Twitter for scientists… is it worth it?

Way back in 2012 I set up a twitter account and I used it just like I did facebook: to follow friends, discuss what was on TV and talk about celebrities. It quickly lost its charm. When I started my PhD in 2013, I started posting about the stresses of PhDs, interesting science facts and promoting conferences. My followers didn’t interact, there was nobody to relate with and so I made the decision to make a new ‘professional’ account. Fast forward 7 years and I no longer have my previous twitter account, and despite the majority of my posts focusing on some aspect of science or academia, it is also a reflection of me as an individual. I post about snow… because I love snow! I post about science-themed crafts… because I like to do crafts with a nerdy science theme. But now, when I post about deadline stress and unsuccessful grants, I have interactions with other scientists, which picks me up and gives me the opportunity to talk with people who really get what I am saying. But was it worth the effort, and how did I build up the kind of followers/following that I wanted?

Figure credit: Chris J David on unsplash.com

Find interesting people to follow:
Maybe you know a few scientists who you admire or work with, who have twitter. Give them a follow and then go and look at their profile. Who do they interact with? Any names that you recognise? Then give them a follow too!
It may seem creepy or strange to begin with, when you follow people who you don’t know in person, but that’s the beauty of twitter. It allows you to interact with a scientist, without having to stand awkwardly next to them at a conference until they notice you.
A good way to find scientists in your field is to follow union/society/institution profiles (e.g EGU_CR). They will likely have a lot of followers or interactions. They are more likely to post regularly and something that is relevant for you.
Another great aspect of twitter is a hashtag, these look like this #HashtagExample. Find a hashtag that is interesting to you e.g #FieldworkFriday and see who is tweeting about this. Celebrations and events such as Antarctica Day, International Women and Girls in Science, LQBTQ Stem Week, Black History Month and others, are a great way to find like-minded people. There is usually a hive of activity on these days and with hashtags that you can track. I often have waves of new people that I follow on these days… and it is great!

How to increase your followers:
Everyone wants to know they are not shouting into the abyss when they post something. But how do you increase your followers? Three main ways: follow others, edit your bio and actively tweet. If you are following your everyday scientists (not the semi famous or actual famous kind), then chances are, most of them will follow you back. People are more likely to follow you back, if you have information in your bio. This can say whatever you like, it is a reflection of you! Lots of people make it clear that they are scientists, and even describe their field, so that others know they are not a bot… or a climate change denier! This is what mine says:

It describes the aspects of my career that I like to highlight (scientist, researcher, communicator, atmospheric modeller, ECS rep), and parts of my life outside of my job (tweeter, knitter, netballer, gin drinker). Some people have funny sayings or clever puns, others keep it simple and just say what they research and where they do it.
The third way to increase followers: tweet. It sounds obvious, but people are interested in discussion and interaction. If it looks like you’ve had twitter for years but never tweeted, perhaps people will be less likely to follow you. But the first few tweets can be nerve-wracking. Nobody wants the horror of reliving their first facebook posts (so bored… what’s everyone doing?) all over again.

Get started! Your first tweet:
Introduce yourself. Since I first had twitter, they’ve extended the character limit, so you can say a decent amount about yourself now. Here are a few options, please feel free to use them!
‘Hi, I’m XX, an atmospheric PhD student at the University of Science in Poland. My research focuses on transport of dust to glaciers. Outside of science, I love to play darts, bake cakes and water my plants.’
‘Hello twittersphere… I’m new here but really excited to interact with other scientists and cyclists. Can anyone recommend some fun accounts to follow? I’ve recently moved to YY city, so any local cycle routes would also be ideal!’
‘First tweet and first day at my new role as science communicator at XX institute… not sure which is scarier. Will be great to interact with other #scicomm people out there. Give us a shout!’

And now what?
You’ve sent your first tweet, phew! Now the easy job, just be yourself. If you want to post about your cool new results, then do it. Maybe you want to rant because you’ve spent weeks running an experiment only to find out it failed after an hour. Maybe you want to highlight the deadline of an interesting conference. Do it! Write whatever you are comfortable with. Lots of scientists and science communicators write about their struggles with academia, finding a job, mental health and other things. But if this feels daunting to you, then write about your successes, failures, science, non-science. If you only want to write about science and academia, that’s fine. Maybe your passion is climbing or baking or drawing, so tweet about that. Twitter is a world of likeminded people, who are genuinely interested in hearing about your dog, new science, fieldwork fails or the weather.

Any downsides?
Sure, you’ve heard about celebrities being bullied on twitter and you’re worried it might happen to you? I personally have had a very positive experience with twitter. But that’s likely related to the fact that I am a white, straight, cis female, with comparatively few followers and no controversial opinions (or at least I don’t air them on twitter… it’s nobody else’s business that I like pineapple on a pizza). I’ve blocked a few people who told me I was a liar for discussing climate change (if you have the energy to debate and try to change their mind, go ahead, but its 2021 and we’ve known about climate change for 50+ years now… I don’t have the energy). Block, mute and unfollow anyone you want. Keep twitter as your safe space.
The biggest issue I have is procrastination. I can spend hours scrolling through twitter, especially when I have a deadline looming. Sometimes it feels like work, because I find an awesome paper to read, or I network with people who become collaborators. Switch of notifications or limit your screen time to help this!

End on a high:
Twitter has been a world of wonder for me. I have ‘met’ a whole bunch of cool scientists that I would never have known about. My world has been widened too: I follow lots of scientists of colour and those who are in the LGBTQIA+ community, which has highlighted topics and issues that I didn’t know about. I have found cool groups to join (sci-comm crafting is a dream) and become friends with people that I didn’t know before. I follow archaeologists, space scientists, microbiologists and more! It has been a useful tool for teaching and finding unions or societies. It also shows that you are not alone. There will definitely be someone else on twitter who is interested in your quirky, nerdy pastimes, or who will be there to talk if you need it. Give it a go!

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