Top 5 reasons I’ll follow you on Twitter

Photo by Leon Ephraim |
Photo by Leon Ephraim |

Everyone’s in a hurry these days.

Time-poor researchers who are encouraged by their institutions and supervisors to ‘get on social media’ are definitely in a hurry. Many of them want to know in about five minutes flat what it’s all about, how much time will it take, and whether they can be bothered.

OK, maybe they’ll put in ten minutes.

When I first started giving workshops on researchers and social media, I found myself lowering the threshold when I talked about getting involved. I was presenting good ways that people could get value out of social media in a relatively short time. I spoke about how creating an accessible, professional digital footprint doesn’t need to take that long. I gave – and still give – examples of how to ‘be found’ and gain profile without having to be tethered to Twitter all day.

Recently, though, I’ve started getting a bit antsy about this demand for immediate reward without spending time.

This ‘where’s my golden doughnut?’ attitude, usually coming from those who appear to be set against social media anyway (and were ‘forced’ onto it by their Heads of School or other research leaders), contains a distinct derisive tone. Especially about Twitter.

I recently read and shared @professornever’s post on Academic Twitter. I was intrigued by the way she described her contrasting experiences with a political/social interest Twitter account, and an academic one. One of the key points of difference she noted was the fact that fewer people were likely to ‘follow back’ on academic twitter than on her other account.

On this point, Katherine Firth (@katrinafee) says:

“I think a major thing about building a community in academic Twitter is that people look at what you say, rather than whether you follow them. So it’s harder to get started–but pretty egalitarian once you are contributing to the conversation!” [my emphasis]

Because social media is so much in evidence these days, some academics equate popularity of platforms with ease of accessing and engaging with that platform’s communities.

As I (and many others) have said: Any fool can send a tweet – and they probably already have.

Just being able to use the tech doesn’t create the information streams, conversations, or camaraderie that are the deeper rewards of being part of Twitter communities.

The biggest value in social media comes when you invest your time in getting to know the language and nuance of the medium – in other words, the culture of that space. You need to be open to learning and feeling ignorant. Your H-index does not translate to follower numbers or an instant understanding about the culture of online reciprocity.

These are my Top 5 reasons for following an account on Twitter:

1) The account belongs to an existing buddy, or family member (and I like them). 

Pretty self-explanatory, this one.

2) The account is run by an organisation that does work I’m interested in. 

For me, this includes orgs or publications that speak to the various hats I wear. For Research Whisperer, it’s things like the Australian Research Council (@arc_gov_au), the Chronicle of Higher Education (@chronicle), Vitae (@Vitae_news), LSE Impact Blog (@LSEImpactBlog), and Campus Morning Mail (@SRMatchett). For my research network (Asian Australian Studies Research Network), it’s orgs that do anti-racism work or promote social inclusion / cultural diversity.

3) The account is run by someone who is interesting, engaging, and posting about topics that interest me. I don’t think they’re a nutter or troll.

How can I tell? These are the very quick elements that I check – and this is definitely where ymmv.

  • Is it a ‘live’ account? That is, does the account participate on Twitter? If the last tweet is from 2011, I wouldn’t bother following it. If the account has never tweeted and is only a ‘lurker’ account, I won’t follow it.
  • Do they have enough of a bio so I know what they’re about? This is a broad element, but I’ll tend to gravitate to those with knowing senses of humour, info-rich bios, and no extreme political zeal.
  • Are they always fighting with others? A quick scrollback on their tweets can give you a heap of information. It can flag whether that person’s a possible troll. Or, even if not a troll, someone who would just be plain annoying to have in your twitterstream.
  • Do they talk to people? This is a big one – and very easy to check. Look over the account’s “Tweets & replies” stream. Does this account engage with others? Do they chat + respond to comments? Does it look like they have buddies on Twitter? I’m wary of accounts that only ever broadcast their own news/info and don’t share others’ work or converse. I saw an academic’s account recently where every instance of a response was a plug for a new book or an event at which this academic was speaking. Just don’t.

4) The account is run by someone with whom I have quite a few buddies in common AND they appear to be 3).

5) It’s an account that’s recommended to me by someone I trust. 

Currently, Jonathan and I follow 675 accounts through the Research Whisperer (@researchwhisper), and I personally follow about the same. So, all of this said, I am in a phase of Twitter usage where I don’t actively hunt accounts to follow any more. I do, however, still run through the checklist above when deciding whether to follow back.

When I first started – let’s call it the ‘voice in the wilderness’ phase – I was hungry for good, interesting, snarky, funny accounts to follow. It was an exciting time, but also one where I knew it would take a while to familiarise myself with the culture of Twitter and what constitutes a useful or entertaining tweeter.

There are still 1000s of fab accounts out there I haven’t seen, but – for now – what my feed brings me and the rate at which it scrolls is about right.


  1. I agree with the sentiments you have expressed here Tseen, particularly about the expectation of instant results with no effort. I have come across several authors moaning about their book not selling but when I explain what they can do on social media over time to gain greater prominence they tell me, with a certain sniff, they are a writer/researcher, not a marketer. That ‘derisive tone’ betrays twentieth century thinking. Effective social media use is about contributing to a community, not marketing. This will include sharing your research/writing to that community but, as with any community, it is not about me, me, me. How are you helping others in the community? How are you stimulating debate? Are you sharing thoughtful insights and useful resources? Are your posts building people up with positive energy and empathy, or are you a miserable troll?


    • Thanks for your comment, Yvonne! Yes, it’s really not about ‘me, me, me’ – I want to turn it around as often as I can to say, ‘Well, what do YOU bring to the table? What value might people get from your input / material?” Basically, if you don’t make yourself useful in social media, you’ll have difficulty growing a network (let alone gain much satisfaction out of it for yourself!).

      The positive energy element is one that I’ve come around to more. I’m by nature relatively snarky so quite like various levels of sarcasm and irony, but I can understand how having this kind of persona (or being thought to have it) can work in different ways (not always good). Doesn’t mean one can’t be snarky, but that one should realise that being snarky may have other consequences!


    • Thanks, Amani! Yes, I saw that list (flagged to me by @drwitty_knitter) and thought it was an interesting exercise. This post, with perspective tweaked a bit, could have been ‘what makes a successful tweeter’ – if you’re not talking to others and having conversations on these platforms, you’re kind of missing the point of social media altogether.


  2. For those trying to get more out of Twitter, you could curate and use Twitter lists and Tweetdeck to split up subsets of must-read tweets/follows, of some interest, of specific interests, etc


    • Thanks for that, Arthur – I really like the idea of the Twitter lists but I find the interface pretty clunky + hard to manage across platforms (e.g. mobile version is bad). The potential is there, but it’s not my go-to function.


  3. […] Followers are looking for informative, engaging, responsive accounts that bring value. Think of how your account could share resources or FAQs around your research area, feature good blogposts, make infographics or share aspects of primary material (e.g. scans from archives), discuss methods or processes that would help other researchers, or simply shares your experiences – good and bad – as an academic researcher. You don’t have to do all of these things but, chances are, you’d be a great account to follow if you did a few of these things every so often. Here’s why I’d follow you on Twitter. […]


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