Twitter: an evangelism-free introduction

At a workshop at the 2013 DECIPHer symposium, something raised repeatedly was staff and students’ need for some introductory guidance on using Twitter. As someone who uses it on a daily basis (as @DECIPHerCentre and @CattTurney) but has only been tweeting for a year or so, I know that although exhortations to “just give it a go!” are all very well, it’s good to have some pointers when navigating this strange new territory.


I scoured the internet for something suitable but all the useful guidance I found was mixed up in articles about why Twitter is awesome*. I’m assuming if you’re reading this that you have some interest in using Twitter and don’t need to be told how great it is, so what follows is my (mostly) evangelism-free guide to using Twitter for the first time.

Note: If you’re a researcher, are already tweeting and want something more advanced, this list of ‘serious Twitter tips for academics’ may be more what you’re looking for. If you want a more comprehensive ‘how to’ manual, the LSE’s ‘ Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities’ guide is excellent.

Getting started

Think about why you’re using Twitter. Do you want to use Twitter to find out about new research in your field? Live-tweet your struggle to master the oboe? Chat with others at a similar career stage as you? Build up your professional profile? This will affect who you follow, what you tweet and what your bio says about you.To get the most out of Twitter, you’ll need to set up a Twitter account, by going to and clicking ‘Sign up’. You’ll then have to provide some basic information and choose a Twitter handle (username). Any tweets you send will be displayed at<your Twitter handle> – for example, DECIPHer’s is @DECIPHerCentre, meaning all DECIPHer’s tweets can be seen at

Choose a good Twitter handle.Your name is a good start. If you want to use it purely for work, it might be useful to have something in your Twitter handle related to your job. If you want to use it for posting hilarious messages about public transport, you probably don’t want to use your real name.

Add a photo straight away. It doesn’t have to be of you, but replace the avatar Twitter gives you (an egg) to show you’re a real person and not a spambot. A background and header also make your profile more memorable and attractive, but the priority is to get rid of the egg.

Do a proper bio. You get 160 characters to tell potential followers about yourself, your interests and what you’ll be tweeting about. Add your personal or work website if you have one.


The next thing to do is follow people.  Find a couple of people on Twitter with whom you share some common interests, and look at their followers, people they follow and their Twitter lists, and follow some of them. Search on Twitter for terms and people that interest you, or Google ‘Twitter + <name/subject/place/whatever>’. You can follow up to 2000 people to start with, and unfollowing on Twitter is easy and stigma-free, so be liberal with your following and then edit later.

Don’t just follow people like you. Twitter can be great for validation and support. However, if you only follow like-minded people, you miss out on valid and constructive debate with people who might disagree with you. Granted, not all of it will be constructive (see ‘don’t feed the trolls’ below) but it’s worth trying to avoid Twitter becoming your personal echo chamber.

Photo of ducklings in a line

By only following each other, these ducklings are missing a valuable opportunity to engage with constructive critique.


It’s OK to lurk… You might find that initially you follow lots of people but rarely say anything. This is how lots of people start off, and even if you never tweet, you still get access to a whole bunch of conversations and content that you wouldn’t otherwise.

 …but it’s more fun if you join in. Twitter is about conversations. If it feels daft to you to be tweeting into the ether, join in conversations that are already happening. There are three main ways to do this:

  • RT – Short for ‘retweet’, this is a way of forwarding someone else’s tweet. You can either click on the ‘Retweet’ button or just copy their tweet into a new tweet, preceded by ‘RT + <their Twitter handle>’. A variation of this is MT (short for ‘modified tweet’), which indicates you’ve changed the other person’s tweet slightly rather than repeating it word for word.
  • @reply – Respond to someone on Twitter by including their handle at the beginning of your tweet. A @reply only shows up on your profile and in the timeline of people who follow both you and the person whose Twitter handle you’ve included.
  • Mention – Respond to someone by including their handle anywhere else in your tweet. A mention shows up on your profile, and in the timeline of anyone who follows you.

