A crash course in “getting” Twitter, for linguists and other people in specific niches

Gretchen McCulloch
Jan 4, 2016 · 18 min read

I freaking love Twitter, and I’ve gotten so many fantastic links and internet friends out of it. But a lot of people still struggle with what to do on it, and Twitter’s onboarding process doesn’t help.

My two best tips are:

  1. Follow real people rather than the impersonal mega-accounts Twitter recommends. Find them by looking through who a few interesting people who seem to “get” Twitter are following. Unfollow anytime.
  2. Tweet every day for 30 days. Then you can stop, if you want, and you’ll have a reasonable understanding and an established-looking Twitter account you can always come back to. But you probably won’t want to stop by then.

Still feeling unconfident about Twitter? For my extensive, step-by-step guide to getting really good at Twitter for personal+professional purposes, including detailed notes on livetweeting and conference tweeting, keep reading.

(This guide assumes you know or can figure out the basics of actually making a tweet, you’re just having trouble figuring out what to say or how to make Twitter relevant to you. I’m using illustrative examples from Linguist Twitter since that’s my corner of the internet, but I trust that you can replace that with your field if necessary.)

1. Get the basic setup steps out of the way

  • Make a Twitter account by going to twitter.com and following the prompts. When it starts trying to persuade you to follow people, just re-open twitter.com and follow my part 2 below — Twitter’s suggestions here are too generic and unhelpful. Or start with a semi-dormant Twitter account you already have.
  • Install the Twitter app on your phone and make sure you’re logged in and notifications turned on (not with a ringtone though, that’s obnoxious). When you start, I’d suggest putting notifications to “everyone” — if this gets overwhelming you can curb it by switching to “when people I follow interact with me” but wait until at least the end of the 30 days so you get used to going on and interacting with people.
  • Bookmark Twitter on your computer or pin it in a tab or something which will make it easy to check, again making sure you’re logged in by default.
  • Make sure you have a real profile picture with your face, not an egg. If you strongly object to your face being online, at least pick a distinctive-looking drawing, icon, or avatar. Ideally also have something in your header photo but that’s a bit more optional.
  • Put something in your bio: who are you, what are you interested in? If the people you’re about to follow go check you out in return, why are you a relevant person for them to maybe follow back? This doesn’t have to be witty or profound — when I started on Twitter, I would follow back pretty much anyone who also had “linguist” in their bio.

