A Guide to Best Twitter Practices for Academics
(and Everyone Else)

Paula R. Curtis
January 14, 2021

I often receive questions from friends who are hesitant to get involved in social media (particularly platforms that can get as intense as Twitter) asking about best practices. How should they write posts? Should they link to something, or retweet it? Should they use hashtags more? It’s easy to feel silly asking these questions when the answers seem like something everyone else just knows. But like any tool, Twitter takes getting used to, and it’s not always an intuitive process. Furthermore, as academics, we have the additional concern of thinking about our roles in the public sphere, conveying information and participating in a mix of professional and casual communities. In this article I suggest some guidelines for Twitter engagement, specifically what I see as best practices for academics who want to maintain a semi-professional or professionally-oriented account. Mainly, I’ll address the ethics of online interaction along with practical aspects that make your content easier to find, share, and digest.

Let me start, as I usually do, with caveats:

First, what “professional” means can be quite different for many people, so here I distinguish an account that’s intended purely for the dissemination of memes, personal photos, etc., from one that hopes to convey some type of expertise, comment on historical or current events as an authority, share academic or other types of resources, and the like.
 
Second, you can do whatever you want. These are just suggestions (particularly for those who may not have much experience with Twitter) that tend to make communication and community building go smoother. I’m not writing this to debate whether tweets should be citable research sources or if we should all be operating as if they are. This is about being respectful, legible, and generally good people to one another while sharing information responsibly on a social media platform. (So please don’t @ me claiming I’m trying to ruin your internet experience, thanks!)
 
Third, I feel the need to state, as I often do in talks, that Twitter engagement isn’t for everyone. Some people tweet all the time, some only tweet at conferences, some only retweet, some just make an account and lurk, or they don’t bother at all. And that’s okay. You have to choose what level of interaction is right for you (and your mental health). So I’m not suggesting here that we all get on the Twitter bandwagon, simply that we think about our habits when we do.

So let’s jump in!


Give sources for your content

Some of you are probably thinking, “Hey, it’s the internet, you’re taking it too seriously!” right about now. But here’s the thing: content on the internet is still intellectual content. So, if you’re quoting someone’s article or blog post, pulling a digitized image off an archive, or sharing a chart from a news site, the person who made it should get credit. You don’t want to be thought of as someone who plagiarizes someone else’s work. Ideally, you should retweet them directly, link to the original source, or at least cite them by name in your tweet. That would be my hierarchy of preference, too: RT > link > named reference. This makes it easiest to find the original producer’s work for those who want to dig deeper into the subject themselves. While for aesthetic, space, or other reasons one might not always follow this suggestion, it’s important to think about how we represent the work of others and ourselves in online spaces.

Furthermore, providing the source also allows people to evaluate what you’ve posted as credible or not credible. If you post a chart, diagram, quote, or whatever without proper attribution, you’re increasing the likelihood for its misinterpretation and becoming a party to potentially spreading disinformation. In a time when the truth or falsity of online information is constantly being questioned, pause to think before you tweet something without being absolutely clear about what that information is and where it’s coming from.

Best Practice: Treat online content roughly the same way you’d treat print content.

Retweet from the OP (original poster)

As an addendum to the first guideline, I want to reiterate that you should retweet content from the original poster whenever possible. Why does that matter, you ask? Well, not only does it link people to the original source, which will allow them to evaluate its veracity, but it also boosts the visibility of the OP. If this person is another academic, someone who runs an organization, an artist, or whomever else, increasing traffic to their work can impact their career or even their livelihood. So part of respecting their work and contributing to the recognition of others’ labor can be as simple as a retweet, rather than just a link or text-based mention.

Also, if someone turned you on to an article, a group, an idea, or something else, it can be polite to recognize them in your tweet with a “H/T” (hat tip), thanking them for introducing you to that content you’re now posting. For example, “Here’s an incredible article on what’s going on in Hong Kong right now. H/T to @TwitterUserName for sending it my way.” Yes, polite society can even exist on the internet!

Best Practice: Boost the work of others and give it the recognition it deserves.

Caution: The question of visibility and traffic can also be a double-edged sword. Sometimes you’ll find that people have chosen to screencap a tweet and post a comment or criticism on it, rather than retweeting. This can be a strategic move to avoid giving space to certain people, particularly those who are posting hateful or offensive content. Maybe you don’t want to drive clicks their way, and that can be a purposeful move on your part.

