Why this academic turns to Twitter

I have to miss most of today’s campus meeting about this, sorry to say, so I am sending these notes on ahead. Why I turn to Twitter:

Open notebook. Of course you have to “follow” selectively, but no matter what topic interests you, there are thoughtful, well-read people tracking their work, their thinking, their reading, using Twitter as an open notebook that you can look into. And you can usually talk with them about it.

Follow even just a handful of key people to open a window on a topic. These folks screen new publications and link to the best. They introduce current debates. For example, Ian Dunt explains Parliament and British political parties well enough for an American to start to get the picture. James Rebanks on shepherding and sound agriculture. Alan Guebert on food policy. Margaret Atwood on handmaids and seabirds and many a thing.

Threads and live-tweeting. Sometimes Ian Dunt live-tweets a Parliamentary debate, which gives you a fine-grain experience of a distant society. When I check into the Twitter streams of some writers in Africa, I get a much finer sense of voice and detail than I almost ever find in US news. And instead of being written about, these people are speaking and writing in their own voices, on their own terms.

And it grows. Following two or three writers about a topic leads you quickly to another half-dozen reputable ones. From that base, you can keep your eye on an issue or open up a new area of understanding. Our ordinary news media and academic publishing always create and maintain silences, but Twitter offers voices not easy to hear elsewhere.

Poets and painters build a supportive community, sharing their creative process and helping each other spark new work. Writers solidify and extend their readership. They live part of their creative life together via social media. Scientists and science journalists help share news and strengthen the science literacy of their readers.

If you have a good set of news sources on Twitter, and check in for a few minutes once or twice a day, you’ll rarely be surprised about the front page of the morning NY Times or the top stories on NPR. You’ll already easily be tracking these stories already, if you want to.

Once in a while, you’ll get breaking news ahead of most everyone via Twitter. Earthquakes are now almost always talked about there first, ahead of any kind of news publication. Some of the people talking about the earthquake two minutes after it took place will be experts on the subject. They will link to the first data sets on the quake, the first maps, the first evaluations.

Longer pieces. While you can write and post threads on Twitter, it’s best to have a blog where you can develop longer pieces, similarly accurate and yet perhaps informal: more detailed pages of your own open notebook. Here you give back to the community by tracking and sharing your own reading and thinking. You’ll sometimes feel constrained by Twitter’s 280-character limit, no doubt, but by keeping an open notebook on social media and a blog, you can make yourself a public resource on your issue. Do a good job, which you will, and your department and your campus look good too.

Yes, 280 isn’t a lot of space. But you’ll enjoy the discipline of getting to the point. For most of us as academic writers, that is a deeply worthy form of writerly discipline. So is translating our academic field into terms usable by a wide audience. No need to Ivory Tower our whole lives, right? 

Is there an unmet need or an unsolved problem in the region? A handful of skilled researchers could share the best information on that subject in a focused way. We have the skills and tools for that today. Model for your students what an active citizen can do with good academic training, to benefit the community and country.

Use vivid images, charts and graphs, and especially links. Without links, you might as well be posting your opinion on the door of your office. With links, we help build out the networked knowledge of the Internet.

And if you enjoy iMud-Wrestling with distant propaganda engines, you can do that on Twitter too. But you don’t have to. And if you see something that raises your blood pressure, don’t repost it—that spreads the poison. Photograph it, maybe, and write about it, maybe, but don’t RT or reply, since that shares the poison with your readers. Don’t let anyone tempt you from being your best, most professional self. Life is brief, and there is a field you love that would benefit from another lively, well-informed, clear-headed public voice.

PS. Do these writers have views and opinions, even blind spots? Sure. Would they be human, and would you respect them, if they didn’t? Count on this: you will learn and learn and learn.

And keep your eye out for cool hashtags. For example, once a week a few dozen people post the most amazing sentence they have read during the week, using the #SundaySentence hashtag. Clicking the hashtag takes you to all of their posts.

And don’t forget occasionally to relax, take a quick break. See live nature filming in Africa, for example, from Wild Earth. It’s a big beautiful world out there.