Thoughts on Twitter Outreach

I had planned to spend a day off from my social media work doing non-social media things, but then I checked Twitter, where @RogueClassicist had shared a recent post (excerpt below) on the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) blog.

My experiment with Twitter proved to be a failure. I began by obeying the rules of etiquette, then breaking them deliberately to see what worked. For example, I retweeted my own material (a big no-no on Twitter), I pestered others to retweet for me, I stopped following others when they got political, and I refused to discuss politics myself. Many followers soon unfollowed me, but I still ended the year with more followers than I started (c. 600). The problem is that from start to finish, most of my followers were either classicists or friends of mine. My conclusion—again, an unpopular one—is that Twitter is an echo chamber. It’s terrific for communication among classicists and highly educated fellow travelers, but not beyond—certainly not for reaching millions of non-classicists.

Michael Fontaine. “Blog: Promoting Classics to the Public—What Worked, What Didn’t, What Could.” 6 February 2017. https://classicalstudies.org/scs-blog/michael-fontaine/blog-promoting-classics-public—what-worked-what-didn’t-what-could 

While there are quite a few things in this post that I would like to discuss, I am going to focus on just two: Twitter and outreach.

Reaching Out–Why and to whom?

Let’s talk about the idea of Classics outreach first.

Before we can use social media effectively, we need to know what it is we want to use it for.  We need to have a clear idea of what we want to communicate and with whom we wish to communicate.

We talk about outreach, but what do we mean by this term? Do we all mean the same thing? What does outreach look like?

As I mention in my tweet, I’m not a fan of the word outreach. It’s far too vague–what are we reaching out about? Who are we reaching to? Is the focus on those doing the reaching or those being ‘reached’? Why are we trying to reach them? What, exactly, do we hope to achieve by reaching out?

There are other words that might better reflect what we’re trying to do. My personal preference is the term humcomm–humanities communication, modelled after science’s scicomm. I also like the term engagement, as it conveys the idea of a two-way exchange. I believe that is what outreach should be about–communicating the importance and relevance of humanities (and in this particular case, Classics), to others. It is about engaging people in conversation, talking with them rather than at them. I believe humcomm–or outreach or engagement, if you prefer–is about people communicating.

Social media is simply being social through one of many various platforms, be it Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. It’s strength is that we can now have conversations with people around the world and across time zones about all sorts of shared interests.

My own goal with my humcomm work is to share the diversity of what we do in humanities and its relevance to people today with people beyond the university’s walls. I want people to see that the humanities are engaged and interested in the world. I want to have conversations with people outside the university environment to demystify what academics do.

We can use social media such as Twitter to break down the university walls and give outsiders a glimpse of what we do and why it matters.
As part of this, in 2015 my colleague Darrin Sunstrum (@darrinsunstrum) and I began voluntarily live-tweeting the Greek mythology courses we were both teaching assistants for, and I also used Twitter to engage with current events (such as the destruction of Nimrud/Mosul) with archaeology students.

While most students use Twitter passively, reading tweets rather than actively tweeting, we did engage with some of our students directly on Twitter. What was really encouraging though, was seeing how our tweets about myth got picked up and shared around the world. People were interested!

We experimented to see what resonated with people and played to our own strengths. Darrin connected mythological themes to pop culture and superheroes; I tended to connect themes to art history or astronomy. Anything related to archaeology or that could be illustrated with coins always seemed to do well. People are interested in the past and its stories.

Our Twitter conversations also brought about professional connections that have continued. Through our tweeting, we connected with two Classics professors at other institutions who also taught myth and we shared each others’ tweets and hashtags. This not only amplified each others’ voices, but also gave anyone following the course hashtag insights from other scholars.

Some people seemed to follow the hashtag regularly and engage with us, while for others it was probably more a retweet of a neat image popping up in their time line and passing it on via RT, but the point is this: for two hours every week we had a conversation about Greek mythology and heroes on Twitter with interested people from around the world, and those people got a glimpse into a university lecture hall. The university’s walls disappeared.

Twitter: A lost cause?

Which leads me to the second aspect I wish to address: Twitter itself.

I began by obeying the rules of etiquette, then breaking them deliberately to see what worked.

Fontaine’s social media strategy here really baffles me. I’m not clear what he was trying to accomplish.

The “rules” of etiquette exist to make people comfortable interacting in a given setting. Social media has its own etiquette. Being aware of and respecting these guidelines is important to fostering positive interactions.

I am puzzled why Fontaine would deliberately break the “rules” of Twitter. While some Twitter errors are less egregious than others, it seems counterproductive to actively choose to engage in potentially obnoxious behaviour if one’s goal is engagement. We would hardly show up at a dinner party and put our feet on the table, so why do so when someone has invited us, literally, into their hand?

Many followers soon unfollowed me, but I still ended the year with more followers than I started (c. 600).

Despite the prominent place Twitter gives to the followers/following numbers, it isn’t actually the best metric for assessing one’s Twitter effectiveness. While it’s a number we always like to see increase, it needs to be considered alongside reach, impressions, and, most importantly, engagement.

The followers number can be misleading for two reason: firstly, a person does not necessarily need to be a follower to see your Tweets (provided your account is public). They may find your tweet through Twitter’s suggestion algorithm, by someone else retweeting it into their feed, by searching for a particular hashtag or keyword, by subscribing to a Twitter list you are included in, or by seeing someone they follow engage with it. Your tweets reach more than just your followers.

On the other hand, your followers likely include a number of business or spam accounts that have followed you in the hopes that your account will automatically follow them back and they can advertise to you. Or it may include people who liked the pics of your cat but scroll past your other tweets without reading them. Or people who didn’t want to get inundated with your Twitter chat and muted you and forgot all about you. It happens.

Fortunately, Twitter provides more useful metrics. Impressions tells you the number of times your tweet got served up in users’ feeds. Reach tells you how many individual users got your tweet in their feed.

And engagement–that’s the magic number. That number tells you how many users actually interacted with your tweet. They clicked on your tweet to expand it, they liked it, replied to it, retweeted it, followed a link, played the video–in short, they interacted with your tweet. Twitter provides an engagement rate as a percent; while the number seems small, a rate of 1% is actually good.

My conclusion—again, an unpopular one—is that Twitter is an echo chamber. It’s terrific for communication among classicists and highly educated fellow travelers, but not beyond—certainly not for reaching millions of non-classicists.

The accusation that twitter is an echo chamber gets trotted out so often, I’m starting to think I should get a t-shirt made:

Yes, Twitter can be an echo chamber. So can Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. So can our newspaper and magazine subscriptions. And our book club, our coffee club, our drinking buddies, our lecture hall. In short, we can turn any social interaction and information consumption into an echo chamber if we wish.

But as Hannah Čulík-Baird points out, it’s only an echo chamber if that’s what we make of it. Twitter can be a fantastic window on the world. It can be opportunity to engage with people we may never have talked to otherwise. I know that I have met many interesting people via Twitter that I may never have struck up conversation with in real life, either on account of geography or life circumstances. My Twitter network goes far beyond Classics, or even academia, and I don’t think that’s at all unusual.

  The SCS needs new networks beyond Facebook and Twitter.

While I agree with Fontaine’s conclusion that SCS needs networks beyond Twitter and Facebook (Instagram and Snapchat are major players with our current generation of students, and who knows what will take off next), I strongly disagree that Twitter is a lost cause.

Each social media platform has its own demographics and is used in different ways. Current students, for example, do not use Facebook the way we did in its early day, and they generally tend to consume Twitter passively, rather than actively tweet. (I recognize that even these generalities can be dangerous because every user is unique in their preferences.)

When we know who we want to engage with (other scholars? students? future students? parents? retirees?) and what it is we want to achieve with this engagement, we can choose the medium that will be most effective. There is no one social media platform that is going to reach everyone all the time. The key is to find what suits our audience.

