#AcademicTwitter: A How-To Guide for Anthropologists

[Footnotes is excited to present a guest post by Jules Weiss. Jules Weiss (they/them pronouns) is a 2nd year MA student in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University. Their graduate research (so far) focuses on identity embodiment among transgender people who are part of punk music communities in the Pacific Northwest. You can find them on Twitter @queerpunkanth or via email at weissjul@oregonstate.edu.]

Twitter is used worldwide as a platform for activism, demonstration, and documentation. It’s also increasingly used by academics to share ideas, stay up-to-date in their research fields, and raise awareness about controversies within their fields. The conversations happening within #AcademicTwitter are far-reaching and interdisciplinary. However, many anthropologists, academics, and people in general are unaware of how to use the platform or how it functions within an academic context. The purpose of this post is not to explain Twitter basics. That’s why the site’s Help Center exists. The purpose is to promote good praxis. I highlight a handful of features and illustrate how they are being used by academics, particularly anthropologists, to disseminate information, collaborate, coordinate, and organize in ways that can have a long-term benefit on the discipline.

A disclaimer: Twitter is a private website not designed for academics. The company is constantly testing, tweaking, and rolling out and back features. By “good praxis” I mean effective use of tools provided to accomplish goals efficiently and ethically. In this case, I’m mostly concerned with Twitter literacy among anthropologists and the use of the platform to promote equitable discussion. I’m not policing manners, but acknowledging good praxis depends on positionality. This post is meant mostly for those who are intimidated about Twitter technology and are looking for where and how to start.

Account Details

A view of my display name (Jules Weiss) and @ handle (@queerpunkanth) as it displays on my personal profile.

Like most social media sites, Twitter allows a user to customize how their identity and personal page appears to others. Two items are of particular interest to me: display name and @ handle. It’s common practice among users participating in #AcademicTwitter for one of these names to be your actual name, or something close to it, while the other can be treated as a way to convey some other aspect of the account’s purpose. For example, my display name is my full name so it’s easier to find my account and so that content I post is recognizable, but my @ handle is descriptive of my identity, research, and my account’s purpose.

A view of my display name (Jules Weiss) and @ handle (@queerpunkanth) as id displays on a tweet in my timeline.

Multiple Accounts

Twitter allows you to operate multiple accounts. These each have to be generated using different email addresses or phone numbers (so they have distinct login information) but in the mobile app you can have multiple accounts logged in at the same time and switch between them (on a desktop browser, you have to log out of one account to log into another). Each account is distinct in its followers, its following list, tweets, likes, etc. In the academic world, the ability to have multiple accounts can let you maintain separate professional and private accounts. Mixing personal and academic spaces is a radical move, but it’s not always safe to do so. I have a private twitter account that is separate from @queerpunkanth. It’s the account I use to follow and interact with friends and vent about my cat puking on the floor. My real name is not contained in either the display name or @ handle of my private account, and I didn’t create it intending for it to be found by people who know me through professional channels. @queerpunkanth is my professional account. I don’t post anything there about feline vomit, and I follow mostly other anthropologists and academics (more about that in a moment). Not everyone has distinct groups of people they want to separate their interactions with in this way. But consider the option of having a separate account just for fieldwork which can be used to follow and interact with informants in line with how they like to use social media.

Following

The function of following puts the “social” in social media. When you follow other users on Twitter, their tweets, retweets, and likes will come across your homepage feed. You can follow fellow scholars whose work you want to know more about. Many organizations and academic journals also maintain Twitter accounts where they post events, publications, and calls for papers. Unlike Facebook which is bidirectional (you are automatically ‘friends’ with everyone who is ‘friends’ with you) Twitter is unidirectional: you can follow people with no expectation that they follow you back. There’s a lot to unpack with this expectation, but consider who you follow, what they bring to your feed, and what you’re learning from them. Twitter allows you to create online communities that are unlike your everyday, face-to-face life communities which can help you to cultivate different knowledge. If you’re a senior scholar, consider following-back junior scholars who follow you to hear more about their experiences and learn from their insights. White scholars can follow Black scholars and #blacktwitter, urban scholars can follow rural scholars, cisgender/heterosexual folks can follow queer folks, etc. You can treat your Twitter feed as an exercise in anthropological observation – an opportunity to learn from people and communities you don’t normally access.

