The scientist’s top 10 guide to Twitter

TwitterHow do you use Twitter as a scientist? 

If you know how to Tweet (posting things on Twitter), you have a new avenue for interacting with the world including colleagues, students, editors, etc.

Twitter can be a very powerful tool for scientists. If you, as a scientist, don’t use it you are putting yourself as a big disadvantage.

When I talked with my scientific colleagues about Twitter most of them react in one of three ways:

A) Some look at me with a dull expression reflective of the fact that I might as well have spoken to them in a foreign language. In short, they are largely clueless about it.

B) Some frown and clearly have a negative impression of social networking more generally. They may not say it (although a few have) but I know they are thinking; something along the lines of “Real scientists don’t waste their time on that crap”.

C) Finally, some get all excited and want to get involved, but feel a bit hesitant. Scared even. I imagine them thinking: what the heck is Twitter all about and how do I do it without (A) wasting my time and (B) looking like an idiot?

Here are my top 10 bits of advice for scientists wanting to get going on Twitter. They are not so much listed in order of importance, but rather in order of how I recommend you do the steps chronologically.

1. Get a Twitter account (see image of my profile above). If you are especially nervous, start out using a pseudonym. Begin following people on Twitter who seem interesting to you. The fake name approach provides a way that you can get your feet wet without worrying about exposing your Twitter-ignorance to the world, but you can also be yourself from the start, which is what I did. Wait, you ask, how do I even join Twitter? Go here and sign up.

2. Don’t worry about who follows you. You’ll be surprised at how fast you start accumulating followers even if you do almost nothing. Some of these people may seem kinda wacky or downright weird. My advice–don’t worry about them one way or another unless they (A) somehow bother you (then give them the boot by clicking on Followers and then hovering your mouse arrow over the person icon and then click “Block”) or (B) they interest you. If they interest you, follow them back.

3. Search for people saying interesting things and linking to interesting content; then follow them. How? Type in key words into the box at the top right that says “search”. You’ll start seeing names and topics of interest to you if you enter the right search terms for your interests.

Simply click “follow” after people who are doing posts that interest you.

4. Follow people for about a week and then unfollow those who do not capture your interest during that week. I recommend being very relaxed in deciding whom to follow for a while, then unfollow those who do not interest you. No one will know if you unfollow them. I regularly follow people and then cull out those I’m not interested in after a week or so, but some folks don’t worry about who they follow and calculate that the more people you follow, the more followers you will have.

The # of followers one has on Twitter in theory reflects their influence. In addition, some people recommend avoiding following more people than are following you because in their minds it makes you look more like a follower than a leader. I currently am following about double the number of people (see profile image at the top) I used to, but plan to drop that number dramatically soon since many of those I’m following don’t tweet anything of interest to me.

One way to build your # of followers is by interacting with people who have a lot of followers. After a week or two of being on Twitter, searching for interesting content, following people, unfollowing people, you’ll start getting the hang of it. It’s basically a way of communicating in short bursts. It’s speedy.

5. If you’ve been using a pseudonym, I’d suggest dropping it and being yourself after a couple weeks. If people know who you really are, you can have more genuine interactions and will get more followers. Come up with a clever name for yourself and put some thought into your profile pic as well as the description of yourself, but realize you can always easily change those. Do not use the default Twitter image icon, but rather if at all possible include a picture of yourself or something symbolizing your interests.

6. Start tweeting. It really doesn’t matter a whole lot what you say. You can respond to others, you can post web links of interest to you, or just say just about anything.

7. Start using hashtags. Wait, what are #hashtags?  Hashtags as the # symbol that for example I put in front of the word “hashtags” in the previous sentence. Hashtags are meant to be a tool to participate in ongoing discussions and reach specific, interested audiences.

8. Don’t just post text, but also pictures. This draws people’s attention and makes your tweets more interesting. You can do this in many ways including via Twitpic and Instagram.

9. Avoid tweeting anything confrontational and avoiding tweeting when you feel emotional. Keep this policy for a few months. The best way to make an ass of yourself on Twitter is tweeting in haste or in anger or snidely. Also do not tweet anything confidential of course.

10. If you are tweeting about a paper or a particular scientist, include the journal or scientist’s twitter handle in the tweet. For example, if I tweet about a Cell Stem Cell paper on stem cell research, I often include “@cellstemcell” in the tweet. This lets the editor know of your interest and your comment. You might be able to start a few dialogues with them over time. Same goes for scientists. If I am posting something I think will interest Jonathan Eisen, for example, I include @phylogenomics in my post.

I’m sure there are a lot more tips for science Tweeting–if you have ideas please post in the comments.