A while ago, I read an interesting blog post by Kirk Englehardt, reflecting on why many researchers are still reluctant to use social media in their daily work. Kirk lists his top ten of reasons that make it worth-while for academics to tweet or blog, from sharing your research to increasing your professional network. In my role as Research and Science Communication Fellow, I have certainly met many researchers who do not see the value of engaging with social media. But over the years I have also talked to a growing number of people who see all the benefits and would be keen to use social media in their work, but just don’t get around to learning how to do so.
I can certainly relate to that. Taking on more responsibilities in my academic role means that I am juggling an ever-increasing number of tasks. Often, the only way to get something finished is to focus on one thing and push everything else to the back of my mind. On many evenings I collapse on the sofa and don’t have the energy to do yet another thing.
But there is another reason we aren’t learning something which we know we should be doing because it would boost our career, help our productivity, or make our research more valuable.
I am stuck.
For example, I really want to learn how to use the data analysis software ‘R’. I know that R is more powerful than Excel, and that it would be a great addition for my research and my publications. All the cool kids are using R. I have wanted to learn R for over two years now. I have downloaded and installed the software and a more user-friendly GUI version. I have bought a book ‘Introduction to R’. I have favourited and bookmarked blog posts, articles and PDFs. And yet, I still haven’t actually used it.
‘I want to learn how to use R’ isn’t a SMART goal. I have to break it down into several, tangible steps. I first need to find out how to organise and save my data in a compatible and sensible format. I then need to learn how I can run a statistical test on my data set, how to make a pretty diagram, and how to verify that I did the right thing. If I had set the task for myself to do one step every week, I would be an ‘R’ expert by now. So why didn’t I start?
I don’t necessarily need it now.
Even though there are many great arguments why ‘R’ is more powerful than Excel, I can do with Excel what I need to do now. Even though I was keen to read about more intriguing and useful alternatives to the usual bar charts and histograms, these are still mainstream in the literature and enough to convey the information I want to present. There is no pressure for me to learn ‘R’ now, and the pressures to complete other tasks are much higher.
I think that this is why researchers aren’t using social media, even though they know it is important. Getting stuck is not limited to using social media, but blocks us in all parts of our lives. It is why I still haven’t sewn my first pillow case, even though I have a sewing machine, thread, fabric and pattern all ready (I got stuck trying to set up the machine), or why it has taken me ages to launch this new blog (I got stuck many times in the set-up process).
In my experience, many new tweeters seem to get stuck during the following steps.
1) How do I sign up to Twitter?
Luckily, there are a lot of websites with good step-by-step instructions.
- Twitter 101: http://www.gcflearnfree.org/twitter101
- Learn how to use Twitter in 15 minutes: http://personalweb.about.com/od/howtotwitter/a/how-to-twitter-tutorial.htm
- Video: Twitter tutorial for beginners, especially teachers (by Julie Smith): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C69aEmkQp9w
2) I don’t have a good profile picture!
In order to be taken seriously on Twitter, to show that you are a real person and not a spambot, you should change Twitter’s default ‘egg’ picture immediately. If you don’t have a good portrait photo to hand, or do not like to upload your picture, do not get stuck. Instead, choose a picture of something meaningful at your work place, something that represents you professionally, draw a cartoon (my profile picture was a happy Golgi stack for a long time), or ask someone to take a quick photo on a smartphone. You can always change this picture later. Done is better than perfect.
3) I don’t know what to tweet.
After step 1 and 2, this is easy. If you follow my instructions, you will have posted your first three tweets within a few minutes.
- Find a website that interest you. This could be your research group’s website, a recent news article, your latest publication, an interesting upcoming conference….Visit the website bit.ly and paste the link in there. Bit.ly will create a short link that points to your original long URL. On Twitter.com, press the ‘Tweet’ button in the upper right corner of the website. Copy and paste the short link into your tweet window. Use the remaining characters to come up with a snappy description for the link. Click ‘tweet’.
- Find a Twitter account to follow. This could be a colleague, your university or professional body or learned society, funding body, journal, or ‘Academics Say‘. Find a tweet you like and re-tweet it (see instructions here).
- Reply to the tweet (see here) to tell the author why you liked their tweet.
How to find the time to learn something new?
I am still struggling with this. I have tried putting time into my diary, but then more urgent things crop up that need immediate attention. My colleague Dr Sîan Jones has set up a writing group in our Faculty called ‘Shut up and Write’. The group meets regularly and follows a schedule of 15 minutes meet-and-eat-biscuits, a quiet 30 minutes of solid writing and 15 minutes of reflection. Maybe we need a similar group called ‘Shut up and Learn’, where participants bring along computers, tablets, software and books, and power through the first steps of learning something new?
Starting today, our Faculty of Health and Life Sciences is piloting a ‘Twitter Week’ under the hashtag #brookeshls. Our Dean Prof June Girvin, an avid tweeter herself, sent around an email to promote this initiative, encouraging everyone to tweet and to teach colleagues how to tweet. I am very curious to see how this pilot scheme will pan out, and if the joint excitement among long-time HLS tweeters will give the last needed boost to those who have wanted to dip in their toe for a while. If yes, I hope that this article will be useful to them!