2. Who to follow

  • Don’t pay attention to Twitter’s onboarding process trying to get you to follow mega-accounts like Ellen and CNN. I mean, you can follow a couple mega-accounts if you really want to, but the main people you should be following are real people who you’d be interested in meeting someday.
  • Also don’t import your Facebook friends or email contacts—even if these people turn out to have active Twitter accounts, you’re aiming to create a new stream of information for yourself, not to duplicate your existing networks.
  • Facebook is for people you already know; Twitter is for people you’d like to get to know.
  • You can start with a couple people you know though, especially if you know of anyone who’s interesting and relevant to you and has a Twitter account. For example, if you know a couple linguists who are active on Twitter and you’re aiming for a mostly-linguist Twitter network, start with them — but even if your non-linguist friend has an amazing Twitter presence, don’t use them to build your network unless you’re also interested in the specific topics they tweet about.
  • Also check out the Twitter accounts of active organizations and/or conferences in your field. For linguists, you can start with the LSA or look up your national linguistic association, plus conferences like NWAV that typically have strong Twitter presences.
  • Go ahead and follow these few interesting people and organizational accounts, but their real value to you lies in who they’re following.
  • Go to the following tab on each of their accounts — that’s twitter.com/NameOfUser/following, not who’s following them! — and follow any real people from each list who look interesting. Feel free to open up a bunch of profiles in new tabs to see if their tweets look interesting, or just go based on their bios and weed out later once they start showing up in your feed, whatever you like.
  • If you didn’t get up to following at least 50–100 people on the step above, rinse and repeat using the most interesting new people you just found and mining their following lists in turn. You really just need one real, active person who’s relevant to you to get yourself started.
  • Borrowing from other people’s following lists will make your Twitter stream interesting and interactive, and also “seeds” your recommendations from Twitter with real people who are directly relevant to you rather than more impersonal mega-accounts. Now, you can (and indeed should) have a glance at Twitter’s recommendations of who to follow occasionally and follow anyone who looks interesting.
  • At this stage, follow back anyone who follows you and seems halfways relevant to your interests (such as any linguist). You can always unfollow them later (see below).
  • Unfollow most celebrities, organizations, and news accounts if you got suckered into following a bunch of irrelevant mega-accounts when you first made your Twitter account.
  • Aim to follow around 50-70% real people in your field, 20–35% real people in other fields who just seem interesting, and 10–15% official accounts, news sources, organizations, celebrities, etc. Over the course of a month, you should build up to following at least 100 and actually probably 200–300 people, but you can do this gradually and work up to it.
  • Unlike mega-accounts, many real people will probably follow you back, especially if they can see from your bio that you’re in the same field or if you reply to their tweets when you can think of something interesting to say! (If someone asks a question that you know an answer to or a relevant link for, that’s a great opportunity to strike up a tweetversation with someone you don’t know well.)
  • Also aim for a mix of Fancy Important People and up-and-coming/normal people. Important could mean big in your field (who might be an older person who doesn’t really get Twitter) or someone who just has a lot of followers on Twitter. It’s super cool if you can chat with someone you’re excited about already, but normal people will have more time to talk back with you because they also don’t get a ton of engagement, you’ll be less intimidated, they’re more likely to follow you back, you can just chill and make friends, all of which are good things.
  • Make an active effort to follow interesting people who don’t resemble you and/or aren’t part of the dominant culture. It’s easy to end up unthinkingly defaulting to following mostly white, male, American, etc people and people who only differ from that in the ways you yourself differ, so consciously be on the lookout for people of colour, people from a variety of countries, queer people, women, people who differ in other ways from the dominant culture, and people at the intersections of 2 or more of these as you’re going through the methods above, and pay extra attention to following any in your field or who look interesting.
  • (That being said, good grief, don’t follow people who are different from you just to pick a fight. Also, in general, don’t try to have arguments on Twitter until you’ve reached at least a A- level of Internet Skillz. If you’re taking tips from an article on how to “get” Twitter, you’re not there yet.)
  • At any time: unfollow anyone you now regret following for any reason, if they’re boring or tweet too much or post things you’re not into or whatever, even if you know them in real life. Your goal is to keep your Twitter stream something interesting that you enjoy checking, so feel free to unfollow if someone tweets a couple times in a row about Sport You Don’t Follow or TV Show You Dislike or they use an annoying link aggregator service, whatever. This isn’t Facebook: it’s not personal.
  • If any of these people who you now follow retweets an interesting-looking tweet, feel free to click on it and check out who posted it, and follow that person if they look interesting.

Your goal here is to give yourself an interesting Twitter stream that you look forward to checking, and where you learn about cool stuff from beyond your irl network. Your second goal is to find people who will have interesting conversations with each other that you can read and who will interact with you back. (You’ll need to start by interacting with them first, but eventually you’ll have enough followers that you can also just post something and there will be people around to interact with you!)

3. Practice tweeting

  • Go on Twitter every day for a month, look at your feed a bit, and make at least one tweet. (Retweets count too, but not all the time!) Set a reminder on your phone to yourself, put the Twitter app on your home screen, or whatever you need to do.
  • This doesn’t mean you have to sit down and Formally Check Twitter every day: check it when you’re in line at the grocery store, waiting for someone, procrastinating from doing “real work”, etc. When you come across a link, image, anecdote, etc. that you were going to forward to a couple people privately, think, is this something that I could also tweet about?
  • Make at least 2 of each type of tweet: plain tweet with nothing special, tweet with a link, image tweet, tweet with hashtag, normal reply to someone, reply to someone with a dot in front so other people see it, retweet, retweet with quote, poll tweet.
  • A good ratio of tweet types to aim for is approximately 1/3 retweets (including some quote-retweets), 1/3 original broadcast tweets (including some tweets with links/images), 1/3 replies. As you get more comfortable with Twitter, you may find yourself veering to more of one or another kind, and that’s okay too.
  • Make a thread/tweetstorm/Twitter essay consisting of at least 3 tweets on a single topic by replying to YOURSELF with your username at the front deleted (here’s an example).
  • Don’t touch until your month is over and you understand Twitter social norms better: social media management tools which do things like schedule tweets for you, opaque url shorteners that don’t let people know what they’re clicking on, or cross-posting between Twitter and another social network. After your month is over you can use them occasionally, but if you use them all the time you won’t get a sense of what a “live” Twitter stream is like for most people and your account will feel impersonal. Start out on twitter.com and with the default mobile app — you can switch to Tweetdeck or something later if you want, but by then you’ll have a better sense of how to use it like an active person who replies rather than just broadcasting.
  • Never use: automated tools that like or retweet tweets with certain keywords or that send automated messages to new followers. And that doesn’t mean you should send personal messages to new followers thanking them for following you, either! If you must do something, you can follow back, or if you go to their profile and they just said something interesting, you can reply relevantly to one of their recent tweets. But not doing anything is also totally normal and fine.
  • Someone following you on Twitter is not immediately becoming your friend, like on Facebook, they’re taking a chance that you might prove interesting. Thanking someone for following you is presuming way too much.
  • Manual RTs (retweet by copy-pasting the tweet with RT @ username in front) have become old-school and now generally seem like a way of taking attention away from the original tweeter. Use the retweet button and comment using the quote feature if you need to comment at all. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it.

4. Practice livetweeting

Formulating your thoughts in real time into snappy 140-character snippets is a skill that can be developed like any other. There are two ways of getting started livetweeting:

If you’re attending an event that’s popular for livetweeting but not sure about joining in, just practice regular tweeting ahead of the event and maybe post a tweet about how you’re attending using the event hashtag. Once you get there, strike up real-life conversations with people about how to livetweet and any tips they have.

For the first little while, you can just keep the event’s Twitter hashtag open during talks and see what it feels like to divide your attention between the two, and then later jump in by adding your own livetweets as you get a sense of what it’s like. (But you might still want to read the tips below in advance.)

If you already know that you want to be an active livetweeter at a particular event, but you haven’t done it before, it helps to practice in advance.

  • Read through a few hashtags that are popular for livetweeting in topics you’re interested in, whether that’s previous conferences (especially the same even in the previous year) or TV shows and other events you’re interested in. If you can do so while they’re actually happening and interact with the livetweeters, that’s even better. “Wish I was at #conferenceX, thanks to all the livetweeters!” or “Thanks @SpecificPerson for livetweeting #conferenceX” is an appropriate way to engage people at a conference you’re not attending.
  • Livetweet a few episodes of some TV show you like. Doing so while the show is also airing for other people is great, but if not, at least go for an episode you haven’t seen before so you need to respond to things in the moment.
  • Tweet at least 10 times in half an hour and up to 30 times (not kidding). You may want to use a thread/tweetstorm here.
  • Check what other people have posted in the show’s hashtag, and use the show’s hashtag yourself even if you’re not tweeting when other people were doing so.
  • If you like, you can instead pick something else to practise livetweeting with, such as a movie, a sporting event, an overheard conversation in a coffeeshop (invent a humorous hashtag or use a thread), a book, a longish youtube video, a public lecture, whatever. Make sure it’s something that people wouldn’t reasonably expect to be private though, and anonymize participants if you’re not sure. (Here’s a few books I’ve livetweeted, as examples.)
  • Try to be interesting, but don’t let your fear of not being interesting enough prevent you from just tweeting something. Being interesting comes with practice, and seeing which tweets of yours get more engagement is useful feedback.
  • Do this livetweet at least twice, once tweeting from your phone and once from your laptop (not desktop or external monitor, you won’t be taking that to a conference!). I’d recommend starting with the laptop — it’s easier because you can have two tabs open, one for your notifications and one for the hashtag. In the phone livetweet, include at least one photo taken with your phone during the livetweet. In the computer livetweet, include at least one url relevant to the livetweet. Do NOT pause the thing you’re watching. Yes, this will be hard, but it’ll be easier than doing it for the first time at a conference.
  • On three separate days, scan the list of trending hashtags, pick the one you’re most interested in, read some of the tweets in it. Make at least one relevant tweet in a trending hashtag. Do NOT tweet “hey everyone check out #TrendingHashtag” — if it’s a joke hashtag, come up with a version of the joke; if it’s a news hashtag, link to a news article or comment on the news; if you have nothing to add, just retweet. If you want your followers to check out a particular hashtag, retweet a few tweets in a row from it and they’ll get the idea.
  • Google “livetweeting advice” and “livetweeting conferences advice” (or “livetweeting academic conferences advice”, if applicable) and read a post or two that looks relevant. Do this three times, once before you’ve ever livetweeted, once after the first time, and once after the second time. Some tips will only make sense after you’ve tried them out yourself.

