Yes, you can tame the beast that is Twitter

By Mirjam Guesgen

Moderator Alison Gillespie thinks her session on optimizing Twitter for science communication should have been named "Taming the beast" because of the barrage of content that is posted on the social media platform.

It's a sentiment shared by her panelists, who described Twitter as "a firehouse" and "overwhelming at best, a cesspool at worst." But after an informative hour and a half, attendees of this session of the ScienceWriters 2018 conference can at least feel as if they've put a harness on the beast, even if it is still a wild animal at heart.

For those looking to take a more filtered approach to Twitter, Carmen Drahl, former senior editor of Chemical Engineering News, let attendees in on a little known secret: Twitter lists. "You can get what you want out of Twitter faster and ignore the stuff you don't" she explained. Users can curate lists of people or topics and only view the tweets they're interested in at that moment, or get an organized snapshot of their timeline using an app like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck.

Twitter lists are also a way to be a little sneaky. Drahl highlighted the ability to add people to private lists and essentially follow them secretly — perfect for journalists wanting to snoop on their competitors or to indulge in that less-professional-but-still-really-fun interest (royal family fashion anyone?)

Lists are an excellent resource for story ideas and sources too. Drahl shared what she calls influencer lists of experts in a particular field, curated by respected journalists. These experts, or influencers, share relevant papers in their field or topics they're debating over the water cooler.

But there are other ways to sort through the chaos that is the Twitter feed. Lauren Lipuma noticed that tweets from her organization, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), would get more pickup if they had visual elements to them. So she turned to Canva, a sort of online Photoshop for dummies.

Lipuma scrolled through slides of AGU's recent posts to illustrate Canva's utility. Some examples were quotes embedded in a clean, on-brand color palette and fun Earth and space facts spliced with eye-catching images. Her presentation was more inspirational than how-to, but did generate several follow-up questions and an impromptu lesson over lunch.

Perhaps one of the most off-putting aspects of Twitter, the teeth and claws of the beast so to speak, is the negativity that comes along with it. That's why freelancer Lesley Evans Ogden makes it a point to use the platform to spread tips, opportunities and resources for fellow freelancers. Humor and kindness, she said, "in part compensates for all the nastiness."

As a "one woman shop", Evans Ogden doesn't spend time on frivolous endeavors. "I don't have the bandwidth" she admitted. She explained that Twitter is essential for freelancers, not only to promote their work, but to form working relationships with editors and other writers. Her biggest success story was when she direct-messaged BBC Earth to ask if it worked with freelancers. Those few seconds of typing lead to several years writing for the outlet.

All panelists emphasized that optimizing Twitter is not about the number of followers you have. For Drahl, her favorite moments are stepping into conversations. "It's a public water cooler" she said. Gillespie agreed: "If you go to a party you don't come home and say, 'It was great, I met 62 people.' You talk about the mind-blowing conversations you had."

For good or for bad, Twitter is a place for discussion, they said.

Oct. 14, 2018

Drexel University Online

Leon Levy Center for Biography fellowship