The Academic Benefits of Twitter

Why Twitter? What value does Twitter offer to an academic? And, are you missing out if you are not on Twitter?

Yesterday someone I follow (@bacigalupe) posted a link to a Digital Sociology post titled “Can academics manage without Twitter?” My answer was: of course they can. Academics do not need to be on Twitter, and yet there are some very real benefits to Twitter. What are they, you ask? In the order I posted them (and with the original 140 character limitations of syntax preserved), here are five academic benefits I’ve experienced through using Twitter:

#1: learning about new research, publications, conferences, conversations

#2: community-building, following/connecting with colleagues around the world in your own + cognate fields

#3: the drop-in or hang-out-all-day options; you can tweet & read as you like, greatly enabled by list feature

#4: I think of my Twitter feed as personally-curated updates of news, info, stories on topics I care about

#5: knowing things well before they hit email or FB (aka W Benjamin’s value of info is in the current moment)

Now, some extended thoughts on these benefits: Twitter is initially an empty space each user individually transforms into a public, dynamic space. You follow other users without obligation or permission based on your interests. Posts (“tweets”) from users you follow then comprise your Twitter feed and are constantly updated as users put up new posts. You can check in several times a day, once a day, once a week or month or even more sporadically—whatever suits your needs. In addition to following users, you may also search via topic (e.g., #ethnography), subscribe to lists (e.g., @kerim’s list of 350 anthropologists on Twitter), or follow tweets from a conference (e.g., #aaa2012). There is no right or wrong way to use Twitter.

Who will you connect with? Whose posts will you read? These depend on your passions and concerns. My feed is heavy with posts about anthropology, academia, publishing, Tibet, Nepal, India, China, and issues of social justice. I’ve connected with other scholars, writers, and activists around the world; linked up with others for conference panels; discovered articles, research, pedagogies, and funding possibilities I might not have otherwise learned about; connected with prospective graduate students; joined with others to form the Open Anthropology Cooperative; discovered some great new music; and in general, have shared and learned in ways that feel productive, valuable, and communal in the best sense of the word.

Twitter moves fast and covers wide ground which suits my multitasking mind. I am often writing on two different topics, reading about a third for a class I am teaching, and thinking about still more on any given day: this is the life of an academic. Twitter collates and curates my worlds in a stress-free way, providing a platform for learning, engaging, and connecting which rests simply on one’s own interests and availability but—to me at least—never feels like a burden. It is instead a resource and a community that I most frequently draw on when I am immersed in the solitary activity of writing. Sometimes I need quiet spaces in which to think, and sometimes I find crowded, noisy spaces useful. Twitter is the latter.

In the end, the value of Twitter for academics is what you make of it. So, can academics manage without Twitter? Of course they can. But the better question might be “What can academics manage with Twitter?” I find thinking about that question to be much more exciting.

[For those readers interested in checking Twitter out for the first time, there are numerous online guides such as LSE’s Twitter guide for academics. A simple web search for “twitter for academics” turns up all sorts of pages ranging from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics” on through to individual bloggers’ posts such as “A Gentle Introduction to Twitter for the Apprehensive Academic.” If you do join Twitter, you can find me at @cmcgranahan and this blog at @savageminds]

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

7 thoughts on “The Academic Benefits of Twitter

  1. “#1: learning about new research, publications, conferences, conversations” — I initially got a Twitter account a couple of years ago after reading a gushing piece by a psychologist about how much she had gained in learning about new publications and new research in her field. (I think I may have gotten the link to her piece through SM). Much of my active research and reading now is in new disciplines, far beyond my anthropological training, so I am always looking for key pieces to help me figure out these new academic literatures. Maybe Twitter would help. So I tried it out, and my scholarly benefits were A BIG FAT ZERO. Nada.

    Maybe the fields I am interested in (archaeology and urban studies) were and are in a pre-Twitter stage, or maybe I didn’t find the right accounts (I did make an effort, doing searches and such to find interesting feeds). I still have the account, and occasionally check it. I DO learn some interesting things about current events, current non-scholarly developments, and the like. These can be interesting and fun. But the scholarly benefit has been at, or close to, zero. I just don’t have time to go trolling for some interesting new things that are only very distantly related to my research. Compared to Twitter, my email updates from Planetizen are very useful. I have found new research papers and projects that way, interesting editorials, and by following an announcement I got invited to submit a paper to a prestigious venue (100th journal anniversary), which was great. This was the kind of thing I was hoping for from Twitter.

    I did start tweeting, but then it seemed silly to send out tweets to advertise my blog posts. My departmental publicity person offered to do that for me, which was great until I posted a blog entry called “How to give a bad conference talk” (http://publishingarchaeology.blogspot.com/2011/11/how-to-give-bad-conference-talk.html). This was evidently too edgy or questionable for my (apparently humorless) academic program, and I lost that service. And then SM stopped including my blogs in their updates! Either I need to start using Twitter for that important purpose, or perhaps my posts are getting boring and irrelevant.

