Monday, November 5, 2012

Using Twitter for Academic Research

I'm a big proponent of turning to new media and social networks when doing traditional academic research. If one goes straight to library catalogues or the indices of academic journals, this is problematic for two reasons: you are pursuing a less efficient, non-social mode of inquiry; and you are consulting only what I call "fossil knowledge": knowledge that has great value, but is not living because one cannot interact with it, and it has been taken out of discursive contexts where it can grow and develop.

Therefore, I'm training my students to follow a socially optimized research strategy that consists of four broad steps:
  1. Tell people
  2. Curate your research
  3. Search new media and social networks
  4. Search traditional scholarship
I have focused on the first two of these steps in a blog for another course. Here, I'd like to focus on the third step, searching new media and social networks, with an emphasis on using Twitter.
Step Three: Search New Media and Social Networks

Assuming that one has already been notifying others about what one is researching (step one, as Janelle has done so well recently via Facebook) and that one has a way to keep track of and organize one's research (step two), the next step is NOT to go to traditional scholarly sources (or "fossil knowledge") but to the live web. Many of the services I will discuss here may change or go away, but the key principle will not: find where people are currently discussing your research topic and connect with them.

As with step one, telling people what you are researching, this step is fundamentally social. Even though your searches may relate to topics and content, you've got to think in terms of building a personal research network. In other words, as a researcher your primary task shifts from building a bibliography to building a set of contacts. 

Another principle at work here: aim to move from general searches on general media platforms to targeted queries on specialty social networks. As you build out your personal research network, this will become more natural.

I'm going to use the example of searching for information about the teaching of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. So, where is it that people are currently discussing this research topic? Many places. But for the sake of brevity, I will limit this post just to microblogging.

Research via Microblogging / Twitter
A microblogging service is a social medium dominated by brief updates. The brevity, frequency, and casualness of those updates (or "tweets" or "plurks" or "pings") are what give them intellectual liquidity. Basically, because they are readily shared they are broadly shared (or can be). These updates lack the seriousness of academic research, typically, but that's actually their advantage. Were updates more formal, the threshold for participation would be too high. So, we are looking for casual social media. It is possible to start there and then find one's way to the more important people behind those updates, with all the seriousness you can handle down the road.

Twitter is currently the dominant microblogging platform, though there are others (, plurk) and one can consider the updates posted on major social media platforms like Facebook and Google+ to be microblogging -- but those are a bit different, as are Instagram or Pinterest, and deserve their own separate discussion. 

Ideally, you are already on Twitter (because over time one can develop a reliable personal learning network via Twitter that can then be called upon for help with research). But even if you are new to Twitter, a search at can be very useful. Here are some suggestions:
  • Be smart about search terms. Think of related terms or ways to make your search more general (instead of "shakespeare midsummer night's dream" you might try "shakespeare midsummer" or even just "shakespeare"). Let early search results refine your subsequent searches as you note the terms by which people refer to your search topic--including hashtags.
  • Use and watch for #hashtags. So, search for "#shakespeare" and not just "shakespeare." A hashtag is metadata; a label. Those who use hashtags are consciously categorizing something. In other words, you're more likely to run into those who are studying Shakespeare if they go to the trouble to mark that word as a term. Sometimes you'll see hashtagged terms in a tweet that you hadn't thought of, and then you can click on those or use them in a subsequent search. So, you might stumble across a tweet tagged with both #shakespeare and #rehearsal. In another search, you could include both terms in order to find people currently performing Shakespeare plays. There are tools for monitoring twitter hashtags, too.
  • Watch for events
    Live people are tied to current events. Watch for mentions of conferences, speeches, webinars, etc. You might even work these into your search terms ("shakespeare conference," for example). With Shakespeare, it is obvious that one can find performances or rehearsals being mentioned on Twitter. In the past, I've had students find and interview actors. They tend to have a lot to say about something they've been so focused on -- and what actor doesn't like attention?
  • Watch for media
    People who are posting content want others to notice it (and them). If you find someone has posted a link to an image, a video, or something else that they have created, you might take a look. And again, you might even work these media into your search terms. When I entered "shakespeare instagram" I quickly found an example of Midsummer Night's Dream being performed in a park.
Thus far, I've been suggesting things to look for, but you want to get quite quickly to the people behind those things. Remember, you are not just exploring a research topic; you are creating a personal research network that will be far more efficient and engaging than all of your best solo searching.

