I wrote most of this post more than a month ago. It sat in my outbox for weeks for the same reason that most academics are reluctant to be on Twitter—I was worried that if I posted it, it would diminish my scholarship. After all, if I am writing about something as seemingly frivolous as Twitter, it must mean that I am not a serious person.
But ultimately, I decided to post it, mainly motivated by Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article condemning scholars for cloistering themselves in the shroud of academia, and in the process, making themselves irrelevant in the public discourse. As unpopular as it may be among my colleagues, I happen to believe Kristof’s thesis is generally correct. Pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake is wonderful, but irresponsible for anyone with a public policy orientation.
But rather than fighting that battle, I thought I would do something more constructive. So, I’m sharing my guiding principles for scholars using Twitter to talk about their work.
One way to think about Twitter is to work through the mechanics of tweeting and following and gaining an audience. But maybe a better way to approach Twitter is to think about how you create your Twitter gestalt, your personal narrative. I propose starting there. In no particular order, here are my 19 Twitter commandments (19 because prime numbers are awesome). This is my script—yours will be different.
1. Put the social in social network. Interact as much as you can.
2. Don't be scared. You can delete a tweet. And even though a mistake will be archived forever, seriously, no one cares. Just behave the way you would in a business meeting and you'll be fine.
3. Writing a tweet is about writing a headline. Experiment to figure out how to write headlines that resonate with others.
4. Follow people who say interesting things that you will want to comment on or retweet, particularly folks in the business (that includes reporters, policymakers, and other compelling tweeters, not just researchers/academics).
5. Stick to the script. My script is: be myself— serious researcher and archivist of current events with enough humor to be human. However I behave at work, that’s how I behave on Twitter.
6. No politics. Ever.
7. No personal business. Ever. (Most of my communications colleagues disagreed with this point, but as I said, this is my script.)
8. Whenever reasonable, link to your written work. But only when it's reasonable.
9. Promote your colleagues. It's really hard to self-promote in a human way, so let's help each other.
10. Be human. There are lots of hilarious parodies of academics on twitter. Don’t be one.
11. If you have the *slightest* doubt about a tweet, don't tweet (but know that your doubts will wane as you get more comfortable with the medium).
12. Don't respond to tweets by big national figures. It's like publicly shouting at your TV.
13. Be gracious. Never punch down. You have status (whether you believe it or not).
14. Be gracious. Promote the work of people outside your organization.
15. Be gracious. Check your @connect tab to see who is connecting with you and respond.
16. Be gracious. If you find a story on Twitter and re-write the headline, give the original author a “hat tip” (H/T @JohnKRoman).
17. Be well-rounded, and tweet about stuff you don't study.
19. If you feel the need to snark (and the pull of the snark on Twitter is strong, my friend) create another account (they're free, you know).
Enjoy Twitter. It's a wonderful, enriching, democratizing platform.
Follow John Roman (@JohnKRoman) on Twitter. Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute