August 11, 2010, 03:00 PM ET
How to Start Tweeting (and Why You Might Want To)
We've written a lot about Twitter here at ProfHacker. George hosted a discussion of Twitter at MLA 09, Brian urged us to hack conferences using Twitter, Julie taught us how to use Twitter clients and handle Twitter spam, Ethan explained how to back up our social networks, and Jeffery even showed us how to post a Twitter feed on our office doors. A few weeks ago, however, I was visiting a friend and fellow teacher who asked a more basic question: "so how would I get started with this whole Twitter thing?" Her question was a good one, and we haven't really answered it here yet.
One of the most common dismissals of Twitter sounds something like this, "I don't need to know what a bunch of people had for breakfast." My response to this is always, "if that what you're seeing on Twitter, you're following the wrong people." Twitter can help academics make and maintain connections with people in their fields, find out about interesting projects and research, or crowdsource questions and technical problems, but it can be difficult to know where to start. When you make a new account, you're faced with an empty box that asks "What's Happening?" and few useful suggestions for who to follow. Instead of following the celebrities Twitter often recommends to new users—celebrities who may well post about their breakfast choices—try these methods to start building your Twitter network.
Fill Out Your Bio
As you start to follow folks, some of them will follow you back. This is how your network will grow. It's much easier for people to figure out who you are and why you might be following them (and to see that you're not a spammer) if you have a bio. Take a few minutes and fill this out. If you're going to use Twitter as a professional resource, concentrate your bio on your academic position and interests.
Be a Follower
Unlike Facebook, on Twitter you can follow anyone you want. So long as a user doesn't have his or her profile set to private (which I don't think you should if you really want to use Twitter to its full potential), then they don't have to confirm or deny new followers. The best way to start building a network, then, is to start following people you find interesting. If you can find just one or two initial folks to follow—I'd suggest starting with the Profs. Hacker—then can you click on "View All" under their followers' avatars in the right-hand column.
This will bring up a list of everyone that user follows—in other words, all the folks they consider interesting on Twitter. Browsing through a few of these lists should help you start finding people in your fields of interest to follow.
Make a List
Speaking of lists, Twitter's Lists feature offers another way to find people on Twitter. If you look at the upper highlight in the picture above, you'll see where you'd click to see the Lists that a user has created, as well as the Lists to which that the user has been added by others. Lists provide a way to organize followers—by field, by geography, by interest, &c. When you pull up a list—
—you can choose to follow the entire List, or you can find individuals on the List to follow. Note: following a list does not bring the tweets of all its member into your timeline—instead, the List will become readily available in the right-hand column on your Twitter page. You have to follow individuals in order for their tweets to appear in your main timeline. Here you can see some of the lists that include @ProfHacker:
Folks have compiled Lists of all sorts—from librarians to secondary-school teachers to nineteenth-century historians to physicists—and you can use these to simplify finding a community on Twitter. If you have a favorite List, please share it in the comments.
Pay Attention to #Hashtags
If you look in pretty much any Twitter stream, you'll see words, initialisms, or even phrases preceded by hashtags (#). Hashtags were created by the Twitter community as a way to add metadata to tweets—to tie a particular tweet to a larger, ongoing conversation.
Sometimes hashtags refer to current events folks are chattering about. Other times they refer to an event from which a group of people are tweeting. For example, at this past year's Modern Language Convention folks used the hashtag #mla09 to tag their posts that were related to the convention. Clicking on a hastag brings up a list of all the tweets that have used it—including tweets from users you don't follow.
If you're at a conference where you know folks are tweeting, find out what hashtag they're using. Search for that hashtag to find (and begin following) others at the conference. If they decide to hold a tweetup (a meeting of twitter users), join in. There's no better way to find other twitter users whose posts will be directly relevant to your work than to find people at the same conventions, meetings, and institutes that you attend.
Join the Conversation
This is, in some ways, the hardest part. Once you've found people to follow, start joining in their conversations. You can address a tweet to a particular user by including their username, preceded by the @ symbol, in the tweet (these are called @replies). So, if you wanted to send a tweet to me, you'd append @ryancordell to the tweet (usually at the beginning, but sometimes somewhere else in the post). If you have a good answer to someone's question, reply to their tweet and offer it. If you have an engaging question for them, ask it. Share interesting links you've found. As you join in more and more conversations, more people will follow you—your network will grow, as will the potential for scholarly exchange on Twitter.
Another way to join the conversation is through retweeting. Retweeting is a way of reposting someone's tweet—adding it to your own timeline. This allows people who follow you, but don't follow the person you're retweeting, to see the post. Twitter users use retweets to echo sentiments, pass along interesting links they find through other users, or to comment on others' tweets. Like @replies, retweets help build community.
Recently Twitter added retweeting to its own interface. You can see in the screenshot above where you would click to retweet a post. When you retweet using the official button, then the tweet will show up in your timeline for your followers, but you can't comment on its content at all. This method has its benefits—for one, you can pass on full 140-character tweets without worrying about shortening them in order to include additional information. The official retweet method has its downsides, too. Because you can't comment on these retweets, your followers are likely to assume that you fully agree with or support the things you retweet. Also, depending on how they access Twitter, the folks you retweet may or may not realize their post is being passed around—some Twitter clients don't notify users of "official" retweets.
Retweets, like many of Twitter's features, were originally developed by users of the service, as a modification of the @reply. Users started copying the body of tweets they found interesting and then pasting them into the "What's happening" field with "RT @originalpostersname" appended to the beginning of the tweet. This way, their followers could see the tweet and also see who first posted it. Many users still prefer the old style of retweet, and there are several benefits to using it. For one, these retweets will show up as @replies in the original poster's timeline, so he or she will know they've been echoed. Second, the old style of retweet allows you to comment on the tweet you're retweeting, adding your own thoughts to the beginning or end of the post—explaining why you found the post worth disseminating. Of course, space becomes even more of a premium with these retweets, as you have to add "RT," a username, and any of your own thoughts along with the original tweet—and still within 140 characters.
Go Forth and Tweet!
If you're interested in technology and education, Twitter is (in my opinion) the best professional community on the internet today. For a great example of the good Twitter can do, check out Julie's post on mentoring graduate students. If you're not using it yet, hopefully these tips will help you find a dynamic scholarly community there. Readers: share your own tips for building scholarly communities on Twitter in the comments.