If I tell people I’m on Twitter, I tend to get one of three reactions:
a) Isn’t it all about what Lady Gaga had for breakfast?
b) How do you find the time?
c) You?!!! (Implication: Twitter is for hip juveniles rather than fossilised academics) This is unfortunate, because Twitter is a valuable resource for academics. If you’re allowing inaccurate stereotypes to deter you, you’re missing out.
First of all, you have to understand what Twitter is. It’s totally different from email, and more like a news broadcast. People all over the world are continually emitting tweets (very short messages) any of which can be viewed by anyone. You select what you want to attend to. There are two ways of doing this. The default method is to ‘follow’ particular people or organisations who tweet. Their tweets then appear in your timeline, which appears as a scrolling list when you open your Twitter page. The other method is to search for tweets that include a particular word: for instance, if you type ‘neuroscience’ into the search box at the top of the page, you’ll see all the tweets in the twitterverse that include that word, starting with the most recent.
If you want news about Lady Gaga, there’s plenty out there. But if you want information of a different kind, you can follow organisations such as the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, Guardian Science, the New York Times, Nature, etc. etc. Most scientific organisations, newspapers, and science journals are on Twitter, and by following them you have an up-to-date news stream about their activities.
It's OK to be a purely passive user of Twitter, just following people who interest you. In the circles I move in, a high proportion of tweets are messages pointing to a weblink, which may be a newspaper or journal article or a blog. This is where Twitter is such a useful resource for the academic: if you follow those who share your academic interests, they will point you to interesting stuff. When I first joined up I was impressed to find that within the first few days, I’d been directed to two new papers in my field that were very relevant to my work and that I hadn’t known about.
Many people remain as passive users, but you’ll get much more out of Twitter if you use it actively and emit your own tweets. Written an interesting paper? Starting up a blog? Twitter is a great way of informing people, but there’s a catch: you need to have followers, a topic I discuss more below.