Join the flock and get tweeting

In the anaesthetics department in which I work, there’d be less than 5 of us regularly using Twitter. In fact, when I raised the prospect of actively using Twitter for a conference we’re organising later in the year, the opening of the response was “I don’t Twit, and I have no intention of twittering anytime ever” (*). Likewise, I haven’t checked, but the division of the Uni in which my PhD is based doesn’t seem to have much active Twitter activity going on either.

Well, that has to change. If you’re a researcher and you’re not using Twitter at all, you might like a look at this excellent infographic that crossed my path today (courtesy of Joshua Drew @drewlab and to me via @karenmca and then @Phil_Baty):

Twitter Infographic copy

Now, this is a visualisation of survey results from 116 marine scientists who are actively using Twitter. It highlights really nicely all the reasons you should get involved.

Personally, I’ve only been actively using Twitter for about 5 months. In that time, it has become the source of more interesting stuff and news coverage than any other electronic media (or just, any media) I use. I wasn’t a guaranteed zealot either – I rarely use facebook because when there’s friends and family I need to chat to, I tend to actually talk to them; on the flipside, random facebook people who choose to poke me kind of creep me out. I am yet to figure out any use for LinkedIn whatsoever (is that just me, or is it literally just a place you go to link with a bunch of people you’ll never contact again?) and I came to Twitter expecting to play the part of “old cranky guy on a rocking chair shaking head at young whippersnappers”. I was wrong. Not quite a sonnet, here’s why I use it.

1. The First Edition

For me, first and foremost, Twitter gives me news. More to the point it gives me highly relevant news, that I can filter. The thing with Twitter is, you can choose where to draw your sources from, and by following people who are engaged in media, or engaged in the particular type of news that you’re interested in, they do the work of finding the interesting stuff for you.

So not only do you now get delivered news from a variety of sources, I find I get news on stuff that interests me, that I would never otherwise have seen. By following clever people who do research and are abreast of the latest “big item” developments share it. I heard about the threats to Australian Research Council grants way quicker, and in much greater depth via Twitter than any other source. Twitter doesn’t actually give you the First Edition, it gives you the rolling edition.

2. I am a disciple and a leader

Well actually, I can’t accurately describe myself as either of those, but one of the amazing things about Twitter is I get to hear from people who are seriously at the top of the research game. At work, I get to rub shoulders with a bunch of really clever paediatric anaesthetists. I might also get to hobnob with some of the other medical researchers who are based around the kids hospital. On Twitter, I get updates from those sorts of people, as well as cancer researchers, microbiologists, malaria researchers, astrophysicists and veterinary scientists.

As a researcher, part of the advantage of Twitter is the immediately expanded network of clever researchy people I can learn from. There are plenty of great ideas that advance through inspiration and collaboration outside of the immediate sphere of where an individual works. The maths is compelling. You might be lucky enough to work with exactly the group of geniuses who will come up with the perfect idea to mesh with yours. If you looks at the info graphic though, if the median number of followers is 730 times larger than a median University department size, and 55% of those followers are science related, don’t you think there’s a chance you are more likely to make a vital connection if you’re bumping into that many people day after day?

3. Riding the Butterfly Effect

I choose to make a lazy link to the common understanding that all of chaos theory can be boiled down to the meteorological mayhem induced by erratic flying things to comment on the ability of Twitter to reach far beyond the tearoom. (Yes, I appreciate it’s pretty tenuous but I’m still reeling from learning last night that someone thought it was necessary to make The Butterfly Effect 3 – how bereft of an original thought was that producer?)

Pointing to the infographic again – almost 1 in 5 times someone shares a peer-reviewed PDF in this forum, that PDF is passed on. If you walked around work and handed that PDF out (forget the environment and those crazy butterflies and climate change for a second), how many of those people do you think would actually pass it on?

I got a glimpse of how quickly something can spread via Twitter at the end of last year. At the time, I was gearing up to be part of an aid trip to India. The team decided to try crowdfunding to see if we could raise additional money for the group in India we were working with. So we set about blogging and trying to raise the profile of this little endeavour, sharing it initially amongst people we knew. Then one afternoon, I mentioned it to my brother-in-law, who has the Twitter handle @wiredjazz. As someone ensconced in creative endeavours (there’s lots of them over here and they are well worth a look), he has a whole lot more followers (about 1800 or so at the time).

Anyway, an endorsement goes out from @wiredjazz, and lo and behold 1800 people have had a chance to see what we’re up to, and most of those probably people who would never otherwise heard about it. Then he asked for an additional bit of publicity from Neil Gaiman (who writes and stuff also). So @neilhimself shares the link. To his 1.8 million followers.

1.8 million people.

Now, I’m not suggesting every one of those people checked it out, but we did get some immediate interaction from those who had, along with a bit of extra funding. In 6 minutes, the trip went from being something a few hundred people had heard of, to something that had wafted by 1.8 million people.

So if you have no interest in your idea or what you do potentially getting to that many people, please go back to your crochet on this fine evening. Otherwise, get on Twitter.

4. The Other Stuff

It’s not all work. I frequently come across other really stimulating stuff. It’s the sort of stuff I really enjoy spending a few moments with, but all too often don’t take time for because of work or drudgery items getting in the way. When it’s right there though, I find the 2 mins it takes to be astonished, amazed, infuriated, puzzled or amused. And it feels great.

One of the impressive feats pulled off with bored monotony by Twitter is the ability to juxtapose moments of high intellect and stimulation, with hilarity or banality.

Engagement is vital for any researcher. As I’ve mentioned before, if the research you’re doing is something you kind of believe in, part of your job is to spread the word. Twitter offers that in a very real fashion. Yet it also brings you into contact with amazing researchers who may inspire you, educate you or share an excellent recipe or the frustration of the football season.

Of course, there are risks. There are also trolls. Having said that, if you exercise the slightest bit of common sense about how you behave online (or just treat it like you are a sane person having a conversation in a sane and respectful fashion) there’s a lot of upside. You’ll definitely get access to awesome Lego remakes way quicker for starters.

So you’re welcome to be one of those “doesn’t Twit”. Although I would suggest that if you’re a researcher, particularly in your early career, and you’re not into it, you already qualify on the twit front.

(*) By the way, despite indicating personal disinterest, this good individual has entirely supported the conference plan.