A gentle introduction to tweeting for psychologists

If I tell people I’m on Twitter, I tend to get one of three reactions:

a) Isn’t it all about what Lady Gaga had for breakfast?
b) How do you find the time?
c) You?!!! (Implication: Twitter is for hip juveniles rather than fossilised academics)

This is unfortunate, because Twitter is a valuable resource for academics. If you’re allowing inaccurate stereotypes to deter you, you’re missing out.

First of all, you have to understand what Twitter is. It’s totally different from email, and more like a news broadcast. People all over the world are continually emitting tweets (very short messages), any of which can be viewed by anyone. You choose what you want to attend to. The default method is to ‘follow’ particular people or organisations who tweet. Their tweets then appear in your timeline, which appears as a scrolling list when you open Twitter (either in a Browser window or a standalone app on your phone, tablet, or PC).

If you want information about Lady Gaga, there’s plenty out there. But if you want information of a different kind, you can follow organisations such as the APS (@psychscience), NIH (@NIH), the New York Times (@nytimes), Nature (@nature), etc. etc. And of course, we hope that you will follow the Psychonomic Society (@Psychonomic_Soc). Most scientific organizations, newspapers, and science journals are on Twitter, and by following them you have an up-to-date news stream about their activities.

Many people, especially when starting out, are passive users of Twitter; they just follow people that interest them. A high proportion of tweets are messages pointing to a weblink, which may be a newspaper or journal article or a blog. This is where Twitter is such a useful resource for the academic: if you follow those who share your academic interests, they will point you to interesting stuff. This impressed me enormously when I first joined up: within the first few days, I’d been directed to two new papers in my field that were relevant to my work and that I hadn’t known about.

How do I get started?

You can Google to find plenty of good guides to the mechanics of tweeting, for example here.

To sign up, you need a username. Keep it fairly short and easy to type to make it easy for others to use it. You can be anonymous if you wish, but you’ll have more interesting interactions with others if they know who you are. A brief description of what you do and what your interests are will help kindred spirits discover you. You get the chance to select your avatar. It’s a good idea to have something other than the default picture of an egg – if you don’t want a photo of yourself, you can pick something symbolic, but aim to give yourself a distinctive presence.

How do I decide who to follow?

I started out by following my old friend and colleague Sophie Scott, and the first thing I did was to see who she was following. You can check out someone’s followers by clicking on their username at the top of a tweet. You’ll see their profile, with an indication of how many followers they have, and who is following them. Further clicking lets you read their recent tweets. So it’s easy to get an idea of whether you’d like to see their tweets on a regular basis: if yes, you follow them.

The people I follow are mostly (a) organisations/public media; (b) academics; (c) journalists and bloggers. I don’t use Twitter as a means of keeping up with friends – it’s too public and the short message format is not useful for that.

Getting fed up with tweets from someone you’re following? You can just unfollow them. They don’t get a message about this, so you can do it without embarrassment.

Active tweeting and attracting followers

You can have most fun with Twitter if you also tweet yourself. For the beginner, there is a problem: if you emit a tweet, the only people who will see it are your followers, and at the outset you have no followers. You may have something very amusing to say, or a really interesting paper just published, but it’s like standing at the top of a cliff and shouting into the wind. It helps to have tweeting friends. You can look for friends and colleagues by clicking on the ‘who to follow’ button, and if you find they have a Twitter presence, send a tweet mentioning their username to let them know you are there. With luck they’ll follow you and tell others about your presence.

You may also drum up followers by following others. This is where it is important not to be too secretive: if I get a new follower, I’ll see their name and the brief bio that comes along with it, and if they look interesting, I may check out what they’ve been tweeting to see if I want to follow them. Twitter etiquette does not require that you follow someone just because they follow you, but following someone is a way of indicating your presence to them.

Other ways to draw your tweeting to people’s attention is to reply to someone’s Tweets (a one-click option) or to use “hashtags” in your tweets. Hashtags act as keywords and are just words with the hash sign attached at the front, such as #neuroscience or #psychology. People who are searching on these topics will find your tweets and may decide to follow you.

If you are sending interesting tweets, the message will spread and you will gradually get a following. You may wonder how on earth you are supposed to generate those interesting tweets that will persuade people to follow you. You don’t have to. You can act as a transmitter for other people’s interesting tweets, by using the Retweet button below the tweet. This will just resend the tweet to your followers, preceded by RT and your username.

