In praise of Twitter: 5 ways in which it can help think tanks (filter, announce, search, network and argue)

28 July 2011

I resisted Twitter for over a year. ‘You tw*ts’ was my most frequent comment to the sudden appearance of an ODI twitter account. You cannot possibly communicate an argument in less than 140 characters! Surely, a think tank that pretends to be at the cutting edge of research and policy ought to avoid these new gimmicks. Et cetera.

I still think that an argument cannot be made and communicated in less than 140 characters. At least not the kind of arguments think tanks tend to want to communicate. And I still think that most people on twitter (and online) are probably tw*ts -but then again, most people generally ARE probably tw*ts. After all: Mr. and Mrs. Twit are two ugly, smelly, nasty, stupid people who spend their lives playing nasty tricks on each other.

However, Twitter can serve very useful purposes -and at a very low-cost.

  1. Filter: Unlike life and Google, in Twitter you can filter all the tw*ts: just don’t follow them. Easy.
  2. Announcements: It can help announce what you are doing or what is going on. You do no really need more than 140 characters to tell people that “a new paper is out” or “an event is about to start”. You can also announce information: “so and so just said this or that” or “my new research says this or that”.
  3. Search engine: Since I started using Twitter I have noticed a sudden drop in my use of Google search. In fact, now that I have the IMDB app in my ipod I do not really have a reason to use it at all. I’ve put a bit of time into finding the people and organisations I’d like to know more about (and that I consider to be reliable filters of all the noise out there) and now I just sit back and wait for them to send me stuff that I may be interested in reading. Unlike Google, Twitter does not learn too much about me and so it does not always give me what I want -in fact, I often end up reading things I would not normally read; but because it was re-twitted by Bill Easterly or Alastair Campbell I figure ‘why not?’
  4. Networks: Potentially, it can help make public the private conversations that go between network members. Simon Hearn (who manages the Outcome Mapping Learning Community) have often talked about this: we knew that the OMLC was successful in getting its members to email the whole community but we had no idea about how they were engaging with each other -unless they told us or we got involved. This has not happened yet but I can imagine a time when the community’s email is linked to Twitter (or whatever replaces it -if it does) and lets us all follow (or at least be witness) to the evolution of the network in all its depth.
  5. Arguments: And it helps me to think about what I want to say. I know I cannot make my case in 140 characters -and I do not even try- but I have to get you (the reader) to click on the link. Therefore, I think to think very carefully about what I want to say. Sometimes I force my self to think of a sentence that I would like to read: I prefer, for instance, to stay away from tweets that use too many #s and @s -it is like name dropping; and I stay away from tweets that say something matter of fact but say nothing at the same time (unless I know and trust the person tweeting)-e.g: from @DFID_Research: The impact of #HIV and #AIDS #research: a case study from #Swaziland (So what does the case study say?)and (and this is personal) I cannot stand unnecessary praise -“well done so and so for your post (that I did not read but I am taking advantage of your name to get more followers)”. The best are the tweets that say something: those that give you a bit of new knowledge that you did not have before and then lead you to the source of even more knowledge on the same subject. This is a very good example from @bill_easterly: Development aside, at least randomized trials work well in guiding medicine — wait, they dont’? is great: I now know that randomised control trials do not always work for medicine (and development) and am keen to read more, not least because of his characteristically sarcastic tone and use of irony (which tells me a lot more about him than a million matter of fact Twits ever could).

So far, most think tanks in developing countries do not have twitter accounts; and few researchers have personal ones. I am not suggesting that you should ALL spend MORE time online -(despite the number of posts on this blog, I spend a lot less time online than I used to: most of my posts are planned a week or so in advance and scheduled to be posted on specific dates); but if you are thinking about it, give it a go. And keep those five uses in mind.

(Thank you: paulbirch99knezovjb and nicknet)