Author- Dave Riley, Recent PhD Graduate and creator of @SouthAsia71
I’ve been running my twitter account @SouthAsia71, alongside my recently-completed PhD thesis, since December 2014. The account tweets archival documents, info-graphics and analysis of the events that led to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. The account has attracted over 4,000 followers and tweets often reach more than 20,000 unique users. The past two and a half years have seen me travel the country talking to various audiences of academics and archivists. I also played a leading role in organising and participating in the Twitter for Academics Conference co-funded by the Law Lab in October 2016. My experience has shown that there are clear benefits to the use of twitter for research dissemination that include building a personal brand, building a network of contacts, stimulating debate with academics and the general public, sharing the sources of your research and the ability to insert your research expertise into topical debates. These benefits however, are not as straightforward to achieve as can commonly be suggested– in fact there are a number of barriers in the way.
This is the first of three blogs to accompany the Law Lab’s ongoing Project Twitter, aimed to encourage members to test the water on twitter through collective use of the Law Lab’s twitter account. This first post is to be an honest look, from my own perspective, at the barriers we need to kick down if the project is to be a success. Questions I am often asked and have discussions about centre on the reasons “not to” carry out such a project on twitter rather than the “how to”. Based on these conversations I’ve identified five barriers, those of; time; tech know-how; the ability/desirability to condense research into tweets; a lack of research credit and recognition for such actions; and a wariness of trolls and controversy. For each issue, I will explain why each is a barrier in front of an academic looking to disseminate their research on twitter, my personal experience in dealing with it, and my suggestion for smashing said barrier. The blog ends with a reflection on the lessons learned and the guiding principles for the Project Twitter experiment.
Barrier 1- Time Management
Time to spend on developing twitter content is the first, most obvious and most difficult barrier for any academic to overcome. Where anybody working in academia is supposed to find time amid research, teaching and admin to compose meaningful and well-composed tweets is a major question that needs to be addressed. The last thing academics need is more work
My project became more work than I imagined it would. In the first year, I committed myself to “live-tweet” the events as they had happened in South Asia, on the exact day 44 years later. This meant creating rich, engaging content on top of 60 hours of other commitments per week- it was too much. The project was sustained by my willingness to succeed (seen as I’d told everyone I was doing it!) and the enjoyment I gained from it. Nowadays having built an identity and a large archive of content, I can tweet when it suits me.
The solution is to minimise the amount of time and hassle involved in tweeting. This means creating no obligation to tweet and keeping any project designed to help academics fun. Having a collective a single twitter account, to which numerous academics contribute a small amount of time, could develop an audience for dissemination.
Barrier 2- Tech know-how
Most people that I speak to do not use twitter. To many it can seem like a strange environment and the benefits of using it are not immediately obvious (unless one wants to spend a substantial amount of time on it- see barrier 1!). Added to this is, what seems to some, an intimidating amount of technical know-how that is needed to create the kind of content presented by @SouthAsia71, for example.
I began the @SouthAsia71 project wary of my lack of technical skills. The development of the account’s infographics and comment cards has been a slow, self-taught process. The graphics I was posting in December 2014 were pretty dodgy compared to the textured and highlighted graphics I use now (displayed below). Even the new graphics however, are produced using only the most basic knowledge of Adobe Photoshop.
— Dave Riley (@SouthAsia71) December 14, 2014
By April 28th, Archer Blood was told that his evocative reporting had led Nixon and Kissinger to order his removal from Dacca pic.twitter.com/aEaLEdbK9a
— Dave Riley (@SouthAsia71) May 25, 2017
The key here is to make the process of tweeting as simple as possible for academic staff and PGRs. Eliminate the need for academics to learn how to use software such as Photoshop by providing them with their own comment card templates that are editable in a simple programme such as Microsoft Paint. They can then add their comment and quickly disseminate their research.
Barrier 3: Condensing Complex ideas into soundbites
There is a fear that academic integrity and nuance may be lost if years of research is condensed into a short “twitter-friendly” soundbite. It can seem that the medium of twitter doesn’t do justice to the rigour of academic research.
After much trepidation, I only began to share my personal views on my research topic in the last year. Previously, I had stuck to creating a narratives using archival sources. Since taking the plunge with the use of my “editorial notes”, sharing my analysis has helped develop my identity online inasmuch as I am now presenting my own voice to my audience. The practice has also helped me develop my writing style. On twitter you have to write clearly and concisely, and get straight to the point.
— Dave Riley (@SouthAsia71) May 25, 2017
Clear writing for Twitter only came with practice. The answer is to challenge academics to ban themselves from using jargon, split infinitives and complex words without compromising the nuances of their research. There’s no doubt this is a challenge, but it’s one that I found enjoyable and rewarding. The benefit is that your research can be understood by those outside of your field and the general public, providing opportunities for collaboration and public engagement.
Barrier 4: Research Credit/Recognition
There isn’t yet any research credit given to the process of sharing your research on twitter. It’s therefore a pertinent question to ask “why bother with twitter if my efforts will gain little recognition?”
Twitter is a tool that allows you to build a personal brand and make others aware of your work. Running @SouthAsia71 has allowed me build a network of contacts in the field of South Asian studies and has won me invitations to lead a seminar at Cambridge University, speak before staff and students at Oxford Brookes and an invite to speak to the South Asian Archivists and Library Group at SOAS. Rather than a place where credit is gained for research, Twitter is a fun way to build your personal brand, identify opportunities for collaboration, and engage with the public.
The solution here is to be honest with academics about what use of twitter is likely to achieve. It’s a tool that can be utilised to foster collaboration, encourage debate and disseminate your research.
Barrier 5: Wariness of trolls/controversy
Trolls are a hazard when it comes to social media. Stories of online abuse can make people wary of participating and publicly expressing their views.
Firstly, I need to caveat my explanation here with the knowledge that women suffer online abuse at higher rates and in more virulent forms than men. Women that tweet about sexuality and gender, in particular, can incur the wrath of an army of morons. My own experience here is that in two and a half years I’ve not been trolled too badly despite tweeting about a very sensitive conflict. I’ve been accused multiple times of being an Indian sympathiser, a Pakistani sympathiser, believing US propaganda, believing Soviet propaganda, and much else in between. No personal attack has been sustained, and I have only blocked one user after some vile nonsense that was not directed at me personally.
Last bit of troll feeding for the day pic.twitter.com/bM0NSlqvRH
— Dave Riley (@DaveRiley2810) November 14, 2015
Trolls should not be a reason for an academic to exclude themselves from the opportunities provided by Twitter, and in honesty it is more of a concern for many than a barrier. The best course of action is to be prepared for it and be aware of the tools at your disposal, from blocking an account to reporting abuse to the authorities.
Lessons learned: Guiding Principles for Project Twitter
Any project designed to utilise Twitter as a tool for academics to disseminate their research, boost their profiles and open up opportunities for collaboration and engagement needs to follow two major guiding principles. Firstly, the use of twitter needs to be provide “value for time”- this means that the results of twitter use needs to be commensurate with the amount of time invested. This means eliminating the need to learn the basics of graphic design and providing assistance to academics wanting to convert their research into “tweetable” material. Secondly, tweeting needs to remain fun. Academics need to be under no pressure to tweet and support needs to be available to help academics tweet in a way that will produce results- any semblance of hassle needs to be removed from the process. In my next post, I’ll outline how we propose these ideas form the guiding principles of Project Twitter.