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The 10 commandments of academic Twitter

Lucas Lixinski offers tips on how to engage positively with the social media platform, from ‘honour thy hashtags’ to ‘thou shalt live-tweet at events’

Lucas Lixinski's avatar
UNSW Sydney
5 Apr 2022
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If you measure success on social media as having hundreds or thousands of followers on multiple platforms, this article is not for you. If, on the other hand, you measure success as resisting the pull of the social media black hole while still engaging with it and finding good people, good information and good ideas there, let’s chat.

Social media is a wonderful tool for pluralising access to information. It can also easily become an overwhelming wall of white noise and information that will consume all your waking hours. I participate in only one major channel professionally: Twitter. I find that managing multiple social media profiles is too time-consuming and that most of the interactions across multiple platforms will be repeat interactions, so there is little added value to multiple presences.

I also prefer, for my discipline and my way of working, Twitter as a (relatively) text-based platform, and one that works on the basis of shorter, to-the-point messaging (at least on paper), which allows me to weed through all the information available more easily.

But, of course, all social media can easily imperil its users if we aren’t careful. When I was considering joining Twitter, I received some useful advice, and I have since picked up some tips of my own. So here I bring you the 10 commandments of academic Twitter:

  1. Keep thy personal and professional personas separate to the extent it is practicable to do so (I never created a personal Twitter account as a result).
  2. Thou shalt create a handle identifying how you want to be known on Twitter (in academia, the primary field in which you are intervening, or even your specific intervention – which can absolutely change over time, and so can your handle) and not just you as a person.
  3. Thou shalt not covet following general news sites, for they will overwhelm you with information (go instead after journalists doing specific rounds that appeal to your professional interests).
  4. Honour thy hashtags, for they connect you to communities (and sometimes bots, sadly) who are interested in the things you tangentially discuss (a particularly good way to tap into area studies).
  5. Honour thy original content, rather than retweets, for it is far more likely to generate engagement.

I have stuck to these commandments and also added five more of my own:

  1. Thou do not need to tweet every day (after all, there are many other parts of the job that often take precedence).
  2. Thou shalt live-tweet at conference panels (it’s always a great way to engage with folks with whom you may not necessarily have the opportunity to chat, particularly at large conferences, not to mention getting the ideas out there in the world as the academic version of “breaking news”).
  3. Thou shalt never copy and paste a link and call that original content (instead of just pasting a link to your new paper or book, add a tweet or a short thread about the key takeaway lesson, and why it matters for your field/intervention; when pressed for time, I sometimes just put together a thread pasting the abstract).
  4. Thou shalt not just tweet a news story (add a sentence about your reaction to it, or a quote from the story that really caught your eye – it’s a quick way to make the content more original, as per above).
  5. Thou shalt remember to do the hard work of being an academic before taking to the internet, to keep academic Twitter holy.

The seventh and eighth commandments help a lot with starting conversations and getting new followers. The sixth gets in the way of “building my audience”, but I do it anyway. And the reason for sticking to that commandment is because, from where I stand, having a huge following on Twitter and being well known there is a nice little bonus for the job, but it is not part of my primary (nor secondary) duties. It is a pathway to impact, yes; but it is also one that happens largely in an echo chamber. Seldom for me have Twitter conversations turned into means to engage with the broader community (pitching directly to a journalist via email – so old-fashioned! – works best, in my experience).

My engagement with Twitter thus ebbs and flows. Followed by frenzied periods of tweeting around conferences, or significant events in the world to which my research speaks directly, I can sometimes go weeks only occasionally checking the platform to see what other people are up to (so much great stuff from the people I follow – thank you) and retweeting their content (preferably with a comment of my own adding to the conversation, re: the fifth commandment) or crafting tweets about news stories I read, as per the ninth commandment.

This process of short-burst engagement allows me to balance my life better and to avoid doom-scrolling. I treat Twitter like a work-related hobby, rather than my actual job. Sure, if I have half an hour between meetings, or I finished a big task earlier in the day and have no mental energy to start anything new in the two hours I have left, I will jump on Twitter, learn about fascinating new work in my area and make my opinion known.

However, and speaking to the 10th commandment, I am also very aware that, for me to be able to contribute original content as an academic, I need to do the hard work of learning so that I have something informed to say. Punditry is easy and attractive, and it may get you new followers and start exciting conversations (in the way that a roller coaster or a haunted house is exciting) but, like candy, there’s a crash after the rush. It is the broccoli of real research that will truly sustain you in social media.

Lucas Lixinski is a professor at the Faculty of Law and Justice, UNSW Sydney. You can become one of his 1,400+ Twitter followers by checking him out @IntHeritageLaw.

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