A little birdie told me…

Week 2: How Are We Using Twitter?

There’s been a push in recent years, in institutions of higher learning, to maintain an active presence on social media as academics, historians, digital humanists, researchers, department chairs…all of us.  But how are we actually USING it? What are our goals in utilizing these platforms and are we actually achieving them? What are the benefits and pitfalls of one of the most used and well-known micro-blogging sites? This week, I zeroed in on three different Twitter accounts —Dr. Rachel Boyle, (public historian and curator for the Chicago Collections Consortium), Zeynep Tufecki (author, digital humanist, and professor at UNC), and the Digital Lab at King’s College in London—to see how they were using the platform and what we can learn from it.

Let’s have a look…

Aggregating data

Twitter is great for easily aggregating data. Twitter Analytics (if logged into your account, analytics.twitter.com) allows users to view their own account’s statistics and see which tweets are being noticed.

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My Twitter Analytics page for @enc213

So, for an institution or individual, the ability to see which tweets are being looked at compared to how many followers you have, whether or not you’re reaching new followers…all good things.

The platform’s best known features, @whoever and #whatever, also democratizes conversation–you can @ anyone and have a direct line of communication or connect directly by a subject or idea (#digitalhumanities) and search for other people, institutions, etc. who are interested in that field as well.

Here, the CEO of RTLGroup, Bert Haberts, posts an article by Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Social Protest author Zeynep Tufecki and tags her with her Twitter handle.  She responds by retweeting.

Twitter also plays nicely with other programs like TAGS and Tableau that allow users to scrape data around a particular hashtag and create visualizations of that data, both helpful and cost-effective for individual researchers and institutions alike.

Building Community

In democratizing conversation, Twitter also allows for a broadening sense of community across institutions, disciplines, and individuals.  This weekend, the University of Sheffield hosted this year’s Digital Humanities Congress and, while many of us may not have been able to attend, we could still tacitly participate in the worldwide conversation that it fostered through #dhc2018, as well as tweets and retweets from both participants and those interested in the field.

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King’s Digital Lab retweets a conversation about digital literacy that includes the hashtag #dhc2018

So, what’s the downside?

Well, Twitter’s vastness, for one.  It’s easy to go down the proverbial rabbit hole of tweets, links, retweets, etc., and soon feel either distracted or overwhelmed with the amount of data and resources available.  Knowing the goal of your account (Admissions recruiting? Research? Raging at @realDonaldTrump?) will help you tailor your account and its data to your needs and keep the vastness in check.  Again, if your goal is research, using programs like TAGS and Tableau can cut some of the cyber noise and help you focus on the information most relevant to your project.

Cartoon by Ron Morgan


Despite its vastness, Twitter can also be a bit insular.  Within a small discipline or subject area community, the conversation can often become a well-meaning but less effective loop, disseminating information for many who are already in the loop, rather than eliciting action or reaching new audiences.

See here…

A small bit of data collected in TAGS around the hashtag #dhc2018.  Tweets from DH scholars are being retweeted by other, like-minded DH scholars.

and here…

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Dr. Rachel Boyle, a public historian, tweets her blog (Omnia History).


So, Twitter is a great tool for aggregating data, building community, and networking across institutions and disciplines.  At the same time, its vastness can distract, and the echo chamber it can create can sometimes render it ineffectual. Keeping your goals in mind can help you or your institution utilize social media platforms like Twitter in a way that is most effective for your objectives.


2 Replies to “A little birdie told me…”

  1. The part on Twitter analytics is fascinating. I didn’t know that feature existed! I briefly looked at TAGS and Tableau. The ability to trace were ideas are coming from seems both great for future historians but also a bit creepy for modern day users.


    1. Thanks, Emily! I agree that the ability to access and manipulate data on that scale is both amazing as researchers and a bit terrifying as consumers. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to know why and how it’s being used–because others certainly are. I’d be happy to walk you through a TAGS collection if you ever want to play around with it.


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