Demonstrating the Scholarship of Twitter

Introduction

This post is the third installment of CIT’s new blog series, “Demonstrating the Scholarship of…,” in which we provide arguments and strategies for individual scholars to link their own particular suite of non-traditional means to traditional ends. This post articulates the mutual interdependence of social media engagement and digital humanities research, shares ideas for making this feedback loop more rewarding and efficient, and offers arguments for the significance of casual academic online communication as a mode of strengthening your scholarship.

Asking the question “Does Twitter count as scholarship?” is tantamount to opening the Pandora’s box of digital scholarship. For William Pannapacker, the answer was clear in the title of a blog post he wrote while reporting from the 2012 MLA Convention: “Twitter Is Scholarship.” Pannapacker touches on a variety of Twitter’s affordances, including users’ ability to check in to conferences they are not attending (or, if they are attending, other panels than the one they’re physically attending), network with potential future collaborators, and air out ideas in front of a very large audience. But Pannapacker’s position has become a far more rare one since 2012. We’ve seen controversies over academic Twitter beyond Stephen Salaita, which treat Twitter as an eccentric habit, a waste of time, or even destructive, and many of us have found that, when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion, it is not counted as scholarship by the committees and administrators who are evaluating tweeters.

Even Twitter users have gotten into the habit of deprecating Twitter in a more benign way, citing Twitter as a kind of productive non-productivity, while one of the most important academic Twitter accounts (@ShitAcademicsSay) was, as Nathan Hall explains in this post for the Chronicle, begun because he “had done everything needed for tenure and was unusually motivated to do something that did not need a good reason.” Yet, eventually, Hall could not avoid the academic’s siren song of making non-work look a lot like work, as he “began to pay attention to follower and tweet analytics, curate content for international exposure and cross-disciplinary appeal, and even created a graduate course on the topic as well as a parallel Facebook page that now reaches up to 1.5 million followers a week.” For every lol-worthy PhD Comic on “Why Academics REALLY Use Twitter,” then, there are well-articulated arguments expressing the scholarly value, the work-iness, of social media engagement.

Fortunately, many universities, departments, and academic organizations have been busy creating guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship, and some include comments on social media engagement: refer to the MLA’s own guidelines, or, for more, this comprehensive bibliography of such guidelines from the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative. But for the purposes of this post, the short answer – the responsible short answer – is no. If what you are looking for is tenure in a traditional institution, no, Twitter does not count as scholarship. As sad and unfortunate as it may be, assistant professors who have argued that it is have always not fared well in their tenure cases or, at the very least, have experienced a lot of uncomfortable pushback that affects their status in their department. As Ruth Starkey explains, there is a gap between individuals who are social-media friendly and institutions (which presumably are not), creating “a stark opposition between an assertion of individual progressiveness and a hesitation about institutional entrenchment.”

Rather than unwisely raise your hopes, this post will not struggle against this unfortunate fact. I believe that the place for that level of academic Twitter advocacy is in the creation or revision of official standards and guidelines within academic organizations and within department-, college-, and university-level documentation for tenure and promotion. (At the end of his piece for the Chronicle, David Perry has also listed other means for such advocacy.) What this post will do is provide concepts and phrases for reframing Twitter as an indispensable research tool that makes your scholarship better and provides new opportunities for sharing it. Even though you probably should not list your tweets under the “publication” section of your CV or dossier, you can articulate how your engagement on Twitter contributes to your research and service obligations.

 

Non-Traditional Means, Traditional Ends

Twitter, and social media in general, provide new tools for scholarly communication. Louise Spiteri usefully summarizes the use of Twitter by arguing that “social media tools…support every phase of the research lifecycle,” thus providing a “complement to” but not a “replacement for” traditional research. Morgan Polikoff has explained that Twitter, for him, is “immensely powerful for actually getting research done” because he is “much more informed about research” that his colleagues have done, and other scholars concur (such as Carole McGranahan).