Mention or tag universities, organizations, etc. when tweeting about them

One form of lowstakes interaction that also contributes to boosting the visibility of (and good karma with) those organizations that help make academic work possible is to mention or tag those institutions when posting about them. If you’re collaborating with a university, library, or other organization, if they’ve contributed to your work in some way, or any other type of connection, you may want to consider mentioning (@) or tagging them in a post that relates directly to them. Not only does this give recognition where due to the institutions that host or sponsor academic content, but also allows THEM to see that the work they’ve contributed to in some way is being seen. Many universities or grant-providing organizations want to see the outcomes of what they’ve supported, so knowing that the scholars or collaboratives they’ve invested in are actively participating in and being appreciated by various communities is much needed positive feedback. Protip: If you’re tweeting about a book you’re enjoying, you can include the twitter handle of the press! It can be helpful for both the press and the author to boost publicity and keep track of who reads their work.

Of course, don’t go wild and over-tag someone or a specific group of people – remember that there are humans on the other side of this, and they’ll be irritated if you’re virtually waving your hands around, constantly trying to get their attention. Be as circumspect as you would with any other interaction.

Best Practice: Actively seek to expand your networks without overdoing it.

Use hashtags strategically

Hashtags can be a useful way to gain more visibility or start conversations, whether you’re tapping into an existing community or trying to build one of your own. There are more general tags like #academictwitter or #librarytwitter that are fairly straightforward, or you might be looking for something more focused like #AcademicChatter that also has a dedicated account that acts as a landing pad for community conversations.

You may go more specific, as in the medieval studies community, which uses #medievaltwitter, or those in the history of disability studies (#dishist) or the history of medicine (#histmed). Finding where your people are can be a trial and error process, but don’t be afraid to use the “Search Twitter” toolbar to poke around and see where people are. You can find out through a search how active certain ones are before you include them (or if they’re being used for some other purpose). Some folks will know that the #AAS20XX tag passes from the American Auditory Society conference in early March to the Association for Asian Studies in late March, which makes looking through archives a little weird sometimes!

Be aware, though, that hashtag use is also an evolving thing. In Asian Studies, for example, racist hashtags started by right wing groups have ended up trending for seemingly strange reasons. In mid-2020 it took me a minute to figure out that there was a #JapaneseLivesMatter hashtag that started being used to post hateful content, only to be co-opted by online activists, who posted pictures of delicious food to flood the tag until it was unusable. It can be confusing when you’re not used to twitter to see these sudden trends pop up and it can take some getting used to. Make sure you understand a hashtag before repeating it yourself.

Best Practice: Find where your people and communities are, but be careful to understand their contexts.

Livetweeting

As social media use and presence has increased for academics in recent years, livetweeting (that is, tweeting out information about an event as it’s happening) has been a point of contention. Anyone can tweet anything and you can’t really stop them. Should people who present at conferences or workshops have an expectation of privacy to their work? Some people say yes, and that conferences are already public or semi-public venues. Some people say no, because presentations of one’s work can include unfinished or sensitive material that is only intended for that room. On the other side of this coin is that disseminating information that occurs at these venues is an equalizing force that increases accessibility, as not everyone in academia has the means to attend expensive conferences that take place all over the world.

There is no right answer as to whether we should or should not livetweet content. It’s always going to be a matter of context. Has the person explicitly stated that they do or don’t want you to circulate their materials? If they didn’t, have you asked them? Is the content controversial and likely to put the person in danger if shared without their knowledge?

If you do livetweet (particularly if you don’t have explicit permission from the speakers), you may want to consider the following:

  • convey primarily main arguments, the type of information that would be publicly available in an abstract
  • if you do convey specific details, do so sparingly—it may not be clear if the content you’re sharing is at risk of being scooped by another scholar (which unfortunately does happen)
  • be wary of sharing images, in particular—some people have rights from archives or museums to use those images in their presentations, but not necessarily to circulate them on the web 1
  • be conscious of whether or not this person may want photos of THEMSELVES circulating online—if you noticed that they don’t typically have professional photos up in any form, it may be for personal or safety reasons

Also, if you want to be livetweeted, mentioned, or followed, try to incorporate your twitter handle into your slides or specifically comment on your wishes so that people know.