You should not despair if at first you don’t have many followers. Although it’s true that a famous name will attract followers in droves, there are plenty of people who aren’t famous, but who have hundreds or even thousands of followers just because they give good value.

What about spam?

When I started using Twitter, there was no spam in the main timeline, but those who own Twitter are understandably keen to make money and advertising is now allowed, in the form of ‘promoted tweets’. These are tweets from people you don’t follow and they are usually irritating. I have found if I block the sender (another option that takes a couple of clicks) they give up after a few days.

Many newbies are worried that they will get followed by odd people. That certainly will happen. But the nice thing is that it has very little impact on you. They can follow you as much as they like, but they won’t affect your stream of incoming tweets unless you follow them back. Various unsavoury characters will appear as followers for a day or two and then drop away. They hope that by following you you’ll take notice of them, but if you just ignore them they go away. The only bad thing that happens is that you have a fleeting moment of excitement at gaining a new follower, only to be disappointed to find they are someone who sees you as a potential customer.

The one place where you may get more intrusive tweets is if you look at your Notifications twitterstream (on some platforms this is called something else, like Mentions or Contacts). Now, instead of your usual stream of tweets by people whom you follow, you will see just those tweets that mention you by username, and these will not necessarily be from your followers. In general, if you get people mentioning you in tweets, this creates a warm glow that others are interested in your tweets, but there are people who will try to exploit this, and so you may find tweets that mention your name to lure you in to clicking a link to their website. In my experience, these are rare, and when they occur they are usually easy to spot. Never click on a link if you are unsure who it came from, especially if it says something like “Here’s a funny picture of you”. In such cases, click on the username to check out the sender. If you see they’ve sent the same message to many others, you should just report them for spam (which you can do with a couple of clicks).

What should I tweet?

Quite simply, tweet to others things you think will interest them. Looking at tweets by others should give you an idea of what makes for a good tweet. Many very famous people are hopeless tweeters, because they just describe the mundane details of their life. What I actually want are either amusing observations, or useful information. Some people use Twitter to record their stream of consciousness. Unless you’re James Joyce, this is very dull for everyone else, and just makes you look egotistical.

When you start tweeting, the 140 character limit seems impossible, but you learn by experience.  If you want to include a link to a website in a tweet, Twitter will shorten it for you, which helps.

As mentioned above, if I read a tweet by someone else that I think will interest my followers, I will retweet it. That’s a single click operation, one of the options given below each tweet. Retweeting is what makes Twitter such an effective communication medium: if an interesting message is retweeted by several people with many followers, who in turn retweet to their followers, it can rapidly spread all over the world.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll start to appreciate that tweets are a kind of currency; your status on Twitter is tied up with the extent to which you emit popular tweets. It is therefore as important to acknowledge the source of a good tweet as it is to reference an idea in a scientific article. If you use the retweet function, this happens automatically: the retweeted tweet will show both your name and that of the originator. What’s a definite no-no is to copy someone else’s tweet and resend it without acknowledging the source.

I’m more likely to unfollow someone who tweets too much rather than too little. Anyone who keeps repeating the same self-promotional message is quickly dropped from my list. If you have a blog or article you want to promote, it’s reasonable to plug it a few times on different days and at different times of day, to make sure the message gets out, but you’ll turn people off if you overdo it. If it’s interesting enough, your followers will do the work of promotion for you, by retweeting.

Remember, Twitter is totally public. I can search for someone’s name and then look at all their tweets. Never tweet anything that you would not want your friends and colleagues to see, or that could be deemed defamatory. There is a Delete option for tweets that you may regret, but by the time you select it, your tweet could have been sent all around the world.

How do you find the time?

It’s a big mistake to think you have to read every tweet that appears in your stream. I just turn to Twitter when I need distraction or entertainment. So you really don’t need to spend very long on Twitter unless you want to. The difficulty is that what’s happening on Twitter is often more interesting than what’s happening in other areas of life, and it can become quite addictive for that reason.

I hope that’s enough to persuade you to give Twitter a try.

This document is a shortened and updated version of this blogpost, which gives more detail of various Twitter options

You may also like