Six tips for biologists starting out on Twitter

Last week, I had an interesting conversation over coffee with some colleagues who don’t use Twitter.  There were a lot of concerns over whether Twitter was useful at all, and whether it was right for them in particular.  I imagine a lot of people (including scientists) are hesitant about taking the plunge and don’t have time to fiddle around trying to figure out how to use the tool.  First, for those who have not come across Twitter before, there is some terminology to cover:

  • Hashtags – these are tags denoted by the “#” character that group tweets according to particular topics.  For example, a recently published paper on avian phylogenies might be tagged as #bird #evolution.  This makes it easier for users to find and share relevant content.
  • Retweets – rather than generating all of your own content on Twitter, it is common practice to spread the content created by others.  If someone has posted something you found interesting, you can retweet (designated “RT” within the tweet) to push that back out to your followers.
  • Followers – the people who subscribe to tweets from your account are known as “followers” and you will see the option to “follow” other users on Twitter.  This is the audience for your tweets.

With those in mind, here are five tips that might make the initial steps easier:

  1. Find the right people to follow – it can be intimidating to be faced with an empty Twitter profile.  As a start, here are 10 accounts (with a variety of different content types) that can get you started (as a biologist):  Journals: Nature (@NatureMagazine), Trends in Ecology and Evolution (@Trends_Ecol_Evo), Ecology Letters (@EcologyLetters); Organisations: NERC (@NERCScience), British Ecological Society (@BritishEcolSoc), Wellcome Trust (@WellcomeTrust); Individuals: Sir Mark Walport (@UKScienceChief), Ed Yong (@EdYong209), Neil DeGrasse Tyson (@NeilTyson), Carl Zimmer (@CarlZimmer).
  2. Stalk to begin with – there’s no need to engage if you don’t have the time or interest.  Twitter is a stream of information that can be tapped whenever you are free, and that means you can be a passive receiver of information without the need to contribute. Try following a few people and see what comes up (see above for some ideas of who to follow).
  3. Use the right tools – the Twitter website offers basic functionality, but there are a lot of online and downloadable tools that can greatly enhance the experience.  I use Tweetdeck (an official Twitter application), which can be run as a downloaded application or within a web browser (so you can still use it if you don’t have admin rights on your computer).  Tweetdeck gives you the option to view search results, lists, and multiple accounts in parallel columns.
  4. Use lists to sort content – lists are invaluable as a way to organise people who you follow.  For scientists, consider a separate list for personal contacts, journals, funding bodies, and colleagues.
  5. Find other accounts within your institution – there is a wide range of Twitter accounts run at the University of Leeds. We have institutional accounts (@universityleeds, @seeleeds), research group accounts (@LdsUrbPolls, @wateratleeds), academic staff accounts (@LT_tech_HE, and my own, @katatrepsis), and research students (@petergraystock, @whatbehaviour).  Finding those accounts (and sharing them) will help you to promote and support your colleagues, while also finding out more about the work going on in your department.
  6. Get networking – the final step is to abandon step 2 and start to engage.  There is a remarkable amount of exchange that can occur with 140 characters, but you can’t think about it in the same way as other forms of communication.  Don’t be afraid to shorten words and abuse grammar to convey a point. Include hashtags so that your tweets are visible to a wider audience (if you’d like them to be). Include usernames so that you can be sure people receive a notification of the method. 
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