This is pretty straightforward, but there’s a feature that’s a little difficult to find called Lists. Lists allows you to organize people you follow. These Lists can be public or private. When they’re public, you can subscribe to a List that another user has made (and other users can subscribe to yours). You can view users by List and see only the content shared by the accounts on that List. Consider the ability to make multiple Lists depending on how you want to organize accounts you’re following. For a friend of mine who does his graduate research on hazelnut farmers, this might be a List for environmental anthropologists, a second for horticulture researchers, a third for non-anthropologist climate change researchers, and a fourth for farmers themselves. If you’re trying to use Twitter to keep up with current events and contemporary research, this is a great way to make this feel more manageable.

Blocking

There are two functions by which you can minimize how much content you see from specific users: muting and blocking. When you mute an account you’re following, you’re still following them, but you no longer see their content in your feed. They still see yours, unless they’ve also muted you. This is a great feature for when a person whose content you normally enjoy is filling up your feed too much or when someone is posting about that new TV show episode you don’t want to be spoiled about. It’s easy to implement and reverse, and the user who has been muted isn’t aware of your action.

 The popup that occurs when you select the option to mute a user. The box reads "Mute @eyatesd? You won't see @eyatesd's Tweets in your timeline, but you will continue to see notifications. They won't know they've been muted." and gives the options "CANCEL" or "YES, I'M SURE".
The view that occurs when trying to see the profile of a user you have blocked. The top of the image displays the display name and @ handle (Mark Lebeau, @MarkLebeau3) of the user along with the text "Blocked" in red surrounded by a red outline. The center of the image reads "@MarkLebeau3 is blocked. Are you sure you want to view these Tweets? Viewing Tweets won't unblock @MarkLebeau3" and gives the option "View Tweets" with a white outline.

The more severe option is blocking. When you block a user, you automatically unfollow them (if you’re following them in the first place). Additionally, if they’re following you, they are forced to automatically unfollow you and they no longer have access to any content on your account: tweets, following and followers lists, likes, the whole thing. Since social media-based harassment is an increasing problem in academic social media environments, blocking does not just protect your account but it also minimizes the access that a harasser has to other users in your social (media) circle. In good academic social media praxis, this allows you to effectively close a specific user out of any series of conversations and limit the access harassers have to potential victims.

Liking + Bookmarking

There are two ways you can keep track of other people’s posts: Liking and bookmarking. Liking is really straightforward. When you click the heart icon on a tweet, it gets tagged and put in a folder with every other post you’ve Liked, which you can access from your account page. Unless you’ve made your account private, other users can see your Likes as well. Additionally, Twitter recently altered how the homepage feed works, and now users who are following you may see items across their feeds that you have Liked and that the algorithms think you may also enjoy seeing. The message here is: be careful what tweets you Like! Users who follow you will be able to see this.

Bookmarking is inherently more private. When you add a tweet to your bookmarks, you’re able to view it in a privately accessible folder. A user whose tweet you’ve bookmarked isn’t aware that it’s been bookmarked. Consider this a “saving it for later” feature. If you don’t have time to read that 60-tweet-long thread now, you can bookmark it for another time, and once you’ve read it, you can clear it from your Bookmarks folder. You can also bookmark tweets in order to save them without promoting them analytically in the same way that Likes do.

Tweeting/Threading

Tweeting is the bread and butter of Twitter – making a post. Each tweet has a maximum of 280 characters (increased from the original 140) including links, which count as 23 characters, and one photograph or screenshot (which will allow you to tag up to 10 people on the tweet without using your character count). Because of the limited word count abbreviations are common. These may be alienating at first, but as with all new linguistic practices, fluency comes quickly through exposure and use. Engage your research skills; when you encounter abbreviations and acronyms you don’t understand, look for context clues and use web searches to your advantage. Once you send a tweet, you can’t edit it, so proofread if grammar is important to you (but don’t be a prescriptive linguist – follow @sarahshulist for reminders about why policing grammar or typos is bad anthropological practice).