Twitter: lurking allowed

Find tweets that are interesting or relevant, and retweet or respond with a @reply or @mention. Comment on things you’re retweeting, so followers still get something from you as an individual. As you build up followers, engage with them – follow them back if they look interesting, start conversations, encourage comments and respond to questions.                                                                                     

Pro tips

Once you’ve mastered the basics, the best way to figure out how Twitter works for you is to learn by doing.  There are, however, a few useful things to bear in mind:

Twitter is public. This is the golden rule of Twitter. Unless you protect your tweets (in which case only approved followers can view them), what you put on Twitter can be seen by EVERYONE. That includes your  employer, funders, research participants, parents, kids, and anyone else who has access to the internet. If there’s even the smallest chance that what you’re saying might be libellous, breach confidentiality or get you into trouble, don’t tweet it.The same goes for gratuitous nastiness – remember there are real people behind Twitter, and  abuse and bullying online still count. You can delete tweets, but nothing ever really disappears from the internet. If you do say something misjudged, it can often be better to acknowledge it, apologise and move on, than to just delete it and pretend it never happened.

Tweet consistently, whether this is every five minutes or once a month. It’s easy to have a splurge and then not tweet for ages; you may find it easier to tweet consistently if you build Twitter into your work routine.

Link yourself up… If you’re using Twitter professionally, include your Twitter handle in your email signature, on your staff profile page, and anywhere else your details are listed. Tweet to content of yours in other places – papers, blogs, that video of you talking about your research – and engage with people if they respond.

…but don’t spam. No-one wants to follow someone who’s just out for self-promotion. Try to get a mix of your own stuff and other people’s, and don’t post the same link to your blog 2987198267 times.

Don’t feed the trolls. Some people are out there to derail, distract, and destroy good debate. ‘Trolls’, people who post deliberately inflammatory and/or irrelevant content on social media sites, thrive on being engaged with. As in the real world, you’re not under any obligation to respond to abusive, personal or irrelevant comments on Twitter, and there are structures to deal with these. Ignore/unfollow/block/report.

Use the tools that work for you. A quick Google will point you towards countless tools and features to help you use Twitter in the way that you want to. Three I find useful are Twitter lists, for grouping accounts you follow, and Tweetdeck and Hootsuite, which are both great for viewing different streams of tweets in one go (e.g. allowing you to view your tweets, mentions, timeline and various lists all on the same screen) and schedule tweets.

Learn the language. There’s a whole new language that comes with Twitter, which can be confusing at first. As with most aspects of Twitter, a lot of it will start to make sense as you use it more. However, the Twitter glossary is very useful if you want to check out a new term, and this one’s pretty good too.

And finally…

If you try tweeting and hate it, you can delete your account. One of the advantages of Twitter is that without having your own account, you can still read other people’s tweets – just go to and type in their Twitter handle or their name, or go directly to their Twitter feed by typing ‘<Twitter handle>’. Equally, tweeting can take a while to get used to, so it’s worth persevering if it feels weird at first. It’s common to either feel you’re tweeting into a void or to worry that the things you’re tweeting aren’t valid/interesting/sparkly enough. Social media is still new, and there are lots of emerging social processes for which we’re still working out the rules as we go. That’s OK. Twitter can be an amazingly supportive and engaging environment, but it takes time to figure out what works for you.

 Do you want to use Twitter but still have questions? Are you a seasoned tweeter with wisdom to share with those who are newer to the world of social media? Please comment below or tweet @CattTurney.
* This isn’t technically true. Some were evangelism-free but were pitched at the wrong level (I don’t know how to send a tweet yet, what’s all this about MTs?) or fantastically patronising.About the author: Catt Turney is Research and Knowledge Exchange Assistant at DECIPHer. She tweets at @CattTurney.
Image sources:
Map – Enrique Flouret, via Flickr; Ducklings – Matt Chan, via Flickr.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *