In early March I changed my mind and joined Twitter. I resisted climbing onto the wings of the little blue bird for a long time. I’m not inherently opposed to social media or anything like that. In fact, I’m convinced it’s a very powerful tool for scientists and educators. But despite my on-line presence in various other media, I was not an early adopter of Twitter.
I am, however, fond of being an outlier, so after repeated exposure to statements such as “Twitter users are mostly young”, “Scientists on Twitter are mostly students”, and “Prof don’t tweet”, I was bound to end up with an @ in front of my name (Just for the record, I think all three of those generalizations have got to go).
After my 100 day break-in period, I thought I’d toss out some impressions from a Twitter noob who is, apparently, older than the great majority of users (if we are to believe survey data here or here) (that’s me in the “over 50” bar)
The hesitation of the mid-career researcher
I initially stayed away from Twitter for a couple of reasons. The main one had to do with the way my brain works. Somewhere in the chemical soup and frayed wiring of my head, there are wonky connections that make me very susceptible to distraction. I’m easily knocked off course, especially when I am trying to juggle many responsibilities, which is, ummm, always. Focus is not my friend, and it’s gotten worse with time. Oh, and I’m a bit obsessive too. So I was worried about the impact that checking in on Twitter ALL THE TIME would have on my tenuous time management abilities. Effusive testimonials from others that “Twitter makes me MORE efficient!” aside, I was concerned. My To Do list is terrifying.
The second reason was, well, silly. Let’s just say it’s embodied in the “If I wasn’t on Twitter I’d never know there were Nobel Prizes!” and “before Twitter I had no idea there were insects!” school of breathless hyperbole.
100 days: A Twitter report card
3+ months in, it’s an unreserved thumbs-up. I’ve gotten a lot out of my time on Twitter. It may help that I joined just in time for Taxonomist Appreciation Day, and was part of the waves of discussion about Natural History’s place in science and society, and the “Minteer Affair“. There was instant connection with a big community of like-minded people. People follow me, I follow people. There have been no tears, as far as I know. The positive outcomes for me have been both tangible and intangible (in other words, I have data about the benefits of Twitter, and I have anecdotes)
The tangibles: I give Twitter credit for getting me involved as an author on a community-wide response to an anti-collecting opinion piece published in Science. Within hours of the original diatribe appearing, the discussion was swirling on Twitter and it galvanized the community response in a way that email could not. I’ve also been tipped off to some great new data for a paper I’ve been working on for a few years about a weird fly that has weird natural history (tip of the hat to The Bug Chicks!). And, of course, exposure on Twitter has increased traffic on my blog (not that this blog has been terribly active since March).
The intangibles: I’ve connected with new colleagues, both in my own research area and beyond. We don’t often have a lot of conversations, but I can follow along with the day to day stories of research on insects, plants, marine organisms, vertebrates, parasites and more, not to mention finding out about new things in fields beyond biology. I’ve also been able to connect with some very keen amateurs — people who keep natural history alive and vibrant, and who contribute very useful data to taxonomy and ecology. I find out about new research pretty quickly, from a variety of sources. Yeah, I can, and do, all of these things through other media anyway, but Twitter adds another dimension, and one that often works faster.
The downside: I have also learned from Twitter that: 1. Academia is a cesspool of hate and bitterness; 2. That everything about the way I teach is absolutely, completely, utterly wrong; and 3. That every single journal that is not Open Access is scummy and sleazy. I guess my responses to those three epiphanies are: 1) whatever; 2) whatever; 3) whatever. It’s social media, and social media consensus can be a funny and fickle thing. Your mileage may vary. So, really, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not much of a downside.
My Twitter survival strategy
I think I’ve figured out how to customize my Twitter Experience to fit my brain. Here’s what worked for me, and why:
Limit my time. I need to be pretty harsh about how many times I check in during the day, and how long I spend on Twitter. I try to limit myself to a few minutes at a stretch, and only check in a few times in any day. I’ve forbidden myself from clicking through to more than 3-4 links in any Twitter session, so I have to choose carefully. I’m sure I miss a lot of interesting things. So be it. I have a job to do outside the internet.
Limit my focus. I get my news and sports from the mainstream media, so I can scroll past the general things in my feed. I don’t follow feeds that are too broad or peripheral. I tend to treat Twitter as a science/nature/art buffet rather than a portal to everything.
Limit my follows. I have to be careful and merciless here. If I follow too many people, then the River Twitter flows by at too fast a pace. What if I miss something?!? I’m twitchy that way, and there would be much scrolling trying to catch up. So I tend to be pretty strict with myself about who I follow. I’ll check out the signal to noise ratio on a feed before I follow an account. It’s early days, but so far, I think I’ve got a great diversity of people and institutions so I can get a good mix of new science, great natural history, ruminations on education and science communication, and my daily dose of giggles.
If I had a wish
I’d like to see more professors and researchers on Twitter (although I acknowledge that not everybody wants to be here. I respect that. Twittershaming of non-adopters is dumb, but so is slagging Twitter when you haven’t tried it).
I’d like to see more amateur naturalists sharing great observations with professional biologists.
I’d like to see more scientists explaining and publicizing their work. Lots of us do great stuff, and it’s important and relevant. We need to be better at telling the rest of the world why that is. Twitter only gives you tiny sound bites to get that message across, but it’s good practice to try anyway. After all, many politicians and policy makers probably only have a 140 character attention span anyway . . .