Twitter and Academia

Navigating the ‘Twitterverse’: Creating an Alternate Academic Persona via Social Media

Kimone Hyman

Launched in 2006, Twitter is still a relatively new form of digital and social media. While sites like Facebook were primarily created to share one’s life with family and friends via the web, Twitter enables users to share their opinions on a particular subject with anyone willing to engage in the conversation. However, Twitter is often misinterpreted as an overflow of trivial statements that are often “meaningless.” But according to Twitter users, both academic and non-academic, the “real genius” behind Twitter is its ability to create these conversations in the first place. And, therefore, how useful Twitter is to a user depends on the user’s willingness to not only participate in but contribute to these conversations. The result is a global forum in which academic professionals can gain a sense of ongoing topics and discussions inside and outside of academia, and perhaps acquire new perspectives on their particular area of study. However, navigating through the “Twitterverse” can be a daunting task as—depending on the number of individuals a user decides to follow—thousands or more tweets are published a day. Also, academics may need to take a different approach when trying to gain followers and interested parties on Twitter. While students taking a course in literature, for example, are more likely to be taking that course out of interest or necessity, Twitter followers may have no interest in the subject or may be already following individuals who are in that field of study. Therefore, it may be to the advantage of academic Twitter-users to develop an alternate academic persona.

While using certain language and participating in more strict academic discussions may be advantageous in the classroom, it may be necessary to lighten up on the language and seriousness when tweeting. Primarily because one is only allowed 140 characters per tweet, but also because not all Twitter-users are familiar with particular topics, and not all Twitter-users are academics. If the goal is to start a conversation, and include individuals outside one’s area of study as well as non-academics, it is in one’s best interest to be more flexible, friendly, and open-minded. Also, it is beneficial to engage in the discussions of one’s followers so long as professionalism is maintained. In a blog titled “6 Twitter Personalities that Make Me Frown”, blogger Lisa Irby (@2createawebsite) discusses individuals who “join Twitter [with]…absolutely no intention of providing value or developing meaningful relationships.” According to Lisa, these personalities “blast” other users “with @ replies about products and services,” however this category of user, which Lisa refers to as “The Self-Promoter,” can be related to academic Twitter-users who “blast” their followers with information regarding their particular goals or interests. These individuals do so in hopes of acquiring feedback, but neglect to concern themselves with the topics and discussions of their followers.

This “Self-Promoter” persona is problematic because it retains the division of the traditional academic lecture, in which the roles of producers of knowledge (professors, theorists) and recipients of knowledge (students) are rigidly defined. In an article published by the Guardian, entitled “How Twitter will revolutionise academis research and teaching”, Ernesto Priego (@ernestopriego) refers to the use of social and digital media as “a conversation, not a lecture.” This means that Twitter-users are both producers and receivers, and in order to benefit from such a relationship academic Twitter-users must be able to listen as well as speak. Therefore, it is crucial that academics seek to create an alternate academic persona when using Twitter. Priego explains that changes in oral tradition and literacy over the centuries have led to the development of “new relationship[s] between language and thought.” Priego explains that with the increasing popularity of using social media in academics, “something similar is happening today…Just like Augustine marveled, the year 400, at the sight of Ambrose reading in silence, many members of academia marvel (or react with rejection) at the rapid changes in the production and dissemination of scholarly work and interaction between academics and those ‘outside’ academic institutions.” The problem, according to Priego, is that academics are used to producing content, and therefore “the easy part of tweeting is publishing content.” The difficulty, according to Priego, arises from the other requirement for using Twitter— “committing to active public engagement.”

Ironically, it is the latter characteristic of Twitter from which academics can most benefit. According to a Wired Magazine article titled “How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense”, Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99
) suggests that “Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception [which] give[s] a group of people a sense of ‘itself.’” Thompson suggests that while single Twitter updates may appear trivial, over time one becomes more aware of the social network one creates on Twitter. “This awareness,” according to Thompson, “is crucial when [familiar, less familiar, and new] colleagues are spread around the office, the country, or the world.” Thompson explains that Twitter has been “misunderstood…Because it’s experiential.” However, according to Thompson, “scrolling through random Twitter messages can’t explain the appeal. You have to do it—and, more important, do it with friends.” In the context of this paper, “friends” include colleagues as well as other Twitter-users. But to add to Thompson’s comment about Twitter being “experiential,” and that being partly why it is “misunderstood,” there are numerous articles as well as YouTube videos dedicated to aiding Twitter-users in creating a presence among the hundreds of thousands who inhabit the Twitterverse (for example see the YouTube video: 10 twitter tips ).

One such article was published in 2009, when Twitter had already gained a diverse following due to the increase in celebrity Twitter-users, and also began to peak the interests of professionals in academia. The article, written by Jill Gordon, is entitled “100 Serious Twitter Tips for Academics”. Gordon wrote, “Twitter’s popularity has soared recently, and for good reason. What started as a simple way to update friends about daily life has grown into a powerful tool for business, communication, and education. While many campuses are just picking up on the educational rewards possible with Twitter, there is still plenty of room to create new and exciting ways to use Twitter on campus…” The article makes suggestions such as: create a Twitter account for a subject, class, or project, learn how to use Twitter and its features, learn “Twitter etiquette,” be prepared for not-so “diplomatic” responses to tweets, use hashtags (#) when tweeting about a particular subject in order to sort through the chaos, collaborate with instructors who are using Twitter for a similar purpose. Gordon also suggests that instructors post academic problems concerning Twitter itself so that others can offer solutions and tips. The article goes on to discuss more tips for using Twitter in the classroom, benefits for individual students, tips for professionals, and suggestions about who to follow.

In Jeffrey Young’s 2011 article “Academics and Colleges Split Their Personalities for Social Media”, Professor Kirsten A. Johnson of Elizabethtown College demonstrated the benefits of connecting with Twitter-users, including students. Johnson surveyed 120 students and discovered that the majority of those students felt that professors who mixed personal details among their academic tweets to be “more credible—rating them higher on measures of competence, trustworthiness, and caring.” Johnson’s theory is that students desire a connection, similarly Twitter-users may be more inclined to follow an academic Twitter-user who is able to mix personal and educational. However, some professors suggest a second option—creating an alternate academic persona by creating a professional account and a personal account. This way, users can follow according to their interest and perhaps following one account will persuade them to follow the other. Doing this also enables the academic user to enjoy Twitter as both a personal social tool and a public educational tool. Another benefit of this option is that a beginning academic Twitter-user can gain a sense of the Twitterverse via a personal account, then use this awareness to create an engaging academic personality on Twitter. Additionally, splitting up Twitter accounts minimizes mishaps such as the one experienced by Rosemary G. Feal (@rgfeal), executive director of the Modern Language Association. While watching the film Freedom Riders one night, Feal began “tweeting her reactions to the film’s footage of civil-rights activists in the 1960s [and] after posting more than a dozen updates, she realized she was using the Twitter account she had set up for work (@mlaconvention).” Feal commented that she realized “after two hours of live-tweeting that that wasn’t MLA-convention tweeting, that was Rosemary Feal, and she better have her own account.”

In the same article Professor Christian Brady of Pennsylvania State University, who also “splits his social-media identity,” clarifies that doing so is “not schizophrenic and it’s not to hide anything.” Brady has a personal account which is also related to academic research (@targuman) and an account related to his position as dean of the honors college (@shcdean). Both of Brady’s accounts are public, but “deciding which account to post to is a matter of considering his audience…Those looking to hear from the honors-college dean may have no interest in his research (ancient Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible), or in his collection of comic books.”  However, as aforementioned, users who follow one of these accounts may become interested in the other as a result. Therefore, it may be in one’s best interest to include the other account in the biography section of the Twitter profile. Another alternative is to link a blog or some other kind of personal social media outlet that allows non-academic Twitter-users to get a sense of who they are following. According to Clive Thompson, “the real appeal of Twitter is…its collectivist [nature]—you’re creating a shared understanding larger than yourself [while developing a] tactile sense of your community” which can be “useful” but also “fun.” And, ultimately, “makes the group more than the sum of its parts.” In 2008, Seth Meranda (@smeranda) wrote a blog entry entitled “Ways to use Twitter for Academia”, in which he predicted that “the benefits of extra communication channels and the ability to follow other industry experts and innovators” would be “powerful” and believed it would offer “new opportunities” in the realm of academia. If used wisely Twitter lives up to Meranda’s expectations.

