Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rules for Twitter? Maybe

Kevin Milligan posted his rules for twitter, which apparently sparked some twitter conversation among my Canadian academic friends.  I missed the twitter discussion as my parents are in town.  So, my comments below may have already been considered and rejected by the Canadian twitter community.  Or not. 

To be clear, Milligan does not see these as commandments, but as a way to spawn discussion.  So, here I go.

  1. Develop clear goals and firm limits about what you are trying to accomplish with Twitter. Measure each tweet against these goals and limits. I would utterly fail at this.  My goal in tweeting?  To be part of various communities and conversations.  What am I trying to accomplish?  Just being a bit better networked and, of course, endless self-promotion (because rule number one of twitter is: yo! hear me!)
  2. Prime goal: be an authoritative, fair-minded source on your areas of specialty. Be a scholar. That's why universities pay us; that's what we have to offer society. This is pretty on target--I try to present most of my views based on what I know, have experienced and have researched--ethnic conflict, alliance politics, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, academia.  Other stuff, not so much, like #voterfraudfraud is based not so much on research, except for my work on political institutions, and more just a sense of outrage. 
  3. Personal / off topic tweets in moderation. I think people follow me to learn about economics, not to learn about my views on Mad Men, civil rights, my lunch, or my garden. A few personal / offtopic tweets in the mix now and then make your feed more human. But oversharing detracts from professionalism.  This really depends on the person.  I thought my twitter voice would be distinct from my facebook voice and from my blog voice, but it turns out I have more discipline/impulse control.  Plus there are too many threads/communities that I want to engage for me to just be strictly professional.  Also, the combinations of personal and professional lead to some very interesting conversations.
  4. Stay positive. Be polite. Address people as you would in person. Excessive snark is tiresome, and also corrosive to your professional reputation. If you have to preface a serious tweet with "Serious question:..." then you have a problem. There is such a thing as excessive snark? 
  5. Always remember that coauthors, colleagues, and administrators, are watching. Tenure committees are watching, too. They are thinking: "you could be doing something else right now." I call BS on this.  Yes, twitter is public, but it is largely ephemeral, unlike blogs and FB.  How so?  Try finding an old tweet.  Go ahead, I dare ya.  The second BS component of this is that tenure committees are watching.  Really?  The average 40 year old academic is not on twitter, so I would not worry so much about admin and tenure committees.  Yes, twitter can absolutely be a huge time suck, but that is for you to control.  You should not be an ass online because that can be a problem, but if you are productive in your research, tenure committees are not going to give a rat's ass about twitter.  If you are not productive, then you have a problem.  And if you have a tenure committee that is out to get you, twitter is not going to help or hurt you.  It will be used selectively by those who want to reject you.
  6. Don't start fights; don't engage those wanting to fight. There is no gain from winning the internet. Depends on what you mean by fights.  If somebody is promoting an idea that you believe is ill-founded, then you can and should contradict it. That is what expertise is for--for presenting the facts, the theories, the evidence, the arguments to confront misinformation.  Maybe people will not listen to it, but as an academic, your job is to argue.
  7. Engage others--ask questions to enhance your knowledge or your research. Twitter has helped me improve my own work, as well as find many useful new resources. Yes, yes, yes.
  8. Block liberally. Life is too short to deal with trolls, baiting, and assorted negativity. Speech is free. Yelling in my ear is not.  Yes, yes, yes.
  9. Take great care to respect the privacy of meetings. Know what is and should be in the public domain and what is not. No disagreement here.
  10. Tweet links to source documents to help non-specialists find them. This is a great service.Yep, twitter is great for directing people to interesting spots on the web, like my blog.  Oops, there I go, self-promoting again.  Seriously, twitter might get in the way of reading the latest academic journals, but it does direct me to other information on the web that is most useful to me, including articles in journals I do not follow.
  11. Academic freedom is wonderful. Unlike journalists (or pretty much anyone else), I am very unlikely to ever be fired because of an errant tweet. UBC has a strong policy backing speech that is "unpopular" or even "abhorrent". But UBC also wants me to ensure an "environment of tolerance and mutual respect that is free from harassment and discrimination". To me, this responsibility is a fair price for the wonderful freedom. The Ben Parker rule always applies: with great (or some) power, comes great (at least some) responsibility.
  12. Tweeting is, at best, unhelpful for your research reputation. Junior scholars should tweet sparingly. (See 5 above.) Tenure and promotion committees evaluate evidence on whether you will be a productive scholar for the rest of your tenured life. Too much Twitter is going to be interpreted as a bad signal of future productivity.  Please.  Again, it is about the research record and little else at places like UBC and most research schools.  If someone is so petty as to complain about one's twitter presence, then they are going to find something else, like making up mythical standards about co-authorship or whatever.  Sure, junior faculty should put less time, but again, this is a social enterprise, and networking on the cheap via twitter can be very beneficial, especially when you are not very close to other academic communities.  Plus public engagement is an increasingly important expectation for grant money.  The followers that we have, from 500 to thousands (see @texasinafrica for a very influential junior faculty member), far, far, far exceed the number of people who buy our books and read our journal articles.  If we are obligated to disseminate our research (and promote my next book) and get traffic to our blogs, then twitter is the way.
  13. Be sure of your facts. An incorrect fact can spread very quickly. Be authoritative. Don't guess. Look it up; tweet the source.  Good advice
  14. You are always one tweet away from hurting not only your own reputation, but the reputation of your department and your university. Be careful.  Only sort of.  This kind of fear can inhibit conversations.  This is the kind of instruction given to diplomats who tweet.  Academics are supposed to be experts but not fearful ones.  I would like to see some data on how folks have hurt their reputations.  Sure, I am perhaps the least discreet academic around the internet (that would be a fun contest), but fear inhibits more than it helps.  Again, tweets do not last long, most tweets get barely more than a glance (well, if you tweet a lot).  I have surely have said stupid things on twitter and here at the Spew.  But silence and inhibition mean that your ideas do not get out.  People clearly know of me more know than four years ago when I started.  Some people probably do have negative views of me as a result of my twitter personality, but that is the risk of engaging the world.  I do know that I have made many friends via this process, and I have learned a great deal from my interactions.  And the feedback I have received is almost entirely positive.  So, tweet or don't tweet, but don't sweat it.
  15. When (not if) you make a mistake, retract. Be humble, apologetic, and correct it as quickly and completely as you can. Yes, be a decent person.
Take my recommendations with a huge grain of salt.  My experience on twitter has been very positive, even though or perhaps because I break many of these kinds of rules.  All I can say for sure is that academics should not live in fear of tenure committees when it comes to twitter.  Public outreach is a good thing, twitter is something that those without deep pockets can afford to do, and if you do not promote yourself, who is going to do so? 