I liken checking your Twitter feed to opening a daily newspaper of what is going on in your disciplinary field and in the digital humanities. Being active on Twitter will introduce you to new people, new problems, new research, and new conversations. It is an asynchronous conference that never ends and takes all comers. Put another way, Twitter allows you to take the temperature of your field, and although this may not be a statistically significant sample size (depending on your field and on the number of accounts you follow), it undoubtedly serves the function of hallway conversations during breaks at academic conferences.

Speaking of conferences, through Twitter, you can virtually attend conferences without any travel whatsoever (without any travel funding) as your colleagues begin to spout elaborately hash-tagged reports of conference goings-on. I’ve especially benefited from learning about conferences I never knew existed, and from learning about presentations in fields beyond my home discipline. Because conferences are often in full swing on the weekends, this kind of Twitter engagement helps to keep you “around” colleagues while you are at home for the weekend. For conferences you are attending, you can more fully participate in them. You can follow parallel panels by reading your Twitter feed, learn about spontaneous or planned gatherings taking place during the lunch or evening hours, and (without actively putting any special work into doing so) begin to get a feel for the “next new thing” or trending topics in your field.

Beyond the fact that engaging on Twitter offers similar kinds of value as attending conferences, many studies suggest that academic tweets are more likely than other tweets to be retweeted or responded to, and that work shared by Twitter has a higher chance of being read and cited. Refer to this helpful roundup of research findings, to Melissa Terras’ great post about the impact of social media on her readership, to danah boyd’s bibliography of research about Twitter’s effectiveness, and to this literature review of research on the topic. You can, in other words, use Twitter to promote your own scholarship. But do so wisely, generously, tactfully, not cynically: your feed will not gather followers if all you do is tweet about your own publications and accomplishments. Wait for, and then seize, the moment. Genuine interactions – responding to others’ tweets and work, answering questions – take effort, but that effort will be repaid.

Finally, considering doing scholarship about Twitter. Use your own disciplinary methods to investigate Twitter, either as a cultural phenomenon in general or as an academic one in particular. I’ve published a peer-reviewed journal article comparing the algorithmic compression in tweets to Henry James’s late style, and I’m currently at work on a study of gendered trends in academic conference tweeting. Nathan Hall, mentioned above as the force behind @ShitAcademicsSay, explains in his own academic research on Twitter in an interview: “Since January of this year I’ve run three studies and recruited up to 9,000 people across almost 80 countries for research examining well-being and self-regulation in grad students and faculty. I’m looking at issues ranging from motivation and values, to procrastination, depression, work/life balance and coping strategies. I also look at hidden failure experiences that people don’t talk about.” Hall’s grant-funded Twitter research, in addition to being worthwhile as traditional research, thus increases its ethical significance by turning our gaze on ourselves, the academic community.

 

Impact

From the early conception of a project to gathering research, from soliciting unofficial peer review of a research project to promoting its dissemination in its various “final” forms, Twitter engagement impacts the impact of your scholarship. William Wolff, in a six-year-old post that still feels accurate and fresh, has called this kind of digital engagement and encouragement of scholarship “evidence of reflection” (emphasis original), making each tweet itself a micro-proof of the evolution of your research. To be able to articulate your own narrative for this social media-research feedback loop, keep track of which projects, research, CFPs, etc, that you find out about through Twitter.

Though we all can’t get in ProfHacker’s 15 Indispensable Academic Twitter Accounts or experience a similarly prestigious knighting as academic social media royalty, don’t be (too) ashamed to name-drop who is following you. Know the Storifies your tweets get in, as well as the tweets in which your work is invoked and discussed by others. Other users’ engagement with you through social media comprise a parallel roster of citations for your work. If you host your work on a personal website or blog, use analytics to track how many site visits originated through Twitter. For automatically generating numbers to explore the impact of your tweets, explore alt-metrics apps, which can gather data from social media that track user engagement with any of your publications with DOIs.

