge, either by tagging or through a link, the source of the material – especially images – that you put on social media. And, along the same lines, don’t retweet people who don’t acknowledge their sources. For example, many of the aggregating feeds that post cool pictures don’t credit the original photographer. Don’t retweet them.

6. Be apolitical, at least usually, unless your goal is to be political in your professional life. I subscribe to the perspective that scientists should be as objective as possible if we are to maintain our credibility as experts. Many social media users, by contrast, spend tons of time criticizing universities, journals, funding agencies, colleagues, conference organizers, etc. I have no use or time for these diatribes. (Of course, I do retweet the occasional well-thought out or funny piece about idiotic and dangerous demagogues.)

7. Don’t troll/shame people – unless you want to be known as a troll. Sure, trolls tend to get the most followers, reminding of me of when David Houle wrote in a book review that “Negative reviews often give a frisson of pleasure to the reader.” In my opinion, however, negative comments reflect more on the commenter than the commentee. Instead, generate occasional and thoughtful positive criticism that helps move things forward in a constructive way.

8. Don’t blindly retweet everything you see about social/scientific equality. For instance, many white male profs seem to retweet everything they see about the disadvantages facing women and people of color. Those disadvantages are real, and need our recognition. However, the more someone not in those categories tweets about them, the less sincere that person seems - at least to me. Instead, periodically retweet THE BEST posts about social/scientific equality. Your sincerity and credibility will, I think, benefit from it. Here is the blog post I wrote about my own “Subtle Sexism Self-Evaluation.”

My most retweeted tweet.

And finally

If you goal is to be a scientist, then tweeting will not do the job for you. You need to publish your own research, which you can then supplement and promote with social media. A social media profile will not replace a real research portfolio – only enhance it. Of course, if your goal is to forge a career in science communication, then social media would take on greater importance.

Yikes, I (red dot) appear to be close to being a scientific Kardashian! Original paper here.



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