Kevin said...


thanks for the feedback. I don't actually think we disagree very much.

I said not "Too much Twitter"; you say "Sure, junior faculty should put less time,". Agreed.

" If you are not productive, then you have a problem. "

I agree with this. If you have a great CV, then that is a very strong shield. No one can touch you with a very strong research profile.

Kevin said...

Here are some points of disagreement:

I don't think senior administrators are monitoring or looking up every tweet. Here is the conversation I have heard many times:

"How is she doing?"

"Ok. Landed a few pubs, but it might be close"

"What's wrong?"

"He spends too much time doing X"

In the past X might be 'partying', 'skiing' 'gardening' or anything. My claim is that 'twitter' would fit nicely in that conversation. They aren't going to read and evaluate every tweet. They will google 'Kevin Milligan twitter' and see my page with 9000 tweets and 30 tweets in the past 24 hours on Mad Men and think 'wow, he is sure wasting a lot of time. I need to talk to him to make sure he is focusing enough on research.'

To think people aren't going to do that is, in my view, naive.

Steve Saideman said...

The decision will not turn on twitter but on the idea that the person is short of the pubs necessary for tenure. If they are not on twitter, the folks will believe that something else got in the way: children, divorce, skiing, whatever. I highly doubt that someone who is a close call will get dinged for being active on twitter and a person with a similar record will make it through because their "waste of time" will be on something less visible.

But we seem to have very different experiences. Given that in political science, few people are denied tenure even at places that seem to have high standards (no denials in my ten years at McGill), folks should not be deterred from twitter for this reason.

And naive about tenure/promotion, I am not. I know that some people will find any excuse to tenure or not to tenure someone if they have strong preferences, regardless of the record.

Kevin said...

Hi. Thanks for your response.

Isn't there a bit of a contradiction between:

a) I like twitter because I use it for outreach / engagement / promotion / external profile

b) No one reads what I write so it doesn't matter.

I think people do read what we write on twitter and form fairly firm impressions of us. I think it is good to keep that in mind.

It wasn't until *after* I was tenured that I actually realized how much *everything* I did--research presentations, referee reports, comments at seminars--was being monitored and watched and gossiped about as people formed opinions about me and whether I would make the cut. I don't think I'm being paranoid about this. In fact,I should have been more paranoid pre-tenure!

When someone isn't clearly over the line (and this happens often--although perhaps it is only in economics), there is a deep assessment of *why*. This helps to figure out whether the underperformance will be predictive of the future. Is it a big research project that went under because of bad luck? Is it poor time management? Was it an illness? The underlying reasons matter a lot, in my experience.

My point, then, is to ensure that your public digital profile reflects a good use of your time, and a mistake to think that nobody notices it.

Steve Saideman said...

Yes, I am a contradiction--I tend to believe that confirmation bias limits what people learn. But to address the contradiction you noticed, I do think people pay attention to what we tweet and blog. I don't believe that these folks are university administrators and deans and chairs.

I do agree that one someone fails to do enough to get tenure that there is much speculation about the causes, but I don't think the "he wasted too much time on twitter" is a cause of rejection but rather a justification for why someone fell short.

Yes, people develop perceptions of us, but tenure committees will be focused on the pubs, the pubs, the citations, the pubs and a bit of teaching and a spot of research....