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Smarts and All: The Good, Bad, and Downright Ugly of Academic Twitter




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Twitter is a big deal. With 396.5 million users as of writing, 206 million accessing the platform every single day, and 8.85% of the social media population using it, it’s perhaps no surprise that academics use it as well. They tweet about their research, resources, articles; they provide advice, answer questions, re-post job openings – and they complain about a sector that is, in many ways, crashing and burning in the UK.

 


As a student and researcher with The University of St Andrews, I’m relatively active in the Twittersphere when it comes to academia. I’ve found friends, collaborators, and colleagues on the platform, and have had my eyes opened to so many new research areas and ideas that the result has led to a very mind-boggling list of dissertation ideas for my final year. It is a weird and wonderful world, and it deserves our attention.  

 


If you want to join ‘academic twitter’, the best place to start is probably @AcademicChatter, an account which promotes academics and tweets to do with academia. If you want to know about it from the outside, though, the best place to look would be Erin Kaseda’s 2020 article for the American Psychological Association, where she details the useful parts of academic tweeting.  

 


According to Kaseda, the academic community on Twitter can help you communicate when it might otherwise be difficult (e.g., during the Covid-19 pandemic), share resources, promote conversation and conferences, and promote self-care and WFH (work-from-home) content. Scholars can interact through hashtags, ranging from chat about PhDs to academics with cats, and dig at all the unique aspects of academic life – from publishing houses to the peer review process, to the woes of ‘publish or perish’. 

 


But what are the specific benefits of academic Twitter? Why use it?  

 


The main benefit would be the ease of connection that Twitter offers to the academic community. This was thrown into sharp relief during the Covid-19 pandemic, when in-person conferences and general departmental chat was somewhat hampered by Teams and Zoom getting in the way. Academic communities were disrupted – and this led to various recommendations for academics to join the Twitter community, to try and preserve the open conversation and networking that is so important to academia. 

 


Another benefit would be the opportunity it offers to manage expectations. Academia is tricky game to play, and many papers have been written discussing the mental health crisis amongst academics. In 2017, 37% of academics identified as having a mental health disorder, and 43% of academics had symptoms of depression, anxiety, and burnout (article here). The culture of research and academia is ‘hyper-competitive’, with strong pressure on academics to continually push themselves. This only contributes to the stress induced by the nature of the job, which has been convincingly described by one lecturer I spoke to as ‘five jobs in one’ 

 


The academic community on Twitter discuss the difficulties of academic life, and there are various hashtags and drives aimed at encouraging open conversation around academic mental health, and encouraging academics to take a break and look after their mental health. 

 

 

 Perhaps the greatest benefit from an outside perspective, too, has been the opportunity for students to understand that academics are real people too. We’re all guilty of treating our teachers like they’re superhuman – whether that’s getting annoyed when thirty practice exams aren’t returned the next day, or being unnecessarily critical when they make mistakes – and, at least for me, academic Twitter has allowed me to consciously stop myself from doing so. When you see the kinds of tweets your lecturers like (cats, Soviet visuals, or memes about Alexander the Great), you’re really pushed to see that these are real people, just like the rest of us. 

 


Clearly, there are sizeable benefits to academic Twitter – and even more than I’ve mentioned here. But is it all rosy? 

 


The answer is, of course, no. 

 


One problem is the tricky balance between professionalism and personality. Twitter is a social media platform, which, in its nature, arguably encourages some personal force behind the content that you post on it. But if you’re using Twitter for academia, it might be tricky to do that. Elizabeth Voss, the social media manager for the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is quoted by Evitts Dickinson (2019) as saying just that: ‘The weird thing about Twitter is that it walks the line between professional and personal. You can have a professional presence, but it’s also you on there.’ There’s an argument that, if you want to be taken seriously as an academic, you should keep your Twitter strictly to academia – and that can’t be easy for everyone. 



Another is the nature of your research. If you’re tweeting about niche interpretations of Bergson or Nietzsche, you’re unlikely to get much backlash. However, if you’re tweeting about political events, or systemic racism, or even vaccine efficiency, you’re going to get more of a backlash from the general public no matter your academic credentials.





Johns Hopkins University historian Dr Martha S James found this after she tweeted about the slave trade in 2018, in response to the forced separation of children from their families at the US-Mexico border by the Trump administration. The backlash got so bad that she ended up seriously considering leaving Twitter. 

 


Then, the dreaded word: theft. The danger is always there that, if you tweet too freely about what you’re working on, someone might just take a fancy to it and poach it right out of your hands. You might have the proof of the tweet, but that’s it – and that’s not enough.  

 


Clearly, we can see that academic Twitter has its ups-and-downs 

 

 

And the technical problems of the profession aren’t the only thing that makes academic Twitter so difficult. There is also the question of morality to consider. 

 


Many academics became very concerned about the reports of Elon Musk potentially buying out Twitter earlier in 2022, and, although this has not manifested – indeed, Musk is actually being sued by Twitter after pulling out of the deal - it led to some interesting conversations about just how deeply Twitter has become ingrained in academic life. In his May article, Mark Carrigan has written about how Twitter has become something that universities seem to expect from their staff – and how Musk buying the platform out has led to some interesting ethical conversations about the use of the social media platform.  

 


Charlie Warzel, a media analyst, considered three suggestions for what might happen after Musk’s takeover. Perhaps, in the (worryingly) best scenario, the tools Twitter uses to prevent trolling and harassment would be removed, and those who are members of any minority group would face the hateful comments that they have escaped for the past few years. The worst scenario, then, would see Twitter transformed into something like its right-wing alternative, Parler, where banned accounts could be restored for ‘free speech’. This understandably led to many academics considering deleting their Twitter accounts and migrating to another platform (such as Discord). 

 


But it isn’t that simple. As said above, Twitter has become a very important part of academic life, and despite its problems, it does have clear benefits, as discussed previously. Moving the community so quickly from Twitter would also risk splitting it up, and the assumption that there would be one alternative to Twitter that works for everyone is a problematic one at best. 

 


So it seems quite simple. While Twitter has its flaws, it has done manifest good for the academic community, and created a space that is both professionally and personally beneficial to those within it. The positives outweigh the negatives, and now, as Mr Musk retreats into the distance from the £44 billion takeover he promised mere months ago, it looks like academic Twitter is here to stay.  

 


Anna Coopey

4th year undergraduate student in Classics at The University of St Andrews in Scotland. Keen writer and researcher on a number of topics, varying from Modern Greek literature to revolutionary theory. 
Twitter: @anna_coopey 


Works Cited:

Leave, Adapt, Resist – Time to Rethink Academic Twitter? (2022) - https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2022/05/03/leave-adapt-resist-time-to-rethink-academic-twitter/
The Promise and Peril of Academia Wading Into Twitter (2019) - https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2019/spring/more-academics-turn-to-twitter/
The 10 Commandments of Academic Twitter (2022) - https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/10-commandments-academic-twitter
The Weird and Wonderful World of Academic Twitter (2015) - https://www.timeshighereducation.com/weird-and-wonderful-world-academic-twitter
The Young Academic’s Twitter Conundrum (2017) - https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/05/the-young-academics-twitter-conundrum/525924/
Understanding Mental Health in the Research Environment (2017) - https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2022.html
#AcademicTwitter - https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2020/05/academic-twitter#:~:text=Academic%20Twitter%20is%20a%20powerful,with%20colleagues%20across%20the%20globe
Smarts and All: The Good, Bad, and Downright Ugly of Academic Twitter Reviewed by Anna Coopey on Tuesday, July 26, 2022 Rating: 5
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