These are just some general tips, and I’ll add that I have also gone through a learning process with this and surely made some missteps of my own. Ideally, you want to be thinking about how you can convey the most important aspects of what you’re hearing and how you can represent them responsibly, respectfully, and within the confines of the speaker’s wishes without compromising their work.

Best Practice: Respect peoples’ content and choices about digital visibility.

Be aware of your positionality

Positionality is an important part of considering what and how to tweet. By positionality, I mean your status or influence relative to another person. Are you a senior scholar tweeting about a graduate student’s work? How will that affect their careers? How does gender, race, privilege, etc. factor into what is being said? Are you a graduate student tweeting at a published author with 70k followers about how their work is terrible? If they tweet back, are you putting yourself in the crosshairs of a large mob of devoted followers? This may be particularly the case for academic and non-academic interactions.

You may often hear the phrase “don’t punch down” on Twitter. The Urban Dictionary definition for “punch down” is as follows:

For someone of higher rank, power, status, and position to engage someone of much lesser and/or inferior rank, status, power, and position in debate and/or argument. Not limited to just status, power, position, and rank but can and often do include intellect, capability, competence, and acumen.

In other words, think about the impact of what you’re tweeting, and to whom, before you tweet. It’s in bad form to punch down. Imagine the analog version of this: You’re at a major conference in your field as a second year PhD student, giving your first presentation. In the Q&A, Senior Scholar goes on a More of a Comment Than a Question rant, in which they berate you for all of the things you don’t cite and should know. All they’ve succeeded in doing is using their position as Senior Scholar who no one will question to embarrass and abuse a student in public. This person should know better than to be so uncollegial. Their harsh criticism could unduly damage your career. This person is punching down.

In the same vein, if you have a large following on social media, it’s likely that you have a lot of dedicated followers who are ready to come to your aid if something seemingly goes awry. If you have 100k followers and post about how X person did Y and they should be punished, consider how that might incite online harassment. Suddenly X is receiving a wave of criticisms, retweets, direct messages, or sometimes even threats. Some people who become the target of harassment by an account with a large following even get doxxed or have their places of work contacted. The internet can be a dangerous place, so it’s good to think about what you’re wading into when you are or interact with big name accounts.

Being aware of your positionality on Twitter can come in many forms that echo the practices of being a good colleague and responsible human being in person. Hopefully you’d no more cast an acerbic comment at someone who doesn’t deserve it than you would direct an angry mob at a passerby. If you wouldn’t say or do it to someone in person, chances are Twitter might not be the best place for it either.

Best practice: If you wouldn’t say it in person to a person’s face, don’t say it online. Be aware that professional relationships are just as complex online.

Don’t be a “Reply Guy”

Don’t be a Reply Guy. The Reply Guy phenomenon is so rampant on social media that the Women in Stem community made an entire chart outlining what they term “The Nine Types of Reply Guys,” and it’s been written about in GQ, on Mashable, in Men’s Health, and lots of other places. I didn’t make it up, I just experience it (so please don’t @ me if you’re mad at the concept, friends).

What is a Reply Guy, you ask? A Reply Guy can be many things, but the basic definition is a person (typically, but not always, a man) who responds to tweets by another person (typically, but not always, a woman) in a way that: 1) may be overly familiar or overly frequent; 2) includes statements of perceived expertise on a topic, often that don’t actually add to the conversation OR are intended as a corrective (“Well, actually…”); 3) proposes uninvited or unwelcome advice, often on something obvious to the OP; 4) redirects the conversation back to themselves, perhaps with an unrelated comment; 5) adopts a hostile or generally negative and unnecessary tone.

Often these types of responses are intended to elicit a response, to start an argument, or to generally be irritating. They tend to target women. Sometimes these are well-meaning comments, where people are just trying to help. But if the person is a literal expert in what you’re replying to them about and wasn’t seeking advice, you’re just going to end up annoying them as they sit there thinking to themselves: “I KNOW. Why do they think I don’t know this? Do they think I’m stupid?” You’re probably asking yourself, How do I know if they do or don’t want advice? I’m not a mind reader! Fair. But as I stated above, it’s good to reflect on your positionality before you tweet. If you’re worried that I might be talking about you, you can see Claire Lower’s article “Don’t Be a Reply Guy,” which provides some helpful advice for thinking through your online interactions.

