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I was struck by Josh Kim’s downbeat assessment of academic Twitter this week. He suggested that academic Twitter is mostly about “cliques, careerism, and self-promotion.” I disagree.

I never trusted Facebook enough to set up a Facebook page, and Instagram is more visual than I am, so Twitter has been my social network of choice for years.  It took a while to get the hang of it. In the beginning, I didn’t know who to follow. Even now, the whole “day job” thing gets in the way of keeping up with my timeline as much as the real experts do. (It was a great day when I discovered the “lists” function.) I was relieved when it finally distinguished “likes” from “saves,” though the bookmark function is only sporadically available. For reasons that passeth understanding, the option appears in the ipad app, but not on the chromebook.  

But the mechanics are the least interesting part. I’ve found academic twitter useful in a few major ways.

If you follow a good set of smart people who care about topics that you do, too, it functions as a self-updating annotated bibliography.  It’s like having the world’s best team of graduate students working for you for free. People tweet out links to articles, often with brief descriptive captions. Nearly every day brings at least a few good ones. It’s a startlingly generous source of information.

Over time, as you follow people and connect with others who post interesting stuff, it starts to provide a narrative. It’s the same effect that I got as a kid when I’d draw a stick figure running on each of a hundred index cards, then flipped them really fast. The “animation” came from the rapid stream of singular pictures. Timelines can work like that, especially if you’re playing catchup, as I nearly always am.  That can be annoying when a major media event that you don’t care about suddenly absorbs all the oxygen -- cough oscars cough -- but it also provides a sort of running commentary on the news.

Initially, my feed was comprised largely of writing on higher ed and/or national politics, along with some cute puppy pictures or videos.  (I make no apologies for liking puppies.) And that’s still most of it. But I started to notice that many of the “aha” moments came from “black Twitter,” so I started following some thoughtful people there, too. 

I’ve read that Twitter skews more black than the other major social networks. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can attest that there’s a whole set of rich, complicated counternarratives on Twitter in which scholars of color offer their own readings of current events.  I don’t think they get anywhere near their due, especially given the amount of racist harassment they endure.People like Sandy Darity and Tressie McMillan Cottom perform an incredibly generous public service by pointing out connections that, in retrospect, seem obvious.  It happens in small doses, because that’s what tweets are, but over time, you start to notice things. Twitter offers a chance to sort of listen in on a conversation you might otherwise miss, without being rude or disrupting it.

I’ve dealt with occasional trolls, but nowhere near what scholars of race and gender deal with constantly. The fact that many scholars just keep going, despite torrents of hateful garbage, should be seen for the public-spirited generosity that it is.  I’m grateful to them, though I wish Twitter did a better job on the troll patrol.

Finally, it has helped me connect with people in real life.  I wouldn’t have met Tressie, or Sara Goldrick-Rab, or Amy Laitinen, or Kevin Carey, or Susanna Williams, without it.  I’m glad to know them, and both my writing and my day job are better off for knowing them. Each in a different way, they help make me smarter. I hope I reciprocate.

Yes, self-promotion is part of the world. So are cliques and careerism. And so are trolls.  But academic Twitter makes me smarter on a daily basis, from a panoply of perspectives, for free. As research tools go, I’d hate to be without it.

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