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August 11, 2010, 03:00 PM ET

How to Start Tweeting (and Why You Might Want To)

tweetingWe'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.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user findyoursearch. Based on a Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Renzo Ferrante.]


1. briancroxall - August 11, 2010 at 03:32 pm

This is a great article, Ryan. Thanks for making everything so clear. I use Twitter in lots of my classes, and I tend to follow Dave Parry's great advice for getting a whole class following each other. More recently, I've started adding class members to lists, which makes it easy for me to just show class members' tweets during class--whether I'm using the web interface or one or another Twitter client.

Speaking of Twitter clients, it would be interesting to hear what people's favorites are. I spent most of my first two years on Twitter using Twhirl. Recently, I've switched to Echofon for my desktop client. When I'm at conferences, however, I tend to use TweetDeck because it is so extensible and powerful. For browser-based tweeting, I like Brizzly, but I almost never use it because I prefer desktop apps. Another good web-based client is HootSuite, which is really useful for team tweeting (for something like a library).

2. derekbruff - August 11, 2010 at 05:41 pm

If you're interested in teaching, you might see if your local teaching center has a Twitter account. Of course, you can also follow teaching centers at other institutions. Northwestern University, Georgetown University, and the University of Georgia have active and interesting accounts.

You might find other units on your campus have interesting Twitter accounts. For instance, our First-Year Commons has an active Twitter account. I follow it to get a sense of what the freshmen are up to these days.

3. phdeviate - August 11, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Wow, if I had had this post a year or so ago when I was ranting angrily about how inane twitter was, I wouldn't have to eat nearly as much crow now, since I tweet a lot, every day. Thanks! - @phdeviate

4. emmadw - August 12, 2010 at 07:20 am

I'm a fairly avid tweeter - the more I've used it, though, the more I see its worth to me as a source of learning, rather than for teaching.
I'd be very wary of *requiring* students to use it & to tweet, however, I do demonstrate to them how I use it, and encourage them to explore & find their own ways to use it.

The 140 characters is good, but, I think, using it (and the public/private choice) is too much to require them to use it.

I have a unit I'm teaching next year, in which I'll be encouraging students to look at twitter (and other tools) to get them to create a professional profile - but, as it's *their* profile, not mine, I'm going to leave the tool choice to them.

5. peril - August 12, 2010 at 12:07 pm

For anyone just setting up Twitter and looking for a client, I would strongly recommend Tweetdeck. It has by far the best interface and feature set. I've used a lot, and all of them fall short (or are designed to be a twitter-lite kind of app like tweety or twitterific). Tweetdeck is also available for mobile devices!

Becoming familiar with lists is a good idea as well- there are a few big lists of Digital Humanities (one of which I try to maintain ;) at TheLudologist.

Enjoy your tweeting :D

6. gpage - August 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm

RE (1 briancroxall): I prefer Seesmic when I'm using my android phone. List functions are still sort of sketchy (e.g. assigning to a list), but it has the cleanest interface I've liked.

RE (4 emmadw): Agree, I get more out of it from others. If you sit and tweak who you follow or assign to lists, it can make a wonderful method of creating a content aggregate tailored to your interests. On the flip side, it can be a great way to get responses. I think the service is still in a stage where the folks who officially represent an organization (e.g. Lumina Foundation) seem interested in the tool and probably weren't just assigned the task of using it. Thanks to twitter, I've gotten responses/access to folks at organizations which I would have had to expend greater amounts of energy to accomplish the same result via other methods.

It's a tool that is truly useful in numerous ways, once you ditch the initially perceived usage. Like all tools, knowing how to use it to meet your tailored goals is equally important as knowing which tool to select for a given task.


7. billhandy - August 12, 2010 at 12:55 pm

As always, great article and advice and I agree with all the comments above.

One area of research I would be very interested in seeing is the impact to students and learning when the whole class is using twitter - beyond grade impact. I informally wrote about my experience specific to twitter ( and what I found most interesting was the fact students were chatting about the topics discussed 24 hours a day simply because the avenue was there. Not sure if that was because it was new and cool or simply an extension of what they wanted to do all along but didn't have the resource.

Ironically I still keep in touch with many of those students and we continue to discuss many of the same topics - via twitter.


8. urspider - August 12, 2010 at 02:20 pm

Excellent advice; wish I'd seen this article a year ago! I too felt Twitter to be silly until I began following others who share my research interests. Now I use it to "ping" my followers when I update my blog.

We academics should be glad we can only use 140 characters, too. It's the one space where we must practice linguistic restraint.

Had for lunch Havarti & swiss melt, salad, chocolate layer cake.

9. chrisaldrich - August 12, 2010 at 06:24 pm

Naturally, there is some work and effort to be put into using Twitter to get the most back out of it, but there's certainly a broad and useful spectrum of great content to be had by doing so. It's best described as a discovery engine from this perspective.

Recently I've found a handful of fellow engineers, mathematicians, and particularly information theorists to chat with and discover interesting information about utilizing Twitter.

Kudos, Ryan on writing such a succinct yet all-encompassing overview of the system.

As for twitter clients, one useful tweeting feature academics may find useful is the ability to schedule tweets in advance (for prearranged class questions, posting their schedule, reminders about office hours, etc.) and many clients including CoTweet and HootSuite offer this functionality.

By the way, for those looking to post their food habits, I highly recommend

10. acampbell - August 13, 2010 at 12:21 pm

I love twitter and use it in several classes. Here's a problem I have with it and would like to get others ideas on solutions. I use my twitter account for personal and professional contacts and in multiple classes. But people who follow me from one group (say grad students in technotrends) get confused when I post a tweet related to another group (say undergrad Uni Prep class). Any ideas?

11. ryancordell - August 14, 2010 at 08:52 am

@acampbell: a few things you might try. I do know several people who maintain multiple twitter accounts--say, one for their classes and one for personal/professional use. You might also try hashtags. Tag all tweets related to a particular class with a particular hashtag. Your other followers might not understand the content of the tweets, but they'll see the hashtag and infer that you're addressing a particular group.

12. tee_bee - August 15, 2010 at 09:27 pm

I still must retain some Luddite in me, even though I use lots of tech toys. But I still cannot find a use for Twitter. I just cannot (or don't want to) digest a stream of short messages in my work. I keep thinking I may go back to Twitter, but I doubt I have anything to say in it that I cannot say to friends on Facebook, or to my class via the class Moodle forums. But I will play with it one more time, just to see how it works for me.

13. arrive2__net - August 17, 2010 at 07:02 pm

I have started to use Twitter a lot during the past few months, although I still have a lot to learn. Articles like this, and the previous ones it has links to, really help to open my eyes to what is available, and helps me to consolidate what I have learned or guessed by experience.

I really use hashtags a lot. Hashtags seem to really help the tweet get some circulation. The 140 limit really helps me to learn to be brief, to be creative with how I say it, and to think about what part of the message really matters most. It often makes for a real challenge in composing a Tweet.

Bernard Schuster
Twitter: arrive2_net

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