By Kai Chan
When Berta Martín-López mentioned over a delicious Basque lunch that she used Google to find a colleague’s tweets on women in science, I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing, interrupting her story and our sumptuous meal for an extended digression on the unappreciated benefits of Twitter.
|Berta using her smartphone, attached to an
external battery, in Vitoria.
For me, Berta’s harmless but retrogressive use of technology (searching the whole world-wide web to find single tweets) was akin to powering a 21st Century smartphone using a bulky 20th Century battery pack. Not so different from what Berta was forced to do when her smartphone’s internal battery went kaput.
“Why don’t you just use Twitter?” I blurted out, once I’d controlled my laughter. Berta answered that she didn’t have an interest in tweeting. But you don’t have to produce tweets to use Twitter and benefit easily from others’ tweets, I protested, and besides, there are three wildly unappreciated benefits of tweeting.
I assured her first that Twitter really was a superb tool for what most people see it as, rapidly and easily accessing tailored information about the world and various people of interest.
Beyond the benefits of information consumption, Twitter offers a simple and straightforward way of connecting with people with related interests. In some ways it’s more powerful than and complementary to LinkedIn and other networking platforms. You don’t see people’s professional resumes, but you do see very quickly the kinds of things that interest a person, and the kinds of contributions she makes to the virtual world. You can tell quickly whether someone shares your interests, and whether they will lead you to nuggets of useful wisdom, or just mounds of rubbish.
Know Your Audience:
By all accounts, one of the keys to effective science communication is to ‘know thy audience’—in Steve Schneider’s words—and Twitter is magic with this. By seeing who follows you, you know who is interested in what you have to say. Based on their tweets and what they ‘favorite’ and re-tweet (including from your ‘stream’), you learn quickly which particular topics and styles interest each.
Practice Pithiness, with Feedback:
Apparently it takes some 10,000 hours of practice before we become expert, but expertise only comes from practice when we get rapid, repeated feedback about our performance. You tweeted a nugget you were sure would catch fire, only to be met by zero re-tweets of your gem and handfuls of re-tweets of someone else’s take of the same? Or, your tweet was modified by someone else and then re-tweeted plenty in its revised form? Chances are your topic was hot, and your wording not.
For those who think that messages of 144 characters are artificial, superficial, and instructive of nothing, I beg to differ. First, it’s neither artificial nor superficial. For me, a tweet is a hook or an arrow: it points (usually via a hotlink) to a blog post, academic paper, or news item of much greater depth. And you’d be surprised at how many people have mostly made up their minds—whether they know it or not—if they are interested in an article based on the first 144 characters. Next time you’re skimming a newspaper, go back and see how many articles you decided to read or not based only on the title. Ditto re: sifting through emails based on authors and subjects.
Moreover, whether or not you apply your Twitter learning to the first 144 characters of your article, you will undoubtedly apply it to distilling the crux of your message into fewer, punchier words.
Note that it doesn’t need to take much time. I almost never spend more than five minutes a day on Twitter, and I have connected with hundreds of interesting folks and learned loads.
I’m not saying that Twitter is the best thing since sliced bread, but it is a very useful tool, with a suite of critical but unappreciated benefits—much more than a source of pithy nuggets to be gleaned from the world-wide web.