I was recently asked about my attitude towards Twitter, which inspired me to write a blog post about it. It took me awhile to start using Twitter, and then only as a passive observer. On the one hand, the format is not conducive to constructive discussions; on the other, Twitter is an amazing way to connect and share information with other researchers. On balance, I decided that until something better comes along, I will use Twitter.
The potential options for what to (re)tweet are large. I was initially overwhelmed by having to make a decision every time I wondered whether to tweet something or not. To overcome this, I came up with a set of guidelines for this decision making process. These guidelines greatly reduced the activation energy for writing a tweet. I wanted to share them here in case 1) anyone was curious why I do or do not (re)tweet certain things, 2) my experience can help someone have an easier time with Twitter, and 3) other people are willing to share their own guidelines. Please keep in mind that I do not suggest these guidelines as general rules for Twitter usage. They work to help me achieve my personal goals but, to the extent your goals are different, will not necessarily work for you.
Here are my guidelines:
- Avoid using Twitter for discussion. I want to use Twitter for sharing information, but not for engaging in discussion. I would love to engage in constructive discussion in an open forum, but I don’t find Twitter is a good platform for that.
- Limit tweets to research-related content. A narrow and cohesive scope means that my tweets will tend to be of interest to many of my followers. I don’t expect that people that care about my research are also interested in my views on politics or in pictures of my cat (though he is sooooo cute).
- Avoid tweeting on controversial issues. The reason is that such tweets can potentially generate vitriol and aggression, and even the anticipation of this leads to anxiety for me. This is a somewhat selfish rule, as it prioritizes my mental health over the need to speak out on important issues related to academia. Such issues may include research ethics, publication biases, or university politics. These are really important, so I feel some guilt about not commenting on them on Twitter; however, I can affect positive change through other means not involving Twitter (e.g. through my actions when I’m in a position to do something). Since in today’s climate it is not always possible to predict what may be controversial, my rule of thumb is to stick to research related content as a safe bet (it also matches rule 2).
- My tweets are not endorsements. If I retweet a link to a paper, it does not mean it’s a good paper. It just means it is research that someone has done on a topic that is of interest to me or to my followers. If I were to retweet only papers that I endorse, it means I would have to read the paper first. As a result, I would not retweet anything in a timely manner. Adopting this rule was crucial for me to be able to start to actively engage with Twitter.
- Try to promote research rather than people. Twitter is a good venue to promote research, like tweeting about a useful paper. But I try to make a distinction between promoting people’s research vs. the people themselves. For example, if a tweet has a link to a resource (e.g. a paper or software), then it is promoting the research. If a tweet just congratulates somebody on an award, then it is promoting the person. I think promoting people is dangerous if one does not know them well (for example, what if somebody does great research but turns out to be a jerk).
- Be positive. If I enjoy reading a paper or see a great talk or come across a great resource, Twitter is a great way to let the authors know their work is appreciated. What if I see something for which I want to make a more critical comment? Most of the time, I can do that privately.
- Avoid drive-by research commentary, especially critical one. For example, “Thanks for the paper but your analysis sucks.” A paper is often the result of years of work by a student and the least one can do before trashing it is to read it completely and give a thought-out response, including a balanced focus on the strengths and weakness (some good advice in this tweet). This is what we strive for when writing reviews, and I don’t think we should drop this standard because of Twitter. Drive-by criticism is often done by people who have not even read the paper carefully. Drive-by positive statements are more acceptable, but only if I have read the paper enough to endorse it.
- Try to be honest about my intentions. I see a lot of tweets of the form: “I am so humbled that our paper X won the greatest paper of all time award.” If you were truly humbled, then you wouldn’t be tweeting about it. In truth, you just want to show-off your accomplishment. There is nothing wrong with that. I would just phrase it more honestly, for example: “Our paper X won the greatest paper of all time award.”
These guidelines serve me as a baseline, but I feel free to break them if needed. My thoughts about this will continue to evolve based on my experience, feedback from others, and the evolution of Twitter and its alternatives.
Let me also add that there are many alternate approaches to using Twitter that violate the guidelines above. For example, one might choose to engage with controversial issues, or one might be negative as a way to effect positive change. It just depends on what works for you and what you want to achieve. So, I don’t proselytize any of the above, except perhaps avoiding the drive-by criticism. I am not sure if I see a justification for that.