Not everyone has the inclination to engage with Twitter, and that is perfectly okay. But, if we dismiss Twitter as an effective communication tool, we are also dismissing those who are already using it for Classics outreach and devaluing their work (which is a whole other post for someone else to write!). I can easily think of a half dozen Classics people on Twitter who are doing a great job engaging others and fostering conversations: @opietasanimi, @rogueclassicist, @AvenSarah, @greekhistorypod, @SarahEBond, @EllieMackin, among others.

Every public conversation these scholars have about Classics on Twitter is outreach; even if that conversation is with a fellow scholar, it may be followed by anyone. Direct outreach with non-Classicists is important, of course, but we can also think about ways our engagements with other Classicists on social media can also function as outreach.

Oh, hi! Two goats peer at each other around the corner of ruined baths in Turkey.

We don’t need to start from scratch

I think there is much we can learn about outreach on social media from our colleagues in other disciplines, both within the humanities (#medievaltwitter and history twitter come to mind), but across the university as well.

Scientists seem to have recognized earlier than us the necessity of communicating what they do to the public–to demystify the white lab coats and experiments with high-tech equipment. While perhaps we were generally complacent that the greater public understood the importance of humanities, scientists were breaking a new trail and leveraging the power of social media for scicomm– communicating the value and importance of science to the public.

There is much in Classics that I believe the general public would be interested in–people are still fascinated by archaeology and the past, and I don’t need to explain to fellow Classicists the relevance of many themes we deal with to today’s society.

We don’t need to start social media outreach from scratch. We can look to what our colleagues in other disciplines are doing and learn from them. How do they capture the public interest? How do they engage the public in conversation? How do they capitalize on current issues and interests to bring their discipline into the spotlight again and again?

As Hannah Čulík-Baird points out, the key to successful social media is to listen, listen, listen. Listen to what others are saying. Watch what others are doing on Twitter. For example,  @alongsidewild (David Steen), @whysharksmatter (David Shiffman), and @astrokatie (Katie Mack) do a wonderful job engaging the public on Twitter and are well worth following.

It takes time, patience, and experimentation to build a social media presence that fosters conversations with non-academics. It doesn’t happen over night–it can take months and years. It’s never quite finished. It isn’t easy–there’s no formula to follow– and it’s not for everyone. As academics, we’re not always comfortable with the nature of such public experimentation, but it is necessary.

Social media is not going away, so let’s embrace it with enthusiasm and make our discipline part of the public conversation. It isn’t a problem, but an opportunity to shape a new conversation.
Enough from me! Please share in the comments examples of academic Twitter accounts (any discipline!) who you think do a great job engaging non-experts. I would also love to hear how you have used Twitter to break down the university walls. And give me your thoughts on humcomm/outreach/engagement, too–who should academics be trying to reach and why?

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Twitter Outreach

  1. Aven McMaster

    I think your point about needing to define ‘outreach’ clearly is very important. I do think that one of the reasons the term is used is that it IS vague — which means that it covers a lot of quite different activities with quite different goals. In a sense that’s a good thing — there’s room, and need, for many different types of engagement, communication, informing, entertainment, critique, education, etc. that can be done meaningfully by members of the Classics community in an outward facing manner. I’ve also heard it called ‘public scholarship’, which is still very general, but perhaps in a different way. In any case, I think it’s crucial that each person think carefully about their particular goals, and what means are best for achieving those goals. It may well be that Twitter does not suit the goals, or that the type of effort needed to make Twitter work well is not suited to everyone. But, as you make very clear, it can, and does, do many of the things that can be covered by ‘outreach’ in the hands of many people. It is not, of course, the be-all-and-end-all of outreach, though. Which I know we all know!

    Thanks for continuing the conversation so thoughtfully!

    Like

    1. Alison

      Thanks for your comment! You’re right, the vagueness has its advantages. There’s just something I don’t like about the term, though, but it’s just personal preference. The activity itself is what matters.

      I think outreach looks different to each person–each scholar needs to determine what outreach means to them and what form it will take. Nobody can–or should–try to do everything! But if each person takes part in some way, we can cover many more channels.

      And I think that however one chooses to engage in outreach, it’s important that they find joy in it. People respond to our enthusiasm.

      Liked by 1 person

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