One example of Twitter being utilized to its full potential is the twitter profile @Comicsgrid, an organization that focuses on scholarship related to comics. This user creates a presence on Twitter by interacting with both academic and non-academic followers to create conversations related to the study of comics. This involves offering tweeting original content as well as expanding on content produced by other users and other media outlets such as newspapers. @Comisgrid also incorporates international topics in order to create a global conversation, and further demonstrates open-mindedness by supporting and interacting with users such as @girlsreadcomicstoo. In addition to academic professionals, @Comicsgrid also follows comic book artists and fans all over the world such as Universo Comic who tweets about comics in Spanish; @Comicsgrid also follows miscellaneous Twitter-users outside of the field of comic scholarship, including myself (@KimHyman). @Comicsgrid also adds some personal opinion to tweets, joins conversations by responding to followers, and fosters collaboration by researching new academic topics related to comics. For example, a fellow student researcher, Stephanie Cawley (@stephanieviii), had her project titled “Hybridity and Comics” picked up by @Comicsgrid. Gestures such as thanking followers for re-tweeting their posts and re-tweeting their followers’ posts also make @Comicsgrid attractive to Twitter-users.  Ultimately, it is the ability of an academic user or any user to do as Twitter first encouraged in its early years—“join the conversation”—that will lead to the development of an alternate academic persona that is attractive to those within the realm of social media. Therefore, the most important thing to remember in joining such a conversation is to provide both a voice and an ear.

The concept of being both a voice and an ear influenced the creation of @RSCpostcolonial—the official Twitter profile for the Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project (SPSP). While the project itself lends a voice to Postcolonial Studies, it is important that the project not only engage readers but also allow readers to engage with the material itself; in doing so, the project has attracted audiences that are unfamiliar with postcolonial studies as well as those already interested in postcolonial theory. While the members of SPSP strive to create original projects focused on current topics in postcolonial studies, such as postcolonial feminism, and the emerging relationship between digital and social media and the humanities, the ultimate goal of SPSP is to translate the work of postcolonial theorists into a digital format that will make it accessible to individuals inside and outside of academia. Twitter aids in this act of translation by serving as a medium for student researchers to converse with non-academics, other students, and professionals in academia.

In Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, Robert J.C. Young defines translation as an act that “always involves a practice [and]…As a practice, translation begins as a matter of intercultural communication, but it also always involves questions of power relations” (138-140). While Young’s reference to power relations is in regards to the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer, in the context of this essay, the term “power relations” refers to the politics of academia. According to Young, translation also literally means “to carry or to bear across,” but Young acknowledges that “Languages, like classes and nations, exist in a hierarchy: as does translation itself, traditionally thought of in terms of an original and an inferior copy” (140).  Rather than producing an inferior copy of academic knowledge, SPSP retains academic scholarship and professionalism (enabling the project to be listed among MLA’s list of scholarly websites) while utilizing digital resources such as Twitter to foster various forms of collaboration. While conducting research, students are encouraged to tweet and are further transformed from inactive receivers of knowledge to active producers of knowledge. Students also gain the “sixth sense” Thompson referred to. For example, Stephanie Cawley’s aforementioned project (“Hybridity and Comics”) became part of a global conversation via Twitter when her project was “re-tweeted” by Princess Hijab, an anonymous street artist working in Paris, France, whom Cawley discussed as a part of her project. As an ongoing project SPSP resists the notion that non-traditional mediums, such as Twitter, produce “an inferior copy” of academic knowledge, but instead exemplifies the developing relationship between academia and those beyond its ivory towers. Perhaps the reason why digital and social media are misunderstood is not because they are inferior but because they are foreign. Therefore, members of academia should learn to navigate the Twitterverse, study the landscape, and speak the language. The key is to coexist and contribute rather than diminishing its value and rendering it an “inferior copy”; or, even worse, colonizing it for individual gain.


Kimone Hyman is a senior at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and a member of The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project. A biology major, minoring in literature and writing, Kimone is currently working on an independent study project related to postcolonial studies, postcolonial feminism, postcolonial literature, and the digital humanities. For more information on Kimone’s project follow this link: “A Dream Deferred”.

Twitter: @KimHyman


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