What is the point of twitter?

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This week we took the plunge and made our official @YorkPsychology twitter stream public by featuring it on the departmental home page. I can imagine some of my colleagues are wondering what the point of twitter is, or indeed whether it has one. If you are similarly puzzled, you might want to start by reading this gentle introduction by Prof Dorothy Bishop or @deevybee as she is known on twitter. Dorothy’s post explains how twitter works and has lots of great tips if you’re interested in giving it a go. However, I know that many people will think the whole thing sounds pointless. So what is the point?

I’ve been using twitter for several years now, and eventually I realised that it does have a point although it is not easy to recognise because when you are new to twitter you can’t see it and by the time you are familiar with it you take it for granted.

The point of twitter is this:

When you know what you are looking for on the internet, you can usually find it by using a search engine. You might use Google for general information and perhaps ISI Web of Knowledge or Google Scholar for specialist academic articles. But there are many situations in which you don’t know what you are looking for, or even that there might be something to be found. A good example would be an exciting new paper in your field, or perhaps a new research funding scheme, analytical tool or job opportunity. Twitter solves this problem by presenting you with a stream of information provided for you by other, like-minded people. You choose the people you follow, so if someone isn’t providing anything valuable, or is providing too much irrelevant material, you can “unfollow” them.

To start with you will not have found many like-minded people and you may indeed wonder if there is any point to twitter. If you decide to persevere, you will gradually build up a base of individuals who tend to provide you with the sort of information you want. By then, though, you are unlikely to regard them as merely “useful sources of information” but as friends and colleagues – people, at least – so thinking about twitter in this instrumental way will start to seem rather cynical. When someone asks what is the point of twitter, it seems like being asked the point of a social event at, say, a conference or after an academic talk. Social interaction undoubtedly serves many purposes in academic and professional life, but few people (I trust) plot their social lives so coldly in terms of personal gains and losses – so it is with twitter.

Through twitter, though, you can learn about things that you wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.

  • I have heard about many, many useful papers
  • I’ve gained funding for a major international meeting through a scheme I learned about on twitter
  • I’ve learned about important online discussions involving researchers in my field
  • I’ve made connections to scientists in other countries who I have never met in person, with academics working in other disciplines and with school teachers

You might be happy that you are already finding out about everything you might want to know, in which case twitter may not be for you. But then, how would you know?

Up till now I’ve talked about twitter as a source of valuable but unsought information, but it also works the other way around. There are many occasions when you will want to bring some information to the attention of others who are not looking for it. Perhaps you are looking to recruit a new postdoc, but your ad isn’t reaching the outstanding people who might want to apply. Perhaps you have developed an online survey and are looking for participants to complete it; your potential respondents are not likely to be searching for the opportunity to be a part of the experiment they do not know exists, though they might be happy to hear about it. You’ve published what you think is an important paper, in a relatively low impact journal – how are your colleagues and rivals going to learn about it so that they can start citing it? You are running a conference – how can you make sure that the latest findings reach an audience beyond the four walls of the lecture theatre?

Twitter can help send out your message, but this will only work if you have established an audience of followers who are ready to receive it and pass it on. Again it is rather cynical to put it in these instrumental terms, but if you are to make use of twitter in this way you’ll have to be interesting enough to be worth following. Luckily this is rather like just being “nice” in real life and will thus clearly come as second nature to all academics. Being polite, witty, being prepared to engage in a friendly way with strangers, and altruistically sharing useful information that crosses your path is not so hard and twitter makes it very easy to share and reshare messages by passing on tweets and links with a single click. In any event the messages are only 140 characters long, so even if you’re pressed for time it is not too much trouble to tweet a few times each week; it’s really no more effort and no less valuable than saying “Hi, did you see such and such?” as you pass a colleague in the corridor.

Twitter is not for everyone and it can be distracting. But it can also be very useful and rewarding.

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About tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

9 responses to “What is the point of twitter?”

  1. Steve Hawkins (@Spamlet47) says :

    I think the main thing about twitter is that you can use it via your phone. Otherwise newsgroups accessed by readers such as Outlook Express were so much better. It was a tragedy when the likes of Microsoft and virgin stopped supporting them.

    With newsgroup messages you could scan many more headers at a time and when you opened any, you could get a complete answer to any question you liked in however many characters it took. In any group you quickly built up a network of useful and very knowledgeable ‘friends’ who could help you out at great speed. You didn’t need to ‘follow’ people because there was always a group of like interested people to join. And it was very east to store, file and find any message. I learned most of what I know about using computers by simply following the discussions on microsoft.public and asking the odd question if there was anything I didn’t understand. Sadly, since Windows went ‘live’ and dropped the groups it has become almost impossible to find anywhere to get many of these questions answered and twitter is a poor substitute; unless you are a Stephen Fry with millions of followers you have no-one to ask.

    So yes, twitter is useful, but I think it is a step backwards and an opportunity missed. Newsgroup apps on the phone could have been a much better way forward: they could have done all that twitter does plus a whole lot more.

  2. Steve Morris says :

    I initially resisted Twitter, thinking that knowledge doesn’t scale. But I persisted for a year and have achieved some kind of breakthrough in understanding: http://blogbloggerbloggest.com/2013/02/27/embracing-the-twittocracy
    It does seem like hard work though.

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