A Window Display of 140 Characters: Why and How Twitter Works for Me as an Academic

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

Earlier this year I was invited to join the Young Academy of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences. All of a sudden I found myself in the company of researchers who were relatively young, yet advanced in terms of publications, acquired funding and public outreach. During a lunch leading up to the installation ceremony I noticed how my peers frequently checked and updated their Twitter accounts. Having resisted opening one myself, mainly because I thought it would be time-consuming and useless for academic purposes, I curiously inquired about the upsides. There were plenty, it turned out, and the next day I was on Twitter myself, with my spouse as sole follower. And so I started to tweet to her about medieval manuscripts, handwritten books that form my main area of expertise and investigation, and she pretended she hadn’t heard it all before. Now, six months later, with the 400th follower fast approaching, I thought I’d give a brief account of my experiences. The main purpose is to show other hesitant academics out there that Twitter can be a great platform for showing others what you are passionate about and why your research object matters. Here are three replies to my former hesitant and critical self.

1. Twitter is time-consuming

The most commonly heard negative verdict is that Twitter is time-consuming. This is simply not true. I carefully pick moments that I actively browse my feed and send tweets myself. As opposed to “personal” tweets (“I just bought a loaf of white bread and it smells soooo good!”), research-related tweets do generally not tap into the immediate present. My subject of study is anywhere between 1600 and 600 years old, so if I notice something interesting in a manuscript that is worthwhile sharing, it can wait until my lunch break or until after dinner – my main go-twitter moments. Also, I usually don’t shoot off more than one or two tweets per day – although a few more in the holidays, it turns out. Even though I craft them with care, it usually does not take me more then two minutes to find a suitable manuscript picture (I am tapping from my very large image database as well as the web) and write a caption – which is a format I am trying out at the moment. I find that I do not have to check my feed very often because it rarely contains time-sensitive information. (Mind you, I do not use Twitter to communicate with colleagues and friends due to the biggest downside of the medium, namely the virtual absence of the means to archive.)

2. I have nothing to say

While I have never met a colleague at a conference who did not talk passionately about his or her research, often unprompted, another reason why academics are hesitant to join, it seems, is the idea that you have to say something special, new, or original. I find that how I use Twitter – I want to show the largest and broadest possible audience how marvelous the world of the medieval manuscript is – even the most common observations (from my professional point of view) are worthwhile sharing. After all, as an academic you do not tweet for yourself but for others: as the title of this blog indicates, I see my tweets as mini window displays in which my object of study shines for a brief moment. “Sharing is nice,” to quote the sign at my table here in this busy Vancouver coffee shop. Popular tweets (in terms of the number of retweets and replies) are those that state simple facts, accompanied by a vivid image, such as this one:

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3. Who on earth would be in interested in this?

I hear colleagues remark that nobody out there is interested in their thoughts. While this may be true in the real world, the Twitter community is so crowded that there is bound to be a significant number of individuals interested in the information you provide via tweets. The most important thing, I think, is to find a niche that you are comfortable with – a certain subject, tone, and manner of presentation – and stick to that format. If you build it, they will come. I am having great fun putting out tweets, especially those that present an image and a captivating description. People who do not like this will not follow my feed. Consequently, my way of putting information out there (i.e. information I find worth sharing, presented in my own way) will automatically become part of a network of individuals with the same interest and who like my way of dealing with the subject matter. With Twitter, it seems, you always have the right audience. That said, it is not easy to find a balance between providing factual information (building blocks of a tweet) and entertainment (an equally crucial component). I try to be witty, but not all the time. I provide factual details, but not always. Mixing up different ways in which you put your research out there seems to be key – to increase the number of followers with whom you share information, that is. And so after a few serious tweets I send one that is totally over the top, whose sole purpose is exclusively to entertain, as for example my most popular tweet to date (57 retweets):

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