I like to think of a pattern of content -> people -> content (or even better: people -> content -> people). You move as quickly as you can from your initial searches for content to those people who are producing or interacting with that content, who in turn serve as more focused filters for finding and as sounding boards for your own developing content.

How might this be done on Twitter? 
  • In search results, look at who not just what. You can find enthusiasts or experts in your Twitter search results that are based on a topic. Click on their profiles and scan their tweets to see if their interests are in range of your own.

    When in my search results for "shakespeare" I saw that someone had a picture of Shakespeare as their Twitter profile picture, I clicked to see their profile. This person self identifies as a Shakespeare fan and gives a link to their blog. I clicked through to the blog, and it's clear this person is very serious about Shakespeare. If I have a Twitter account, at this point I would likely create a new list based on my current research (perhaps named "shakespeare") and add this user to that list. Later, if I've collected several, I can then just follow that short list of people and then be getting a Twitter stream highly focused on my current research. 
  • Search Twitter profiles
    If someone has gone to the trouble to self-identify in their Twitter profile with keywords that match your research interest, that's a good lead to lock onto. One can simply use the general search box on Twitter, scrolling down to the "search all people" selection to delimit the search. However, I suggest going outside of Twitter for this purpose to third-party services that do a better job of finding profiles based on topical terms. Check out or (For more advanced searching of Twitter profiles, see this post by Amybeth Hale)

Here are the results for searching "shakespeare" within Twitter profiles via WeFollow. Now, here's the thing. You can either browse some of these people to see if they are in line with what you are researching, or, alternatively, you can click through to see those who are following that account. In some cases the latter is going to be far more useful. 

I decided to try @daintyballerina. She's an academic researcher with 4,000+ followers. I can browse through her tweets or check her profile to see whether she seems like she's interested in my subject. Another way is to perform a Google search of a Twitter profile, like this: site:[twitter user URL] [search terms]. This will return any tweets from that user with that search term. I tried it with @daintyballernia, using this via Google: midsummer
This yielded four tweets. One praised an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Neil Gaiman. Another recommended an original pronunciation version of Midsummer. Trying my search again, but this time dropping "midsummer" and using "teach," I came across a whole conversation where a variety of people are debating the difficulty of teaching Shakespeare. I don't need to look any further. Not only have I found someone in the zone of my research area, but I have found other Twitter users connected to the first who have been involved in conversations about how to interest kids in Shakespeare. I could follow @daintyballerina or add her to a Twitter list. The next thing I would do would be to click through to the profiles of those having that conversation with her just a month ago.

There are many, many ways to start following the social connections on Twitter. Once you find one person solidly centered on your topic, you can look at whom they follow, who follows them, etc. I've mentioned Twitter lists. This is another way of getting into a topically oriented social network

  • Twitter Lists
    Above I stated that one can create a Twitter list to keep track of those that appear to be potentially good members of a personal research network. But one can also directly browse or search Twitter lists. Since such lists have already been curated by other Twitter users, they tend to be focused and useful. One can start from a Twitter List directory, like Listorious. When I searched for "shakespeare," I found one focused list and pulled it up. These don't look all that promising at first glance, but then, I can look at the members of that list and check out whom they follow or their follows and start building a Shakespeare-oriented Twitter list of my own.

I find that Twitter lists are more powerful when arrived at by way of a person rather than a directory. If you have found a single person who is a solid find for your purposes, it may well be that on their profile you can find a Twitter list that they have cultivated. Just for fun, I went back to @daintyballerina whom I'd found before and clicked on her list of lists. Bingo! She has a list called "Shakespeareans" with 88 members in it. Browsing this quickly, I found an active account for Stanley Wells -- a rather famed Shakespearean, and not one whom I'd expect to be up on new media.

This is not all that you can do academically with Twitter, nor is Twitter the only way to conduct academic research via new and social media. But it's a great start.

By the way, find me on Twitter at @wakingtiger

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