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How (and why) to use Twitter for Science

I tweet!
(from Wikipedia Commons)

I’m going to guess that most people reading this have at least heard of Twitter, if not used it themselves.  Presidents tweet government policy, literal revolutions have been fostered on Twitter, and celebrity feuds consume the tabloids.

But what is it?  And how might it help your science?

Twitter is just a platform… on the web or on your phone, for sharing information.  In this case, up to 280 characters of information.  That’s just a bit more than the first sentence in this blog post.  You can type a couple sentences, other people can read it.  Conversely, you can see what other people are sharing.

If you “follow” someone, then you will see the things that they post.  Those will appear in your “feed”.  If you don’t follow anyone, you’ll not see anything there.   That means that you control the flow of information.  If you only want to follow comedians or people who study cockroaches, then that’s the only information you’ll see.  Conversely, when you first create a Twitter account (more on that below) no one will see what you tweet… until they follow you.  You can also search for information on Twitter, and discover new people to follow.  Note how this is all different from Facebook where when you connect on Facebook you both see each others posts.  With Twitter, who you see information from is unrelated to who sees your posts.  On that subject, many people I know (including myself) use Facebook for personal life and Twitter for work.

How to get an account?  Very easy, just go to Twitter.com, chose a username and make a new login.  Done!  Search for some people you’re interested in and follow them.  Once a few people follow you, try a tweet.  On the topic of usernames… this might require a bit of thought.  Do you want to be anonymous?  I would argue that if you are using Twitter for science you probably want to use your real name with a recognizable picture of yourself.  The point is to connect with other scientist and the public… both of which are harder if you’re anonymous.   On the other hand if you work for say a federal institution or someone who thinks social media is corrupting society, maybe anonymous is the way to go.

But why you ask?

For me and many others, Twitter has changed the way we do science.  I have had fruitful scientific collaborations with people I met on Twitter, I have connected with software developers and biotech companies there, and at least weekly I get scientific questions answered… often in minutes.  Having trouble with a protocol?  I’ve had people point me to other versions and give suggestions.  Software issues?  Oh look, the guy who wrote the software is suggesting I try this approach.  Looking for a collaborator with a particular skillset?  Have found those on Twitter.

I also use Twitter as a literature filter.  I follow numerous experts and practitioners in my fields and people often tweet about interesting new papers that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.  I estimate 90% of the papers I read are ones I saw pass by on Twitter.  Think of it as an investment in time.  Sure, I spent some time on Twitter each day at work… in which I’m not writing grants, papers etc.   But Googling for esoteric information, cold-calling companies, and working out through my network for collaborators would all take much longer in total.

To that end, having Twitter be a powerful tool in your science toolkit does require some initial investment in energy and time.  If you create and account and ask a question… no one in the world will see it.   You have to build up a base of followers in your field, which is done by tweeting about things of interest in your field so that people follow you.  For me, that investment has been repaid 1000-fold and I’m a better and more productive scientist as a result.

Give it a try!

(my Twitter handle is @davidacoil, you should also check out Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics))

Note on functionality:  A usernames is preceded by the “@” symbol as above.  If you include a username in a tweet, that person will get a notification of that particular tweet.  It’s a way of flagging something in particular or drawing someone’s attention to a particular piece of information.   Also there are “hashtags” which are the “#” symbol.   These indicate a particular topic and can be followed… i.e. someone can see all the tweets pertaining to “#citizenscience”, “#microbiology” or “#indoorchem”.  I find hashtags most useful when tweeting at conferences.  Everyone at the conference uses the same hashtag (e.g. “asm2018”) and then anyone can follow along what people are tweeting about the talks and the research being presented.


David Coil

David Coil is a Project Scientist in the lab of Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis. David works at the intersection between research, education, and outreach in the areas of the microbiology of the built environment, microbial ecology, and bacterial genomics. Twitter

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