To Tweet or Not To Tweet — an Academic Questions

Twitter is like a giant forest — often all you see are the trees. (Photo by Iswanto Arif on Unsplash)

There’s a recent article in PLOS entitled “The unbearable emptiness of tweeting” by Robinson-Garcia et al. which discusses the merits of twitter as an engagement platform for academics. It made me pause for thought.

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0183551

The paper addresses an important misunderstanding of the benefits of twitter — the best academic tweeps (twitter people) use twitter to engage differently.

This post follows a thread of my medium posts where I continue to reflect on “why do I tweet?” (for the two previous posts on Twitter + Academia see why I tweet & social media for scientists and engineers).

Twitter for Academics

Twitter enables conversations to cross communities. (Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash)

Twitter is like a water-cooler set awash the internet, enabling like (and not-so-like) to chew on big and small ideas, share gossip, and engage with one another. It supplements (and does not replace) other mediums of communication or interaction, and for me, I value twitter supplementing my life. It has opened new lines of thought, introduced me to new ideas, and I’ve met so many wonderful people.

I find twitter an enriching experience, as it has made me connections I would have not have made otherwise. In particular, Twitter has enabled me to turn a few acquaintances into genuine friendships that extend both across the inter-web and into ‘real life’.

However, in terms of the traditional view of academic life, I doubt that twitter has made my academic papers directly more accessible, more impactful, or more visible, in the literal sense, with regards to direct and measurable metrics like citations. This would be a shared view with Robinson-Garcia et al.’s findings. But does that stop me tweeting about my group’s work? No way.

Twitter and Academic Papers

Twitter enhances my interactions with others, and its impact are felt in all my interactions with other people. (Photo by Bryan Apen on Unsplash)

Twitter teaches me to write more efficiently. It teaches me to be direct. It teaches me to be more diplomatic. It opens my eyes to a wider research environment, and to understand and listen to the views of others. It exposes me to more diverse viewpoints and experiences. It makes me question my own beliefs and understanding. It helps me understand my privilege. In summary, I cherish twitter as it teaches me to be less blinkered in my approach to scholarly work.

The direct translation of these values to academic work is less clear. I read papers posted on twitter, but not everything and not often. In general, I read work that looks interesting as I find twitter a more reliable and useful introduction to exciting questions in fields than just picking a book off the shelf in the library, as my friends are telling me what they find interesting and why.

Twitter has encouraged me to to try to make some of my work more interesting and more engaging. For instance, I am trying (though not as often as I’d like) to write sister blogs about my group’s work (see this one on twinning in titanium). While these blog posts provide an outlet for widening participation of my research, I am also finding that my twitter interactions are enabling me to understand hooks and engagement points with a wider audience, beyond the networks I build at conferences and at my place of work.

I do not expect that tweets on our work will enhance the uptake of my groups ideas and I think this, in and of itself, is a shortsighted goal. And yet, I value this goal as one of the reasons that many people ‘get into’ twitter and start experiencing this social maelstrom.

Network Building — The Academic Merits of Twitter

Twitter helps you build, grow and strengthen diverse academic (and non academic) networks. (Photo by jens johnsson on Unsplash)

Twitter is a medium to engage and participate in a greater conversation. It is a way to normalise behaviours and understand a diversity of thoughts.

My (current) thoughts on the benefits of twitter:

  1. The people.
  2. It’s fun.
  3. Positive procrastination (well it can be, if you can avoid all the cats…).
  4. Academia can be lonely.
  5. Academia can be stressful.
  6. There’s more to life than work.
  7. Our human sides are important.
  8. Tweets cross borders, timezones, and communities.
  9. Networking — growing, establishing, and understanding.
  10. Increasing your breadth and diversity of interactions.
  11. See #1 and #2.

The Twitter Questions

It’s unlikely twitter will increase your citation count, but that doesn’t stop you getting your feet wet and enjoying yourself. (Photo by me, of me)

Do I think that twitter will enhance the impact of my work?

Yes — I write better. I know more people. I have stronger networks. I have diverse networks.

No — many of my followers like me for my attempts at academic wit*, and not for my scientific credentials.

Ultimately maybe — I tweet because I can. I tweet because I want to. It helps me engage with more people, and engage better with interesting people.


*This wit may not be qualified by others as wit per-say. Though I know a thing or two about rocks**.

**Minerals — yes I know they are minerals, unlike Marie.


You can head over to Twitter to follow Dr Ben Britton as @BMatB, or keep up to date with the group’s work via @ExpMicroMech. We can also be found over at http://www.expmicromech.com.

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