Better yet, explore Twitter’s new analytics feature, which generates month-by-month trends from its data on users’ engagement with your profile and tweets. You can discover your own patterns: Are you tweeting more or less frequently? And if it’s less, have you seen a decrease in visits to your personal website as a result? This new feature tracks how many followers you have, how many times other Twitter users interacted with your tweets (your “impressions”) and how many times you were mentioned. It lists that month’s most popular tweet and provides a sum of your mentions that month, as well as identifies your most loyal follower.

Paying attention to analytics can show you what kinds of Twitter engagements have the most impact. Synthesizing these analytics from other social media, blogs, websites, and traditional scholarly metrics, can help you see which of your research projects people are most interested in. A cynic might say that following the analytics – letting them influence what you research or how you represent your scholarship to the public – is itself a cynical operation, a shallow bid for popularity. But, looked at in another way, it’s a measure of what people need from you. It shows you what parts of your work are most valued by the public and the scholarly community. In my mind, this is the most empowering aspect of social media usage: it shows you that your work matters.

 

Combating Counterarguments

  1. Twitter isn’t real writing. If you define “real writing” as the particular genre of “academic prose that is published in peer-reviewed venues,” then, sure, it isn’t. If what you mean by “real writing” is “writing that other people can access and many of them will pay attention to,” then it is. Even with a conservative definition of “real writing,” Twitter is one way to start writing, to shake off mental moss. Furthermore, each tweet is an opportunity for low-stress writing or for practicing how to polish your prose as you write and revise each 140-character nugget. One academic even argues that sharing our work on social media will help us “learn how to write more clearly.”
  2. It isn’t peer-reviewed, so it isn’t research. This is a strong argument, but engagement with your tweet (criticism, retweeting, responding, favoriting) shows peer responses. And it’s much faster than the slow process of “real” peer review, so it’s a tradeoff between quality and quantity (although some of the harshest – and best – criticisms of my work have come through me through Twitter DMs or responses). It is early, informal peer review. But even if it isn’t research, you might be able to argue that it is a service activity. (The AAAL’s P&T guidelines, for example, say that social media, as non-peer reviewed publications, are more likely to be considered service than research. But before you do this, read David M. Perry’s post on “sustained public engagement” as “a level of activity that goes beyond single tweets or single groups of tweets, or single public essays.”)
  3. You’re wasting so much time. Decide what kinds of activities you do through Twitter – research, informal peer review, polling, public outreach – and then defend the time-worthiness of those activities. For example, is public engagement a waste of time, or a necessity that ensures our continued relevance? If you do feel that your use of Twitter is distracting you, make changes in the way you interact on Twitter so that it does not take more time than you want it to. Consciously know when you’re checking it and when you won’t, or use efficiency apps like SelfControl that can block you from the site for a period of time you designate.
  4. Twitter is ephemeral. Twitter is all about time, and your feed privileges the new and the now (though this is somewhat changing). You can use Storify to organize and preserve a series of tweets, while analytics, as mentioned above, to cut against this ephemerality by giving you a history of other users’ interaction with your tweeting activities. Moreover, what Twitter leads to is very often not ephemeral.

 

Verbs and Phrases

You should cultivate a set of ready-at-hand, blurb-friendly ways of speaking about your engagement on Twitter. Here are some to get you started:

Public outreach

Discoverability

Virtual conferencing

Enhanced conferencing

Early, informal peer review

Non-hierarchical networking

Impacts the impact of your work

Self-promotion through social media

Necessary but not sufficient condition

“Evidence of reflection” (William Wolff)

Does it count? versus Does it contribute?

Tool for practicing how to write clear prose

Newspaper for recent research in your field

Keeping in touch with colleagues around the world

Asynchronous or synchronous sharing of new ideas

Contributions to your service and research obligations

Service to the profession rather than research publication

“Social media tools to support every phase of the research lifecycle” (Louise Spiteri)

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