The rise of social media is viewed by many as yet another means of procrastination. Yet academics are increasingly turning to Twitter, not just for entertainment and networking, but to engage audiences in a new way.
One of the best-loved academic accounts is@NeinQuarterly; a feed that blends aphorisms, jokes and an expert knowledge of German literature and culture. It was established by Eric Jarosinski, a former US professor of German literature, writing under the nom de plume. His work now appears in German and Dutch newspapers and has been turned into a book, Nein: A Manifesto, which was released last year.
I had less grand ambitions when I started my own anonymous account,@TheLitCritGuy. I had finished my master’s degree and had a Twitter account that I didn’t really use, so decided to dedicate it to talking about the ideas that had intrigued me during my studies. I was pleased when it picked up a number of engaged and curious followers.
I had to decide what to talk about, develop a posting schedule and realise the limits of my own knowledge – with a vocal group of followers I had to be honest about my own inexperience (I actually found it liberating to tell them when I didn’t know the answer to something).
Anonymity comes with certain benefits. The persona means that I don’t have to run my opinions by my institution or worry whether my managers might deem something acceptable. I can express my anger about the conditions of higher education, and I get to mix jokes with theory without worrying that my colleagues will take me less seriously.
For others who wish to do something similar, there is no sure-fire approach, but here are the things that worked for me:
Have a distinctive voice
Anonymous accounts do not have to have a name or a face, but must offer an original perspective. The pseudonymous accounts @EthicistForHire and@CrankyEthicist offer potential followers a clear guide of what to expect.
Have a purpose
One of the most successful anonymous academic accounts, @AcademicsSay, posts jokes that academics connect with – about coffee, being overworked and the ever-present catchphrase “you should be writing”. These highly shareable posts keep the account focused and identifiable, and have drawn a huge following.
Find your audience
Rather than just posting into the void, the best academic accounts use the tools of social media to find an audience. There are hashtags such as #twitterstorians, for example, where historians post their thoughts. I use #TheoryTime, so my followers can catch up on topics they may have missed.
Try new formats
I quickly realised the limitations of Twitter and decided to expand my account into a research blog, as well as using the platform I had built on Twitter to write on new websites, bringing my work to a much wider audience.
Social media allows for academics to become relatable – Twitter is a space for conversation and mutual education. I try to keep the important details of my life private, but a few personal details, as well as opinions and replies to followers, make the account more interesting and fun for those following.
Away from the structures and rules of university networking, anonymous accounts can enable direct, non-hierarchical connections. Impact becomes something more than a metric as people are able to communicate with academics and see both the good and bad sides of university life. Anonymity has enabled me to share the struggles of being an early career researcherand the sheer joy of teaching, as well as talking about my intellectual passions.
Anonymity does mean that my account won’t necessarily benefit my career within the university system. However, as more academics take to social media anonymously, such accounts are allowing a new kind of creative, flexible academic voice to emerge, more closely linked with the public than the ivory towers of the university system.
I’ve received countless tweets, Facebook messages and emails from people across the world, who, for various reasons, couldn’t pursue their own passion for literary theory. It’s a genuine privilege to answer their questions and learn from them, whether I’m emailing economists about Foucault or discussing phenomenology with a nursing student.
Social media has shown me that people are curious and searching for new ways to be engaged and to learn. It can change the way we teach and spread knowledge beyond the limits of the university, allowing us to connect with the public like never before.