(You can, of course, feel free to keep livetweeting TV shows and other events after you get good at them, as they’re a fun thing that many Twitter people do! But if you’re trying to get better at Twitter for a specific upcoming event, they also happen to be a lower-pressure way of practising that you can do at any time.)

5. Using event hashtags

  • Know the event’s hashtags before the event starts. If the organizers haven’t posted them already, feel free to ask organizers or attendees what the official hashtag is. If they’re not into social media, you can try asking a more social-media savvy attendee or just give up and create one yourself. (You can make a tweet like “Hey, anyone know what the hashtag is for Name of Event 2016 is? Maybe #Event2016 #Event16 #NoE2016 #NoE16.” That way, if people are checking various possible hashtags, they may find your tweet.)
  • Tweet in the event’s hashtag a couple times before the event starts. “Looking forward to #Event2016 next week” or “Arriving at PLACE for #Event2016 [picture]” help you find other people on Twitter who will also be attending and let non-attendees know that they can ask you for information about it.
  • Also check the conference hashtag(s) in the days leading up to the conference, and follow anyone who posts in it who’s not a spambot or clearly irrelevant. Feel free to like/retweet/interact with them if you can think of anything relevant to say — you might be meeting them at the event and then you’ll already kinda know each other.

6. At a conference or event

  • Put your Twitter handle on your badge as soon as you get it.
  • From now on all your tweets are IN THE EVENT HASHTAG. Write it on your thumbs if you need to.
  • If you arrive early, tweet in the hashtag that the conference is starting, including a picture or two if it makes sense. Think about what people who are still arriving might want to know (the weather? where the registration desk is?) and try to tweet it for them.
  • Attend whatever talks you’re interested in and livetweet them, especially any plenary talks or major events that lots of people are looking forward to.
  • Tweet primarily during talks while watching them, but put your phone away during coffee breaks and other opportunities to talk with people. (An analysis of livetweeting patterns during NWAV shows that this is how most people livetweet.)
  • Do say hi to people you recognize from Twitter, especially if you’ve had a back-and-forth already. If someone recognizes you from Twitter and you don’t recognize them back, that’s okay! They still put themself out there and maybe you’ll spot them in the hashtag half an hour later. You can ask them what their Twitter handle is, or just say something generically nice and move on (perhaps to talk about Twitter or the conference livetweet in general).
  • Humour can be good, but don’t tweet unflattering things about someone’s talk unless you’re really, really sure that’s a good idea. (Politicians and massive public figures can handle it, colleagues you might end up seeing at lunch, probably not.) A general rule of thumb is to tweet things that you’d be comfortable saying to the speaker’s face — or at least, where they might overhear you. Even people who don’t have Twitter accounts sometimes check an event hashtag.
  • Check the event hashtag regularly and retweet/like/reply to other people’s tweets as you feel like it.
  • Even if you’ve been off the hashtag for most of the day or had bad wifi/connectivity, you can at least check the event hashtag at the end of the day and reply to/retweet people when you’re back in your room.

When you’re livetweeting a talk, a basic rule of thumb is think about if this person googled their name, would you want them to find you attributing a particular comment to them? Versus if they were scrolling through the event hashtag and found their remark unattributed, would they be upset?

The main points of someone’s talk, their data, methods, analysis, pithy summary lines, and so on, are generally things that they want credit for and which people want to know who to quote on. Ideally, put the speaker’s name (even just their last name after the first time) or Twitter handle in all the quotes from their talk — and do keep a copy of the schedule nearby to make sure you’re spelling names correctly, as many people don’t leave their first slide up long enough to type out their name and title.

The problem is, you’ve still only got 140 characters, less counting the event hashtag. So other options include starting with a tweet like “for the next half hour, all tweets unless indicated will be from NameOfPerson’s talk on Topic” or chaining a set of tweets together by replying to yourself and deleting your own handle so that you can get away with attribution in just the first tweet of the thread. (If you do either of the latter two though, you may still find yourself fielding questions from people following along on the livetweet asking who was talking, so best to attribute as much as possible.)

