It’s not personal, it’s strictly business: The use of Twitter in academia

Twitter_-_What_are_you_doing-This week we have a guest post by Penny Polson, who has been a Research Assistant on the POET tool for the past three months. Penny has been building on the qualitative analysis skills she attained in her dissertation project (regarding attitudes regarding fish pain) to investigate the experiences of academics who use social media. In this blog, she focuses on the important distinction made between ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ use of Twitter accounts, and how those terms become blurred once public engagement and specifically Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) are considered.

Over the past three months, I have been working as a Research Assistant for the Public Outreach Engagement Tool (POET) group. This interdisciplinary group aims to develop an online tool that would allow academics to analyse the ‘success’ of their social media activities in the context of public engagement. Specifically, it aims to address the lack of implementable pathways to Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), which is a recent policy introduced with the aim of insuring that new innovations should meet societal needs, rather than automatically doing what is within our scientific ability. The implementation of RRI requires a conversation between scientists and non-experts throughout the process of innovation, and this project is exploring the potential for at least some of this dialogue to take place on social media (specifically Twitter).

Over 13 interviews with STEM researchers, it became clear that their Twitter use was often dominated by work related posts, with little motivation in reaching beyond their academic circle. These self-identified social media users often did not have a goal of public outreach followers (despite goal setting being noted as key to public outreach of social media), where those holding popular accounts of several thousand followers did not set out to gain a large following. While public outreach activities in the researcher’s department might be advertised on their Twitter page through retweets or posts, there was not a lot of interest in registering who was interacting with their accounts beyond other scientists in their field. Furthermore, excessive posting beyond their own field into ‘personal’ matters such as sports and waiting for the bus were not viewed favourably.

The general disdain for these ‘personal’ tweets, and ‘personal twitter accounts’ is interesting considering the clear lack of extending their interactions beyond their own work community. By not seeking an audience beyond who is willing to sign up on their own accord, it could be argued that an academic’s social media account is inherently ‘personal’, until it branches further out to engage with non-experts in their field; as one participant noted, “it’s a form of self-promotion”, which in turn creates ideological barriers when trying to use social media as public ‘engagement’ tool, in the true RRI sense.

This is certainly not to say that work-related accounts have not had well documented benefits for scholarly communication – as our report has found, it offered a space similar to a “common room” with colleagues, with the added benefit of being an information line when conferences were too expensive or too time consuming to attend. Another point to consider is that it is difficult to acquire a varied following of non-experts, where polarisation of views in online platforms often means that views are quickly filtered into either ‘for’ or ‘against’, rather than effectively addressing the complex middle ground that debates (especially surrounding new innovations like synthetic biology) may have.

Participants and literature have both cited lack of time as a leading cause of fleeting social media effort, and one participant even noted the frustration of not being able to consider a job applicant’s Twitter success if the applicant’s publications were lower than their competitors. This was particularly exasperating to the researchers who were aware of the benefits that social media presence can bring within academia; several participants noted that academic relationships forged on Twitter had led to paper outputs, invitations to join journal editing, and other beneficial work connections that otherwise would have been more difficult to attain. Clearly there are systemic changes that need to occur to make Twitter use in academia more acceptable; although, as one participant noted, an increased top-down focus on Twitter could compromise the freedoms that academics currently enjoy.

The take home message is that while Twitter is used extensively and often effectively to transfer knowledge within expert groups, its reach is limited and will continue to be so until social media use is both accepted and supported within academic institutions. The caveat to this sentiment is that half-hearted attempts at tweeting won’t work. If researchers are not interested or do not have the time, then it is not in anyone’s interest to enforce a social media engagement route as the only pathway to public dialogue. The account need not be strictly personal, or strictly business. It just needs to function as a forum for innovative discussion.

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