Monday, 27 July 2015

"It's just a platform for narcisists" and other twitter myths

I’ve been using twitter for just under a year. I started using it pretty reluctantly, because I needed to teach sessions on social media and my lack of knowledge about Twitter made me less credible. I was sceptical that it could be useful, insightful, or in any way a part of my life.

And I was so wrong.

Twitter isn’t perfect. Mostly because it’s used by real-life people, and real-life people aren’t perfect. But it continues to surprise me.

1)      “You can’t post anything meaningful in 140 characters, so why bother?”

The 140-character limit is a challenge, I’ll admit. I find myself re-phrasing what I want to say and abbreviating words. Does this have a detrimental impact on what I want to say?  Not really. But mainly because I don’t use twitter to post anything deeply meaningful.

So, no, I won’t be composing 140-character summaries of late medieval gender practices. Nor will anyone else. But what they might do (and what I like to do) is use twitter a signpost to something that doesn’t have a 140-character limit: a blog post, an article, a study. 

Before I started using twitter, I thought of it as a self-contained platform. Now I think of it more as a series of signposts to all sorts of interesting, useful, challenging resources. 

2)      “It’s just a platform for narcissists.”

Before I signed up to using twitter, the concept of individual feeds (rather than walls as you have on facebook) seemed absurd. Surely, twitter was the online equivalent of a bunch of people in a room, each with a megaphone, each broadcasting their own opinions?

Well, yes and no.

It’s perfectly possible to use twitter purely as a platform for your own ideas. (That is, stand in the room shouting into your megaphone.) However, what has pleasantly surprised me is that it’s just as easy (and seemingly socially-acceptable) to respond to what other people are saying. (That is, it’s perfectly okay to hear someone else shouting into their megaphone, tap them on the shoulder and say ‘good point’ or ‘I disagree.’) And that's where things get interesting.

3)      “There aren’t going to be people like me using it.”

This is the one that seems most absurd in hindsight. There are so many PhD students, early career researchers and established academics using twitter. Hashtags like #phdchat #phd #acwri and #withaphd are platforms for reflection on the day-to-day experience of doing a phd, but also platforms for broader discussion. Although I don’t always agree with what other people are saying while using these hashtags (don't get me started on #phdweekend), hearing their voices gives you a certain sense of solidarity.

In my professional life, the same is true: most senior people at some of the most relevant organisations are on Twitter. Following them means I can develop my knowledge of this industry. Interacting with them (often through conference hashtags) means adding to debates and conversations that are happening in real time.

4)       “I don’t have anything to say.”

I’ve always had pretty wide-ranging interests, but this was a big worry at a time where I worked full-time and my only hobby was swimming. What would I tweet about? My walk to work? My lunch? How many lengths I’d done?

My life has changed a lot in the last six months. I now work and study in two interconnected industries. I also do a lot more in my free time (and in my city) than I used to. Because I’m pursuing so many different things that I’m interested in, it means that I can use my twitter to take part in several different conversations at any given time.  

(On a sidenote, it means I always feel sorry for new followers: if they’re following me for one thing, they’ll only be getting it about 30% of the time.)

5)       “Even if I did have something to say, who would care?”

In hindsight, this worry sits awkwardly alongside  2). On the one hand, I was worried that everyone else on twitter would be a narcissist. On the other, I was worried that my amazing, pithy, brilliant quips wouldn’t deserve the attention(and followers) they so obviously deserve(!).

In truth: I don’t have many followers. I often tweet things that don’t get replies. But that doesn’t really matter that much to me at this point in time. I'm still new to all the areas I tweet about: although I can pitch in with my opinions, I'm more interested in listening (or, reading) and learning.

This is the first social network I’ve used where I’ve been more focused on engaging with people  than trying to get attention for myself. And I think that’s a large part of why I enjoy using it so much.

6)      “What use is it to me, anyway?”

Given that before I got into it, I thought twitter was a haven for narcissists to [humble] brag, I would never have anticipated the generosity of spirit, time and expertise that you can find on twitter. 

People using #imc2015 meant that even though I couldn’t go to the conference, I could get some idea of what was being discussed. People using storify to record the discussions around certain sessions  (for example, the much-debated #s1041).

People like Jennifer Polk (@FromPhdtoLife) who curates twice-monthly PhD chats.

People like Dr. Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) and Dr Nadine Muller (@Nadine_Muller) who offer advice and practical guidance on how to tackle the shady beast that is the PhD process.

All of these people take time and effort to provide guidance or provoke discussion. 

The last thing you could call them is narcissists. 

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