    When I am bored and want to be entertained (waiting for the pizza to bake, or sitting at a boring meeting), I can check my Twitter feed. But for scholarly content, it has so far proven useless.

  2. Hmmm….why is it that some folks click with Twitter and some don’t? @mesmith9, I know other people who also never found their Twitter groove, but I don’t have any great insights into why. My personal Twitter world does seem to consist of more cultural and biological anthropologists than archaeologists but that might not be representative of the overall group of anthropologists on the site. No two Twitter feeds or styles of participation are the same, and as I say above, academics absolutely can get by without being on Twitter. For me, though, I use Twitter professionally (rather than personally or for entertainment) and its been valuable. And fun.

  3. My complaint is that it requires looking at a screen. When doing so, we are missing out on life. The same goes for other electronic gadgets.
    Academic conferences, our major socialisation time, are wasted if everybody spends half the day looking at various screens of different sizes- under the mistaken view that they are somehow ‘connected’ when online, even when surrounded by hundreds of potential colleagues they could engage with.
    Similarly, friends meeting in a cafe can bow be part of a comical scene – heads down, not talking but viewing.
    I now work with people who have Twitter on in their offices and their Mac goes ‘bing’ when a new message comes in (different noise for emails too). I feel like walking out. WHile there may be some academic uses, I think it is probably better for campaigns, hobbies, and egotistical purposes.There is also the Susan Greenfield work on shortened attentions spans…
    http://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/bonfire-of-the-smartphones-cathy-davidson-vs-baroness-greenfield/

    Gary Marx, sociologist, said in 1995 what the internet might do to society.
    http://web.mit.edu/gtmarx/www/road.html
    ” Implications for social interaction: will the new “virtual” communities and interactions that occur in cyber-space mean greater equity (e.g., race, gender, age and physical condition are not readily apparent on a computer screen), increased chances for social participation, reduced social isolation? Will such interactions be as satisfying as those in the world of face-to-face interaction? Or will social skills decline and interaction become more mechanical and emotionless as a result of being electronically mediated? In permitting the formation of narrowly specialized groups will there be increased fragmentation at the societal level? What will be the consequences of the blurring of traditional boundaries between work and home and the difficulty of nation states in controlling information flows into and within their borders?”

    “Because these developments are still in their infancy we don’t know how they will be defined or what form they will take or what consequences they will have. To judge from predictions about earlier technologies such as the radio and the automobile, there will be unanticipated effects and some current predictions will turn out to be groundless. But what is clear is that the nature of communication is undergoing qualitative changes that are likely to be as significant as the changes associated with the invention of speech, writing, the printing press, and the telegraph on which data highways depend and which they extend. The road to the future will not be paved with asphalt.”
    he was right. It is paved with disfunctional production of shorter and shorter communication.

  4. I subscribe to mailing lists in areas that interest me, and also follow certain blogs, such as this one. I really don’t have time for anything more than that, and Twitter strikes me as huge waste of time so I never even bothered to look into it. I must say I remain puzzled as to how it works, because I just can’t imagine subscribing to the Twitter feeds of all the people whose work and ideas MIGHT interest me. And I can’t imagine that more than a very small handful of people, mostly personal friends, would be interested in following my “tweets.” To me, Twitter is a fad that everyone will get bored with in a few years.

    Maybe it’s a generational thing.

  5. I use Twitter, but probably not as effectively as I should. It is true, you can find good sources for news from Twitter, especially international news that does not show up on Google in the US (Google filters its searches based on IP and country). So, for my work with indigenous people around the world, Twitter and Facebook are the go to source for breaking news, pressing issues not covered in the media, etc. I still find FB more valuable however, despite its constantly changing algorithm and other annoyances.

  6. I find the hashtags to be the crucial element to making twitter helpful and interesting for professional purposes. People who know how to tag their posts and using search to retrieve subject hashtags make twitter the best way to keep up to date in several areas of interest for me. Browsing the feeds is much, much too time consuming and doesn’t really turn up enough concentrated information. I only browse feeds when I’m caught waiting for a bus or waiting for my companions in a restaurant and so forth. Browsing is more for personal amusement or general news. With colleagues tweeting from conferences I’ve had the experience of seeing many essential ideas that are discussed with highly useful links. It’s a lot like having lunch with someone who attended and getting a brief rundown of the important meaty stuff. I can follow the links and read more full discussions or see the recordings of the sessions and get the full presentations. I would not have known about these presentations or papers otherwise. Knowing conference hashtags can be highly valuable when good tweeters are tweeting.

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