Threading is when you reply to a tweet with a tweet of your own, so the tweets form a “thread” that other users can scroll through. Threads document and organize individual conversations. When building a thread, you can go ahead and just start tweeting, or you can plan and compose the tweets ahead of time in a note or word document. It’s good practice if you know you’re going to have a lot to say to number your tweets. This is done in a variety of ways, most of which mark each tweet as number-out-of-total-number. At the beginning or end of the tweet, you can type something like (1/17) for the first, (2/17) for the second, etc. If you don’t know how many tweets will be in your thread, you can mark each with a question mark for the final count (#/?) or simply leave the other side of the slash blank (#/ ). On the last tweet, fill in the final count with the actual number of tweets in the thread (17/17) to indicate that you’re done. This way of marking threads is sort of the Twitter equivalent of saying “hold on, let me finish, don’t interrupt me”. Other users can like, reply to, and retweet each tweet in a thread individually, and it’s common practice to retweet the first tweet in a thread to prompt users who follow you to read the entire thread.

A Tweet from user Emily Yates-Doerr (@eyatesd) that reads "The theme is 'Healing + Collective Transformation.' Keynote by Adrienne Maree Brown. Organized in par by @ Micknai, who was hosting the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony you might have seen at #AmAnth2018 #WakandaU2018. Deadline for proposals Dec 5. See also:" and is followed by an image of two black hands holding up a red silhouette of the earth. The image is part of a link to the website anarresproject.org with the byline "Radical Imagination Conference "Healing and Collective Transformation" April 19-20, 2019".

When you’re trying to promote content that originated from outside Twitter, you can simply copy and paste a link to that website into a tweet. Twitter will automatically shorten that link and provide a tile that usually includes pulling an image, title, and description of the content from the metadata of the website you’re linking to. This, like retweeting, is a great way to cite and attribute content to its original source. Tweets with links can be retweeted by users to further share the content in question. Additionally, when posting a tweet with a link, you have the opportunity to provide a comment. This space is commonly used for posting a quote from the content itself, adding hashtags if the content is applicable to an existing conversation, and mentioning other users who may want to see the content.

Retweeting

A tweet retweeted by user Emily Yates-Doerr from the user Jeremy Trombley (@WatershedAnth). The tweet reads "Speculative Anthropologies - a fieldsights series on the intersections of SF and Anthropology coedited by @anthropologia @EmmaLouiseBacke @royal_t14 @beth_reddy and myself is now live on @culanth!!! Check it out:" and is followed by a link to culanth.org and the page "Speculative Anthropologies - Cultural Anthropology".

Retweeting is a way to share content created by other users with your followers. Promoting work by minority and precarious scholars is good praxis, and Twitter’s retweeting feature makes this easy to do. There are two options: with and without comment. Retweeting without comment posts the specific tweet to your follower’s feeds with a marker indicating that you’ve retweeted it. Retweeting with comment allows you to post a comment, in the form of a 280-character tweet, above a link to the specific tweet. Retweeting is a metric Twitter keeps track of just like Likes, so it’s a good way to gauge how far a tweet has spread. It’s also a great way to promote and cite content created or posted by other users. Retweeting maintains credit for the original tweet; the username of the user you’re retweeting from stays with the content as it’s effectively reposted to your page.

A tweet by user NISGUA (@NISGUA_Guate) that reads "U.S. policies that criminalize migration ignore long relationship b/w U.S. & Central America...media outlets characterize migrants as fleeing Guatemalan violence for a country where they do not belong. For many Guatemalans, they are fleeing circumstances that are American-made." This quotes a tweet from Emily Yates-Doerr (@eyatesd) that reads "An article and photo essay of mine detailing the US government's role in Guatemalan migration has been published in @SAPIENS_org. sapiens.org/culture/guatem..."

You might see some accounts profiles that say retweet ≠ endorsement. But consider that everytime you retweet content that you don’t agree with you are boosting its analytics – making it more popular and more visible. If you want to post something of which you are critical, consider screenshotting it and posting it as an image (this is also useful in case the original tweet is deleted). Think of retweeting as a way of amplifying to help ideas you to like to spread.

Hashtagging

Hashtags are Twitter’s way of connecting content, and the feature has spread to various other social media platforms. Placing hashtags into a public tweet allows that tweet to be found when another user searches for that hashtag. You can also follow hashtags in much the same way that you follow other users, and all of the content posted with the specific hashtags you’re following will appear in your homepage feed. For example, #AnthroTwitter is a channel for people to ask and respond to questions about anthropology-specific concerns.

