#AcademicTwitter is one big, emotionally exhausting popularity contest. It’s a bit like being back in high school again, but much worse. At least in high school, there was some ambiguity about who’s popular and who’s not. On #AcademicTwitter, your popularity is signaled clearly and unambiguously by your follower count. The higher your follower count, the more pressure you’ll feel to tweet something “clever” to your followers. You become alienated from yourself because you no longer say what you want to say, but rather what you think your followers want to hear. When you tweet something meaningful only to you personally, you are punished by fewer “likes” and “retweets.”
I’ve built up over 18,000 followers over the years. Not bad, but not as good as academics like Jordan Peterson or Steven Pinker. I’ve achieved these numbers largely through sarcasm and dry humor. I find that people respond to self-deprecating jokes like this and humorous critiques of the absurdities of academia, like this. Recently, my humor has taken a bit of a nosedive because of the tragedy I’ve experienced in my personal life. The Twittersphere does not respond positively to tragedy. Well, that’s not exactly true. If you share a personal trial or tribulation with your followers, you’ll be met with an outpouring of sympathy and support. But if all you tweet is negativity, then you’ll start to lose followers very quickly. Nobody wants to follow a Debbie Downer.
“The higher your follower count, the more pressure you’ll feel to tweet something ‘clever’ to your followers. You become alienated from yourself because you no longer say what you want to say, but rather what your followers want to hear. When you tweet something meaningful only to you personally, you are punished by fewer ‘likes’ and ‘retweets.'”
There are several benefits to using #AcademicTwitter. You can use it to promote your own work. When my papers get published, I always shamelessly tweet out a link so folks can read it. You can use it to make new friends. I regularly interact on Twitter with academics I’ve never met personally, but I definitely consider them to be my friends. You can use it to get quick answers to your research questions. Sometimes I look in vain for the right reference or citation, but when I throw it out there on Twitter and ask for help, I get a flood of helpful suggestions.
But there are also some drawbacks to using #AcademicTwitter. Get ready to have everything you say taken out of context. This is inevitable because it is impossible to provide context on Twitter, given the character limit. Get ready for insults and attacks on your integrity. People are much more vicious behind a keyboard than they would ever be to your face. Get ready for the endless self-doubt. When you lose a follower, you will likely wonder what it is you said that put them off. @AcademicChatter used to follow and retweet me regularly, and now they’ve stopped following. I can’t help but think it had something to do with the fact that I started tweeting about the loss of my mother. As I said, no one wants to follow a Debbie Downer.
On balance, though, I would say that #AcademicTwitter is worth it. In other words, the +’s outweigh the –‘s, overall. This net benefit makes coping with the inevitable toxicity worth the pain. But don’t hesitate to take a Twitter break from time to time. Sometimes, you just can’t be bothered with the haters. And believe on, on #AcademicTwitter, you’ll find plenty of them.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
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