Don’t Oversell Twitter

This post will not win me any friends, but it’s, like, just my opinion, man, so don’t sweat it. And rest assured, before you get snarky, I have read about and meditated on the topic.

Being a centrist, politically and professionally, one gets used to being considered either an event-horizon irritant or a reactionary grump. I like innovation, and I also flatter myself that I’m as up-to-date as anyone in the historical profession, but I also have this habit of pushing back against trends that are touted with a bit too much missionary zeal for my taste. Until I’m convinced that a) they are not just fads, and b) they deliver solid results, I tend to adopt an experimental approach to the trend in question.485f3d3d0ce39b7cdb3bfe38740f6c06cc7c94f725d336945d34c832051b98e9

All this being said, there are two trends that I am actually, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, deeply suspicious of: the (growing?) push to have tweeting considered service and scholarship, and the corresponding tendency to devalue the monograph as the gold standard of scholarly achievement. I’ll save the monograph conversation for another day, and focus on Twitter, which I use and semi-enjoy, though it seems designed to encourage short attention spans.

Before getting there, though, let me head off potential criticisms that I haven’t read “Twitter and the Locus of Research” (I have, I just fundamentally disagree with it. Much as I respect Jesse Stommel, I’m with Zachary Lesser on this one). Or that I’m ignoring the destabilizing flattened hierarchies that are essential to Twitter’s performance, and are a likewise essential feature of legitimate scholarship (I’m not; and no, it is one form of legitimate scholarship). Or that I need to read Dorothy Kim’s piece on #medievaltwitter or Maha Bali’s piece “On Twitter as Scholarship” (I have, and I like Kim’s parallels between Twitter and “medieval commentary practice.” But I agree with Elizabeth Eva Leach that “a medieval manuscript is not an iPad”).  Or that I’m ignorant of arguments that “Play is Critical Inquiry.” (I’m not, indeed I value the ludic aspects of scholarly endeavor; I just think play isn’t producing–or, phrased differently, something analogous to last year’s Atlantic article titled “Optimism is the enemy of action”).

IN SHORT, for those of my colleagues who find Twitter revolutionary and professionally significant, more power to you. I disagree with your premises, for the following four major reasons:

FIRST, and to me most important of all, Twitter really sucks as a means of conveying a complex, nuanced argument. And I mean, really sucks. I base this elegantly-phrased observation on the all-too-frequent occasions when I have seen a conversation start on Twitter, only to devolve into a kind of trench warfare defined by sarcasm, snark, and even ad hominems.

These doubts started during the Salaita Affair last year and were heightened with the crusades-prayer-breakfast debacle this February. Having studied the thousands of tweets that the crusades debate engendered, I can assure you of two things: first, most people, including scholars, were using Twitter as a way of verbally bludgeoning their opponents (Facebook wasn’t much better, though at least one could explain oneself better). Second, most people would tweet or retweet a single status or perhaps a link, often containing multiple logical fallacies, to a self-selecting audience that reinforced the original tweeter’s opinion. Seriously, the scholarly algorithmic group I was a part of had very little impact on the debate, if we just go by Twitter. Even if this example represents an aberration reserved for controversial occasions, much of Twitter strikes me as very much a public water-cooler kind of thing–extremely valuable, indeed I would say essential, for my development in many ways, but not a benchmark of scholarly accomplishment. If I was a review committee, I’d be skeptical too if I claimed chatting with my colleagues and friends counted as scholarship or service. Speaking of which…

SECOND, regarding Twitter-use as counting for scholarship and/or service. Setting aside the fact that this discussion is for those folks in tenure-track positions, it seems from what I’ve read that many review committees are only allowed to use physical copies to assess your performance. Now, the answer to that, of course, is that departments are behind the times, and need to change their protocols. But I don’t think the matter has been thought through. Let’s say that a review committee is allowed to consider your Twitter output for service and/or scholarship. Do you really expect people to scroll through 4-5 years’ worth of tweets, separating the “omg-my-dinner-is-awesome” tweets from those that are serious (say, about the dangers of smoking) but not in your contractual areas of expertise, the conversational rejoinders (“that’s awesome! congrats!” to news of a friend’s new book) from tweets that disseminate your or someone else’s new knowledge or contribution to professional issues? Would you think yourself put upon if you were told to prepare this information yourself? After all, your senior colleagues have six other committees they’re sitting on this term.

THIRD, the other thing you’d have to explain is how your analytics show worth-while impact, especially when Twitter kind of does that for you and the math isn’t always encouraging. Twitter defines “Impressions” as  the “number of times users saw the Tweet on Twitter.” While the tweet might contain a link to a column, a blog post, or an article, it doesn’t tell you if people actually read your piece. Twitter defines “engagement” as the “total number of times a user has interacted with a Tweet. This includes all clicks anywhere on the Tweet (including hashtags, links, avatar, username, and Tweet expansion), retweets, replies, follows, and favorites.” The “engagement rate” is the number of impressions divided by the number of engagements.

For folks who are nationally recognized columnists, scholars, or public figures, that rate could be fairly high. For most of us, it’s likely to be pretty low, or influenced by extraneous factors. Over the past week, for example, I tweeted a British Museum link about political cartoons from the Napoleonic Era that was seen 109 times, but engaged with 4 times (none resulted in a click on the link), for an engagement rate of 3.7%. A nostalgia photo of one of my first World War II books (not scholarly engagement, I would argue) received 151 impressions, 6 engagements (5 clicks), and a rate of 4%. My tweet about Wise resigning at the University of Illinois received 274 impressions, 9 engagements (six clicks), and a 3.3% rate. However, my positive tweet about Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner (I’m working on a post about the controversial aspects of the film) received 85,285 impressions simply because Crowe retweeted it. It only received 464 engagement points, though, resulting in a rate of 0.5%. And that tweet was not by any stretch of the imagination scholarly engagement.

Simply put, in this day and age of analytics, there really is no excuse for not engaging with the numbers, and the numbers for Twitter often don’t tell us what we want to hear. At the very least, it should force us to ask about metrics and assessment. How do you determine if a tweet is impactful or not, where is the bright line between significant and insignificant, how do you calculate significance based on aggregate numbers of tweets over time, and so on? You might reply that you can’t/shouldn’t quantify this kind of thing, but unfortunately quantification is the Zeitgeist of our time, and good luck convincing legislators of your point of view.

FOURTH, when I look at the most significant people in my fields, the ones whose teaching and scholarship truly set them apart, I find that they’re often absent from Twitter, or else tend to use it in a limited way. Now, this doesn’t prove anything, but to my mind it is suggestive. Suggestive that direct communication with friends and colleagues, an intense focus on teaching, and reading, researching, and writing long prose will tend to take you further as a professional and in your career than 140 characters at a time.

There is one particular instance where I believe Twitter use is scholarly service, and a very valuable one too. That is when kind colleagues tweet conferences that you cannot attend–Jonathan Hsy’s post about the 2014 Kalamazoo conference is a great analysis of what a powerful and useful tool it can be. As I recently pointed out, however, live tweeting a session is genuine work, and is not always the kind of experience I’m looking for in a given session. And even tweeting conferences has a set of distinct and serious limitations, as Boyda Johnstone eloquently described the previous July.

All the above reasons are why I prefer blogging to tweeting as a means of engagement. You can actually write on complex topics, at greater or lesser length as you choose, combining the best of old-school and cutting-edge methods. The Clerk of Oxford’s May 20 post on blogging resonates with me on many levels for these reasons. My nearly-6000-word piece on the crusades had what little impact it did precisely because it used the space afforded by the blog to dive into the complexities of the topic. But even with the crusades piece, and this I think is very significant, Facebook was a far more powerful distribution tool than Twitter. It was shared about 30 times on Twitter, and over 500 times on Facebook–and this imbalance seems typical of many articles and blog posts. However, Facebook, an ostensibly private forum, seems to not to receive the kind of attention given to Twitter.

Now, all that being said, I do think Twitter is an outstanding tool for communicating news, especially in links that take you to longer pieces. I also believe in Twitter as a great pedagogical tool, one that i will probably try to use this coming term (I went a more GIS route this spring). I agree with Jeffrey J. Cohen’s tweet and the responses that it received that Twitter can help you develop concision of expression. It is also excellent for exchanging short ideas with absent friends and colleagues, and for having great conversations that can be the genesis of new ideas and projects. What this all amounts to, I think, is that Twitter is a great (but not the only) way for keeping current in your field. But keeping current should be expected of a serious professional as a matter of course, and not awarded a gold star as fulfilling a service requirement. Where this leaves the criteria for service and engagement I’m not sure, but until someone convinces me that I’m wrong about the four points above, I’ll keep using Twitter in the limited, “unimaginative” way I do…

Hey, the world would be boring if everyone agreed, right?





6 Replies to “Don’t Oversell Twitter”

  1. hi Daniel, you’re right! The world would be boring if everyone agreed – and I’m strangely flattered that you linked to one of my posts 🙂

    I was wondering while reading your post, though, if how you are describing Twitter covers… how *you* are using Twitter? Rather than the entire universe of ways in which people use Twitter?

    I think those of us who think Twitter is part of our scholarship and/or service might have different ways of suggesting it be considered than the measures of impressions, etc. Of course no one expects a tenure/promotion committee to scroll through pages of tweets. I don’t even think people want to suggest that a tweet be considered something on par with a peer-reviewed article.

    Here’s what I do at work, about my blogging and other online scholarship that isn’t trade journal publications… I count it as “something”, that’s not a peer-reviewed article. That means I count my entire blog, and other websites I co-founded as “things”, as “other scholarship” that I do. I could possibly count how many posts are on it or how many views it gets, if someone cares. I am sure my blog gets more views each day I post than every peer-reviewed article I wrote (outside of Hybrid Pedagogy).

    How about Twitter? I’m not sure yet – so it’s a good question, if we’re calling for Twitter to count as something, how should it be counted (grrr I hate the “counting” aspect because it hides value) – but also, do we even want it to be counted? Because counting it opens the door to censoring it, etc. (slippery slope argument, maybe?).

    OK so long story short. I do think Twitter can help promote deeper scholarship and can be a service. As far as promoting deeper scholarship, that scholarship will end up showing as an article published somewhere or an invitation to keynote at a conference – so that is validation that academia understands. But as a service… I could think of some ways of measuring it related to e.g. people who host twitter chats or become “go to” experts in certain fields?

    Last thing: I think it makes a difference what your field of scholarship is… my field is mainly edtech and for edtech Twitter is quite good. I can have enriching deep conversations over a string of tweets and links. I’m sorry you feel most conversations are not like that, but it might be discipline-specific, or related to the way you engage with Twitter. It’s not necessarily everyone’s experience. I got an entire peer-reviewed article accepted for publication just last week that was informed by a Twitter chat with Jesse Stommel and a few other people. Ah, but that’s a traditional academic way of measuring Twitter success, isn’t it?

    I must admit that it is 1:15am here and I read our post quickly… so maybe I missed something and am repeating stuff you’ve already said.

    1. Hi Maha, Thanks for your gracious feedback. I agree with most of them, and was very happy to have discovered your blog. I think I am describing what (some) people claim Twitter does or should do, and measuring it, as most folks do, against where my experience and research has taken me. But, I could be wrong. I kind of wish I had titled the piece “This Tweet is NOT Scholarship,” etc.

      But the key, as you point out, is difference in field, and I should probably contextualized my remarks primarily, but not specifically, to history and to a lesser extent to literature. You’re absolutely right that people in different fields can use it to different effect.

      What intrigues me most in your comments is the tension between impact and counting impact, and between valuing Twitter for its own sake, but also assessing its value by its instrumentality in attaining a traditional academic outcome. After spending an intense year doing heavily quantitative humanities and social sciences, I was most impressed with how much we really don’t know about the long-term impact of quantitative tools, and how, at an institutional level, there is a resistance to asking exactly these kinds of questions. I recently watched Amy Collier and Jesse Stommel’s keynote from the Dig Ped Lab, and agree with them whole-heartedly about the terrible metrics our administrators often use. But avoiding the issue of assessment won’t work in the long run either. Ultimately, I think that’s where this post came from—a desire to spark a bit of conversation that I think needs to be had in the humanities.

  2. I think one positive attribute Twitter has is that it has the power to engage people who are outside of the scholarly circle, such as myself (an educated history “enthusiast” if you will). While I, unfortunately, remain unable to comment or really discuss much of anything that scholars present to the Twittersphere, I am very grateful that they nonetheless add their comments, links, ideas, and questions to the public world. Even if the idea isn’t necessarily to alert the less educated people following you on Twitter about your opinions on whatever highly esoteric topic that was presented at Kalamazoo this year, my ability to engage by watching and reading those opinions/articles that are Tweeted enriches me intellectually and personally. No longer having access to university databases or libraries means, for me, that Twitter (and the internet at large, I suppose) and used bookstores have become my only access to the scholarly world. To put it simply, you and your scholar friends have helped keep me engaged.

    To point out another, somewhat facetious flaw, start counting how many online “news” articles you come across which consist mostly of random Tweets.

    1. Hi Stu, I’m with you on staying engaged via Twitter. That’s one of the main reasons I use it, to see what conversations are going on, which museum has digitized new manuscripts that I can now access for free, instead of traveling there using non-existent funds. In this sense, Twitter is a great leveler, a great tool for democratizing education and learning, and I love that.

      There was a rant going around recently about news articles consisting of Tweets…I can’t remember where. Someone was bewailing the loss of old-school investigative journalism…

  3. DL: Thanks for your posting; I’m admittedly a twitter-optimist but am willing to entertain twitter-skpeticism too. I very much appreciate your acknowledgment that live-tweeting is indeed real labor and does provide a kind of service to the profession (especially when not everyone has the time, money, or resources to attend conferences in person). Thanks, too, for linking to my posting about this too. Just a quick note: I don’t think it’s an “either/or” situation regarding twitter vs. blogging, it’s more of a “both/and.” I tweet and I blog, knowing that I do have different aims and audiences in each case — for me, it’s a matter of knowing the advantages (and disadvantages) of each platform and what kinds of communities my various online networks can build. – JH

    1. Hi Jonathan, I find myself being the skeptic when I feel too many people are optimists. Contrarian, or “’10th man,” or devil’s advocate, I’m not sure. I think we all have different audiences for different mediums, whether we’re conscious of it or not. My own inclination is still, at this point to privilege longer-form writing over extremely short forms in terms of scholarship. But who knows, in 10 years I may have completely flipped about.

      Live-tweeting as actual labor was brought home to me this past Kalamazoo, when I couldn’t (or otherwise didn’t wish to) tweet consistently or for an entire given session, and people were tweeting me asking where the punch-line of the talk was. Im thinking of how to meet my own and absent colleagues’ needs in the future, because it is definitely work!

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