To Tweet or Not to Tweet

Catherine J. Denial

A simple diagram illustrating the network effect. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the things that the pandemic has made abundantly clear over the last few, difficult months is the power of connection—both in its presence and in its absence. Interpersonally, we have foregone in-person community to keep those communities safe; we have observed the rituals of a changing year over Zoom and in texts and via email. Some of us have shared small spaces with extended families, all trying to make that one wifi signal work for so many needs. Others have been isolated, seeking solace in the reach of the web. Professionally, too, we have lost the opportunity to see colleagues face-to-face, to sit with students, and to benefit from the serendipitous moments of connection at conferences. We have reached out through the Internet, on platforms we may not have known a year ago, using software that likely bedeviled us on our first try.

Twitter is one platform that offers us the means to build connection with colleagues all over the world—the online equivalent of coffee lines and questions after a panel, of panels themselves, of conversation in a hallway, of browsing a book exhibit. I’m a professor at a small liberal arts college located in the rural Midwest, and I’ve used Twitter for all these reasons for nearly six years. I am the only Early Americanist in my small department, and my budget for faculty development opportunities is almost nil. This can (and did) lead to real isolation. But Twitter offered up connection—the ability to see colleagues report on their research in real time, to ask them questions, to hear about grants and fellowships, to build a network of professional acquaintances, and even to make new friends.

Twitter can, however, feel overwhelming to the uninitiated, and sometimes a trash fire even to those familiar with how it works. So here’s my best advice on how to make the most of Twitter in this moment and beyond:

  1. Choose your username deliberately. It’s possible to ask twitter to generate your username, and it’s possible to create one that’s your name followed by a string of numbers to differentiate you from other people with your name who are already online. But both approaches will give you a username that will make you look like a bot. (A bot is an AI-generated account generally used to spread disinformation, bait people into argument, or harass people.) I block anyone who follows my account who has a string of numbers in their username, for example, because it’s such a tell-tale sign of bot activity. Your username does not need to be witty or clever, but it should be something that communicates you’re real.
  2. Populate your profile with a header image and photo (which doesn’t necessarily have to be a headshot). Tell people who are you in terms that make sense to you. Without these things you will, again, look like a bot to people who are weighing whether to interact with you.
  3. Search for a few people whom you’re excited to follow. Look up historians you admire. See which people those historians follow, and check their feeds to see if you’d like to follow them too.
  4. Engage. Start talking to people. Tell someone congratulations when they celebrate getting into a program, or securing a job, or earning tenure, or publishing a book. Ask genuine questions. Talk about things you love with people who share those passions.
  5. Post. Talk about what’s happening in your professional life. Share when you achieve something. Write up a lesson that went well. Ponder the connection between your research and a current event. Retweet something that caught your attention and add your commentary.
  6. Be intentional about curating your feed. Look at people’s profiles and the things they tweet about and see if what they’re saying is something you’d often like to read. Sometimes, looking to see if people you respect are following an account can help you make this decision, but you are just as likely to be the first person in your circle to find something new. Don’t just follow everyone who follows you. If your feed is too negative, trim it down.
  7. Protect yourself. Choose very deliberately what you will and will not share with the world, whether that’s in terms of establishing a professional identity or keeping your face off the web. And use the block button to keep away the trolls.

Twitter is far from a paradise—there is no denying the dismal management the site is under, or the proliferation of far-right accounts, or the dog-piling and harassment that people suffer when their tweets go viral or their follower count heads into the multiple thousands. But if you curate your feed; if you seek out the best of the place instead of the worst; if you mindfully use the site instead of making it the place you hang out all the time there’s an immense amount to gain from being there. I am connected to thousands of people who don’t look, think, teach, write, live, or learn like me on that platform, and my life is all the richer for it.

24 February 2021

About the Author

Catherine J. Denial is Bright Distinguished Professor of American History at Knox College.

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