Hashtags have also been used to organize social movements: consider #metoo broadly or #hautalk in anthropology specifically. When organizing around events or issues, generating a hashtag is a good way to make sure that content related to that event or issue is marked appropriately and is easy to find by other users who want to be involved in the conversation. If you’re attempting to organize, make sure a hashtag you’re trying to use is original and is clear. Use the search bar to check if a hashtag is already in use and see if other users already involved in the conversation agree about what hashtag is appropriate to be used for the topic.

Mentioning Other Users

In addition to hashtags, you can mention other users in a tweet by typing the @ symbol followed by their username. Twitter pops up a sort of search bar when you type the @ symbol, so you can easily search for people to insert their @ handle into your tweet. When you tag a user in a tweet in this way, they’re notified that they’ve been mentioned (unless they’ve turned off notifications). When posting a link from an outside source, for instance a blog post written by another academic, you can mention the author using their @ handle in the comment you post along with the link (if you know they’re on Twitter and you can find their account). This cites them within the context of Twitter and allows your followers to see who the author is and how to reach them on Twitter. It also makes the author aware that you’ve posted their work and lets them know that they’ve been cited.

Managing Notifications and Use

Twitter allows you to receive notifications in multiple ways, most commonly on your smartphone and through email. Check your notification settings and make sure they’re to your liking – you can turn notifications for multiple kinds of activities (likes, retweets, mentions, etc.) on and off, and manage in what form and how often they’re delivered to you. It’s important here to keep in mind issues of unpaid labor. Very rarely are people paid to tweet, and there’s no expectation that anthropologists must be on Twitter and constantly engaged with the platform and the discussions occurring there. Interacting with social media can be distracting from academic work (and life in general). It’s okay to be a heavy social media user and it’s also okay to take extended breaks. Engage at a level that’s comfortable for you. If you’re concerned about over-use, there are applications and softwares that can track your use or help you manage disconnecting.

Social media in general is no substitute for face-to-face interaction and building physical community. But it is a welcome platform to many marginalized and precarious scholars, especially because it provides means for publication of ideas in a public, non-institutional realm without the format or timeline of traditional peer-reviewed academic articles. Twitter moves terribly quickly, and it can be hard to keep up with (especially if you’re not the most literate with the platform) but the pace allows for mobilization around pressing political concerns. Some scholars even construct well-researched and cited “essays” on Twitter (see this thread by Dr. Zoe S. Todd as a great example of how well-composed threads work and of how the platform can be used to build arguments). There is good work being done on Twitter, both lengthy and short, and folks are already figuring out ways to “count” this labor: Tweets being cited in journal articles (which is good citational praxis). These practices are growing in popularity and acceptance.

To serve as both citation and promotion of scholars whose Twitter work I’ve drawn on in writing this piece, here’s a brief list of people I recommend those interested in engaging with #AcademicTwitter and #AnthroTwitter follow. These scholars, many of whom are junior, minority, and/or precarious, are all doing what I consider to be excellent praxis using Twitter as a platform for anthropological work and progress in the field. Consider following them, listening to what they have to say, and learning from their experiences.

  • Zoe S. Todd @ZoeSTodd
  • Sarah Shulist @sarahshulist
  • Rine Vieth @rinewithoutacat
  • Adam Fleischmann @afleisch_anthro
  • Jacklyn Grace Lacey @TheVelvetDays
  • Robin Nelson @robingnelson
  • Adia Benton @Ethnography911
  • Louis-Philippe Rӧmer @lromeranth
  • Nick Seaver @npseaver
  • Danya Glabau @allergyPhD
  • Lorena Gibson @lorenagibson
  • Nayanika Mathur @NayanikaM

And also, of course, my #hautalk co-panelists – our work so far would not have been possible without Twitter:

  • Takami Delisle @tsd1888
  • Taylor R. Genovese @trgenovese
  • Savannah Martin @SavvyOlogy
  • Anar Parikh @anarparikh
  • Hilary Agro @hilaryagro
  • Dick Powis @dtpowis

Hopefully, for those who are unfamiliar with Twitter as a platform, this encourages you to get involved with the conversations already taking place. For those less-fluent users, this should provide some suggestions for improving your comfort with the platform. Twitter is a tool, and as with any other tool, you must find the way to use it best for the task you want to carry out.

The research for this post was sponsored by a department research grant to Dr. Emily Yates-Doerr @eyatesd from Oregon State University, and was conducted under the labor protections of the Coalition of Graduate Employees.

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