But people also often make off-the-cuff funny remarks, both in talks and in conversations. In person, you can say something like “omg, that was great, can I tweet it as an ‘overheard’?” In a talk, I sometimes err on the side of not attributing off-the-cuff humour, because the speaker may prefer to be known for their substantive contributions rather than their one-liners, especially in academia and if they don’t have tenure. This is a bit of a grey area though — if you’re tweeting a comedian convention or something, you’d definitely want to attribute jokes.

While livetweeting a particular talk, you’ll also want to tweet strategically depending on what else is going on around you:

Focus on getting the most essential points, because no one else is backing you up on this. Get the speaker’s name, topic, main message or takeaway, and any especially memorable quotes, even if you can’t get down absolutely everything. Ideally sit next to someone you know who’s taking notes, even if they’re not livetweeting, because you can look over their shoulder to catch any names or terms you missed.

If several people are livetweeting, you don’t want to all be saying the exact same things, so look for ways you can contribute something different. You need a few people doing the literal quote/paraphrase tweets, but if some people already have that covered, then think of other things you could be adding instead.

Are you tweeting from your phone with a good view of the slides? Tweet primarily slide pictures, especially any diagrams, graphs, or data. Crop and colour enhance them as well as you can. (The default Twitter app’s “magic” colour correction is good, but its filters are generally worthless. Save time and don’t bother with them. It’ll probably also take too long to use a fancier image-editing app, unless you have a particularly important photo that’s not as time-sensitive as slides.)

Another useful thing to do if others are taking care of the basic livetweets is to go hunting for references that the speaker brings up — if they mention an important article or play a youtube video, go find it online and tweet a link to it, saying something like “SpeakerName showed this video to illustrate XYZ. #eventname”

With many livetweeters, you may just find yourself tweeting less, which is also okay: if you notice someone else has already tweeted a good version of what you were going to tweet, just retweet them rather than duplicating things unnecessarily. (But you may still want to keep an eye on the hashtag — if everyone stops livetweeting because other people are taking care of it, there won’t be much tweeting at all!)

Another fun thing to do when you have lots of Twitter activity around a talk is to backchannel with your fellow livetweeters, commenting on the talk with people who are also there or those following along from elsewhere. These are especially good people to then try and meet at a later break.

Maybe you don’t actually like the talk that much, maybe you like the talk so much you’re finding livetweeting a distraction, or maybe it’s just the kind of talk that can’t be well summed-up in 140 characters. You don’t have to livetweet every talk, whether that’s because you ended up chatting to people in the hallway instead or because you were attending but ran out of things to say.

(Should you livetweet a talk to point out how bad it is? Depends. If it’s by a first year grad student who just doesn’t quite have a firm grasp on stats yet, that’s probably just mean. If you have constructive points of disagreement that you would be comfortable saying to the person’s face, that might be appreciated if phrased helpfully, or they might rather hear criticism in private where they can respond, so it depends a lot on the comments and your relationship. If it’s by a person who’s got a big platform but isn’t actually an expert in the field (but you are), people might really appreciate it if you point out inaccuracies and overgeneralizations— although a blog post might be a better place to do it than a series of tweets.)

If it’s a big conference, people won’t notice if you just ghost on certain talks. If you’re one of very few livetweeters and you’ve been super dedicated, you could say something like “this talk is great but hard to livetweet. I’m just going to focus on listening!”

7. Further tips

After the conference, for A++ Social Media Skills, you can sum up the livetweeting activity in a Storify. Here’s a sample Storify that I made of Polyglot Conference 2015. (Or maybe use Twitter’s new Collections feature, although it’s still not as popular nor as flexible as Storify.)

If you’re giving a talk, here’s how to design your slides to help people tweet about you, such as by including your Twitter handle and making a short, easy to type url that links to an electronic version of your slides.

The Modern Language Association has a guide to livetweeting its conference, and the Chronicle of Higher Education has several conference livetweeting tips (although see my caveats above about social media management tools).

Here’s a post about how livetweeting can make a conference more accessible, here’s some meta-commentary about Twitter as a public space, and here’s a post about Twitter’s continued difficulties with helping people discover interesting networks, which my “borrow who people are following” tip is designed to help you solve for yourself.

If you’d like your Twitter feed to include more from Linguist Twitter, you can follow me on Twitter at GretchenAMcC, my blog at AllThingsLing, or check out the many linguists I follow.

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