Anyone can be a Reply Guy. Just don’t let it be you.

Best practice: Respect peoples’ space online and don’t always make it about you.

Avoid using makeshift italic and bold text

You may have noticed that occasionally people have tweets that include bold or italic text, which typically leads to intense jealousy and a burning desire to know how they did that. (WHY DOESN’T TWITTER HAVE MORE FUNCTIONALITY? we scream, also longing for an edit button.) There are websites that produce this bold or italic text and let you copy-paste it, BUT, you may want to think twice before you do.

This text is not created by applying design changes to your font, but by misusing scientific characters as if they were bold or italics. This makes it impossible for screen readers that visually impaired users rely on to accurately and coherently read the tweet. You can see an explanation about this here:

I myself have been guilty of doing this in the past before I realized it was an issue, so now I avoid trying to hack Twitter’s lack of functionality to get fancy-looking text. Having bold and italics is much less important than making content accessible to everyone. You can find other ways to improve Twitter accessibility online (thinking about emoji use, alt text, etc.), in this article that provides some quick tips.

Best practice: Consider accessibility issues that may arise from your tweet format.

Number long threads; try not to break mid-sentence if you can help it

On a more practical note, you may find that some people put numbers into their long threads, taking the form of something like “3/10” or “5/n” or “2/?” when they tweet. This is a relatively minor thing to worry about, but it’s still worth mentioning. Adding numbers at the end of your tweets does a couple of things. First, it signals that there’s more content coming, which is helpful if you’re composing a thread in real time. Second, it lets someone know that your thought might be incomplete, which is useful if someone selectively retweets only a small portion of your thread.

Should you number short threads? That’s up to you. You don’t have to have numbers on anything at all. But they can be helpful if someone is scrolling quickly, sees a retweet of your content, and notices it’s tweet 6 of 15. They might want to click and see the rest, knowing that there’s more content there. In the same vein, if you can avoid breaking your sentences up in between tweets, that helps folks to follow your train of thought if someone is sharing your content.

Best practice: Make the order of your content easily understandable to readers.

Don’t go mad with your tweet power

Now that you have a better understanding of how to be a successful academic tweeter, please don’t go mad with power. It’s important to maintain a good work-life balance and interact with the internet the right amount for you. Ideally, you also don’t want to function like a spammer posting every 5 minutes about your great animal friends, new socks, or how they just don’t make brooms to last anymore (they really don’t, though, get an old straw one!). Ultimately, your amount of share and the level of intimacy you want to maintain with the public is up to you, but it’s good to remember that Twitter can be another incarnation of our more familiar professional interactions, so to maintain a thriving and collegial community those rules of presence and respect should still apply.

Best practice: Do what’s right for you and serves your goals, within reason.


By now you’re probably thinking “Is this me?? Have I done these things?? Am I terrible??” and feeling a stab of anxiety (or five). But it’s fine. The great thing about life is that we’re always learning. Nobody expected you to jump onto Twitter as an expert. Or jump into academic communities as an expert! If you got this far reading, you’ve already demonstrated that you’re interested in expanding your knowledge and being better where you can be, in becoming more aware of online social practices. It comes with the territory of learning new platforms and modes of interaction in academia, the internet, and other walks of life that we’re always learning.

Hopefully what I’ve outlined above, though not exhaustive, will help you think more critically about the ways you interact with other human beings through this series of tubes, with positive outcomes. Being on social media does not come naturally to everyone and has its own sets of customs and practices. Not all of us may stick to the above suggestions 100% of the time, but it’s important to know why they matter and how they affect others. So go forth and tweet away (if you want to)!


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Last updated 2021.01.14

Images from iconmonstr.

  1. This was the case when I organized the De-centering the Global Middle Ages symposium, for which we circulated a form ahead of time to ask presenters their wishes for livetweeting and photos. We then reminded the audience before each presentation of any restrictions.

  2. A special thank you to Tristan Grunow and Jacqueline Antonovich for comments on early drafts of this article.