Don’t throw away the Twitter manual yet!

Is this really what academics see when they read a guide to Twitter? (Credit: Joel Wong)

Claire Warwick, writing in The Guardian, has a problem with introductory guides to Twitter. They’re too simplistic, she argues, and they insult the target audience of academics by explaining things that they surely know already.

Can tweeting really be so difficult that it must be explained in such terms? Perhaps the tone is not be intended to patronise, but instead to soothe and reassure, as if introducing us to a scary world that we might barely comprehend. The writers of such guides seem to assume that the only reason we are not all tweeting is because we either don’t know its value (so they will tell us) or because we are terrified to get it wrong (so they will reassure us).

It’s hard to be sure exactly what she means here, because she only links to one example and that link is broken. But taking her words at face value, I have to disagree.

There is a knowledge gap between those who use social media and those who don’t, and it’s a real thing. We who use it regularly are surrounded by those who do the same, and collectively, we all think that ‘it’s no big deal’. The reality is, though, that the barrier to entry for something like Twitter can be high. Estimates of the proportion of Twitter’s user base that signed up for an account but don’t use it vary wildly, but 50% or more is plausible, which would work out to hundreds of millions of people who signed up but couldn’t figure out what to do or didn’t care. There’s many places to get lost along the way (all of these except the last one have come from actual conversations that I’ve had with academics):

  • They can’t figure out how to install the app on their phone or use it on the web.
  • They’re don’t understand who will see what they write, which frightens them.
  • They never learn how and who to follow, so their stream remains empty and they give up out of sheer boredom.
  • They follow the Kardashians, think Twitter is a narcissistic cesspool, and never look at their account again.

As I said on Twitter (no, the irony doesn’t escape me), trivialising this knowledge gap can be just as insulting and off-putting as any ‘dumbing down’ might be. Any academic who doesn’t ‘get’ Twitter but reads Claire’s article will likely be feeling pretty stupid by the time they reach the third paragraph. I doubt that this is Claire’s intention; in fact, I think that her impulse was respectful, but I’m not sure that she’s captured the state of the world correctly1 .

For example, academics may be smart people, but if the number of IT questions that I get everyday is any question, they’re no less prone to tech illiteracy than any other segment of society. So I can’t say that I was overly surprised when a senior academic in the department did “sidle up” to me recently and pull out his phone, giving me 10 minutes to tell him about ‘this twittering thing’. I did what most of the introductory manuals do: showed him how to use the app, talked to him about what following and being followed meant, and gave him a crash course on how to get involved in Twitter. I’m not sure how well I did, since from the look on his face I don’t think I inspired him to a life-long love of social media, but I hope that I managed to plant a seed. In many cases, I think that might be the best that we can hope for.

Can tweeting really be so difficult that it must be explained in such terms? Perhaps the tone is not be intended to patronise, but instead to soothe and reassure, as if introducing us to a scary world that we might barely comprehend. The writers of such guides seem to assume that the only reason we are not all tweeting is because we either don’t know its value (so they will tell us) or because we are terrified to get it wrong (so they will reassure us).

My experience of colleagues who don’t tweet doesn’t suggest this. They know Twitter exists, but they are either too busy; can’t be bothered; prefer traditional forms of academic interaction – face to face or via conventional publication; or think that Twitter is too ephemeral a medium for considered scholarly debate: ‘The talk-radio of academia’. I have yet to have a colleague sidle up to me and mutter, “You do this Twitter thing don’t you, I’d love to, but I daren’t – can’t you teach me what to do?” Perhaps they are too embarrassed but I somehow doubt it.

All of the other reasons that Claire gives are valid, and I’ve even heard some of them myself (they’re also not unique to Twitter; I once had a fellow postdoc argue with me that blogging science and the PLoS comment model are bad because they encourage the public to write uninformed commentary on papers). But I fear that Claire has fallen prey to the availability bias: her experiences with social media are straightforward and easy (in terms of usage, at any rate), so her judgment of the probability that someone else will struggle with these same services is too low. For those who do suffer from this sort of anxiety or barrier to entry, having introductory guides available can only help. They’re unlikely to harm anyone, at any rate. I would have to be convinced that there is a large body of academics out there who were going to use Twitter until they came upon a guide that they felt was patronising enough to put them off the whole thing.

A telling point, I think, is that you could replace key words in Claire’s article with others to see that whether Twitter is ‘simple enough to use’ is a matter of perspective. Do a find-and-replace on her article to put ‘LaTeX’ where ‘Twitter’ is, and I’m sure that many people will suddenly agree that maybe introductory guides (even overly simplistic ones) are still a good thing. Try it with other topics, it’s a fun game: ‘next-gen sequencing’, ‘lasers’, ‘programming’. You may object that operating a laser is a more technically demanding process than using Twitter, but that’s the point: it would strike you as tone-deaf and possibly suicidal if a laser operator wandered up to you and handed you the laser keys2 as though using lasers was simple, all to avoid patronising you. You might rightly ask for the basic safety orientation first.

Of course, I also think that there is another issue lurking behind here, and it’s one that I’ve talked about before: does every academic need to be on Twitter? My answer to that remains ‘no’; if they don’t want to use Twitter, or prefer other modes of communication (or even other social media services!), then I don’t think that they need to be forced at the point of a sword into an active Twitter account. Social media can be good for academics, but it doesn’t have to be a responsibility or a burden, something else that we all have to tick off like grant writing. We can all find ways to contribute to the global discussion on science.

  1. ‘The world” might an important idea here;  feeling that Twitter is simple enough to use thank-you-very-much might be a strongly WEIRD notion
  2. I’ll be disappointed if lasers aren’t fired up by turning a big car key. Don’t ruin my day.