I have been on twitter as a historian for over a year and I’ve put together a few lessons I’ve learned in that time.
- Know your audience – the one you have and the one you want
The best way to get the most out of Twitter as an academic is to know whom you are trying to reach. If you just want to keep in touch with a handful of specialists in your field versus bring your research to the masses you will need a very different approach. The more people you want to reach, the catchier you will have to be both in terms of your writing and your visuals. You don’t have to resort to cheap clickbait, it just takes some creativity. I make sure to post daily with an easily legible format that includes pictures and links to more media when possible. This works for me because I find it fun to do and it helps me to expand my knowledge of my research field more broadly. If the people are you are trying to reach most just want the facts and will be turned off by lots of extraneous material, then the public engagement approach may be counter-productive. Figure out whom you are trying to talk to and what you are trying to get out of the experience and tailor your TL accordingly.
- Check your facts – everyone else will
You may have an audience of seven when you are on your game, but as soon as you make a factual error, your audience will suddenly become global. I’ve been tweeting daily on East German history for over a year and every time I’ve been sloppy or published a tweet without properly checking my facts, my mentions explode with corrections. You post the wrong photo of a Trabant engine, improperly describe military equipment, or mistranslate a headline and the great collective wisdom of the crowds will very quickly let you know of your mistake. I appreciate people taking the time to tell me I’ve screwed up, but I’d be happier if they didn’t have to make the effort. That being said, some mistakes are inevitable, so when you mess up, graciously acknowledge it and move on.
- Engage with friendly people – take the time to respond
There are a lot of people out there who aren’t academics or specialists in your field who will be interested in your work if you are willing to make it accessible. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who have experiences and knowledge who can help you understand your work in new ways. Just by answering questions from people who read your timeline, you can do a lot to disseminate your expertise and introduce your work to a broader audience. I’ve had a chance to talk with novelists, film-makers and football fans from all walks of life who saw something I posted that interested them. I’ve also had a chance to talk to many people who lived through the events I’m talking about who have been incredibly knowledgeable and interesting. If people take the time to get in touch and ask questions, it’s worth the effort to respond in kind.
- Zap trolls on contact – don’t be afraid to mute and block
That being said, the internet is also home to legions of horrible trolls who have no intention of engaging with you in a way that is productive or useful. If someone is abusive, you have no obligation to respond. If someone is annoying, you have no obligation to respond. Mute them if they seem harmless, block them if they seem like they are actively vicious. You are not shutting down free speech or censoring someone by blocking them – you are actually facilitating engagement with those who are legitimately interested in it.
- Never tweet angry – don’t give in to the dark side
Twitter is a terrible venue for nuanced argument and at times it feels like it’s designed to ratchet up misunderstanding in as short a time as possible. You have 140 characters and all of your professional training has set you up to express your thoughts in 140 word sentences so it always feels like you need one more tweet to finally say what you really meant. If you start to get into an argument via twitter, the inability to finish your thoughts, overlapping dialogue, and miscommunication easily leads to frustration and aggravation. There is no shame to pause for a few minutes to collect your thoughts, to take a discussion offline, or to just decide it’s not worth it and walk away. Discretion is often the better part of valor. Being rude through silence can be better than drifting into a very public shouting match by accident.