Thursday, 6 December 2012

Reaching for the blue rubber chicken

Posted by Peter Tennant

UK Prime Minister David Cameron once quipped, 'too many tweets… make a twit'. OK, so he didn't actually say twit, he said something far ruder. But you get the idea: man says rude things about Twitter, outcry follows. Trouble is, he was only repeating something that many people already think about the world's most famous 'micro-blogging' service; that it's full of the self-absorbed wittering on about what they'd had for breakfast. So a bit like Facebook, only more celebs and less baby photos.

Which is why it was so surprising when David Cameron suddenly joined Twitter last month. No doubt, he had expected the ensuing torrent of abuse. His opening tweet promising not to make 'too many tweets' was almost certainly an attempt to placate the predictable cries of 'U-turn'. But I guess he felt that the benefits of joining now outweighed the risks of looking like a twit.

Twitter evangelists: Ever feel like slapping them with a blue rubber chicken?
For a politician, the argument seems pretty clear. Over 10 million UK residents now use Twitter. Worldwide that figure has been estimated as high as half a billion. If, by sending out a few brief messages, a politician can communicate with just a fraction of that number, then the proceeds are palpable. Twitter provides a person, or an organisation, with a direct line to the public. Why waste your time being misquoted by journalists when you can mis-tweet all by yourself?

I (@Peter_Tennant) joined Twitter back in Summer 2011 to explore how it could be used for 'work'. And when I say work, remember I'm not something useful like a public health practitioner wanting to find new ways to get people to take their flu jab; I'm an Epidemiologist who spends most of his day staring blankly at a computer screen. So my interests were purely in Twitter as a networking tool, information feed, and broadcasting service.

I started out pretty cynical, spending the first few weeks mumbling about how rubbish it was. But as my followers increased, and I got myself involved in more and more conversations, my view began to change. Until, without noticing, I'd converted into one of those boring Twitter evangelists. The sort of person who I'd ordinarily want to slap across the face with an oversized rubber chicken (painted blue, of course, to resemble the twitter logo).

But the annoying truth is, Twitter can be useful. Almost everyone I follow is interested in some aspect of my professional interests. Which means my 'feed' is full of news about higher education, life as a PhD student, or articles about obesity, diabetes and/or pregnancy. I've lost count of the number of relevant articles I've discovered purely through Twitter, and there's not a tweet from Steven Fry in sight. On the flip side, this means that my followers will hopefully be interested when I tweet the results from my latest publication. At least, that's what I like to believe…

But neither of these benefits really compare to Twitter's strength as a networking tool. Not only have I made some new friends in my own building, but I've had several conversations with people at conferences purely on the back of Twitter. In fact, it was probably only when I went to my first academic conference as a Twitter user that I was truly sold.

But it's not all positive. First, there's the spam, which consists either of messages from friendly users who've clicked on a phishing link or, worse, from 'spam-bots' (the giveaway being the scantily clad profile picture). They're easy to deal with, but they’re also rather boring.

My main challenge, however, has been the scope for misinterpretation. Like when I tweeted about a colleague having a giant red nose and for some reason they were offended* It can be difficult getting the balance right on Twitter. If you don't have a personality, no-one will follow you, but if that personality is too open or opinionated, get ready for trouble. After one memorable incident, I had the words 'libel' and 'defamation' thrown in my direction. And that was despite my strict adherence to Peter's Rule:

"Never say anything on Twitter that you wouldn't be willing to say in person, out loud, to a room of your colleagues."

I have since realised that the perceived prominence and permanence of Twitter make even this rule a bit weak. Even when I say things completely consistent with my character, people have still accused me of overstepping the mark. Until I can work out a solution, I've decided to retreat to making bland statements and asking obscure statistical questions. So if you're on Twitter, I really wouldn't bother following me…

And I haven't even touched on the really big issues about power and privacy. Twitter has been simultaneously praised and damned for its roles in the Egyptian Revolution and the London riots respectively. Several people have been arrested following ill-conceived or distasteful tweets. And what about Twitter's unchallenged authority to block someone's account at will (a power that took on a darker twist when one journalist was blocked for attacking one of Twitter Inc's commercial partners)? Does any of this effect Twitter as a research tool? I don't think so. But I'm willing to change my mind if I ever get arrested for tweeting something libellous about Bayes.

*May not have happened. Thank goodness.


  1. Really enjoyed reading this Peter, very well written and entertaining!

    I have always wondered about the utility of mixing personal and professional Twitter accounts. Do you merge everything into your personal account, or keep academia Twitter separate? On one hand, separating it can make Twitter easier to handle and keeps personal Twitter-ing in its own little box. It also might help with the separation of 'normal life' vs 'academic life' (as we know, 'PhD-life' can, and does, become 'your-entire-life').

    But then there's no denying that academia is as much about the person as it is about their work, and arbitrarily separating the two will never work...

    Personally I have one Twitter account and combine the two. As I research palliative and end of life care it can be a bit disconcerting reading a tweet from Stephen Fry (following the herd I'm afraid) then reading a tweet two seconds later from a hospice describing poor death experiences!

    Really enjoyed this Peter, well done!

    Rachel Stocker

    1. Thanks so much Rachel - I just have a single 'work' account, in which I try to present my 'work' persona. I tend to use Facebook for my personal social networking.

      At work I consider myself to be quite an open person with a range of professional interests (i.e. other than just perinatal epidemiology), so I try to reproduce this online, but it can be difficult to know when I am slipping into being too personal. I would not generally tweet about something in the news, or on TV etc. unless I felt it was at least slightly relevant to my wider progessional interests in Social Medicine or Higher Education, but I do occassionally allow a purely personal remark (e.g. complaining about travel delays) to sneak through, because I think it's also important to be human. I have no idea whether I am getting the balance right, I guess some of my experiences would suggest I am not. But it's all a learning opportunity!

  2. Another good post, Peter. I made the mistake of having two Twitter accounts - one for business and one for pleasure, but this has proved entirely unsatisfactory. I will try to combine the two and use Twitter for work only.

    As for Peter's rule, I have heard you say perfectly outrageous things in a room full of colleagues so I am not surprised that you occasionally step on someone's toes. Life (and the internet) would be too tedious to bear if you didn't!

    1. Outrageous, perhaps, but perfectly outrageous? You give me too much credit...