At the outset of the recently concluded PEC South Asian workshop on Research Communications Strategy in Nepal, the IDS team of facilitators encouraged us to explore using Twitter as a means to communicate our research. Despite the fact many people in the room were new to Twitter the hashtag #pecnepal was buzzing with activity throughout the event. Being a fairly regular Twitter user, the facilitators asked me to give a brief talk on why I use Twitter, and how it benefits me personally and professionally. Here’s a recap of the simple thoughts I shared.
Why do I use Twitter?
From the first weeks of using Twitter I realized that I was finding it far more useful than just another place to ‘share my thoughts’ or update my status like on Facebook. The power of Twitter, if you follow the right people, is the instant access to a huge volume of information being shared. I realized that with a couple of quick scrolls a couple of times a day I can get a fairly good sense of the pulse of the people around me and globally. By following the trending topics, I am able to tap instantly into a variety of voices – both from those thousands of miles away as well as closer to home that I would normally have been detached from – giving me a more holistic and real-time view of emerging issues beyond the mainstream media. I also quickly realized that with more and more leading personalities joining Twitter, I was able to get an insight into the ‘thinking’ of key opinion-shapers and decision-makers. People I would probably never meet to chat in person. For instance, I follow Kaushik Basu, the Chief Economist of the World Bank and Namal Rajapakse the son of Sri Lankan President (Of course, I do keep in mind that many ‘celebrity’-type personalities are increasingly having professionals manage their Twitter handles on their behalf).
I also realized that for me, personally, I just had to be present in this new knowledge space. I now use the platform to quickly spread my views and insights to audiences who I would never have been able to reach before – either because of distance or cost. It also provides an important took for self branding yourself and your expertise. More people, beyond your traditional contemporaries and collaborators, get to know you, your expertise and your insights. Often, the ‘personal’ could spill over to the ‘professional’ too – people who see what you’re saying want to link up for new partnerships, or invite you to speaking engagements.
Doing more with Tweets
New analytical tools are also enabling you to get a better understanding of your reach on Twitter. Some are free, while others are proprietary and can give advanced insights. Free tools like Twitonomy, for instance, can help you synthesize some key analytics on your performance on Twitter. Moreover, an array of free archiving tools offer the opportunity to quickly and easily record, for posterity, the conversations that took place around a particular topic. We used the tool Storify to create an archive of tweets of the 6th South Asia Economic Summit (SAES) held last year. Hopefully, we will see something like this around the #pecnepal tweets*. If you’re holding a conference and want to ‘bring in the online to the offline’, there are several tools like Visible Tweets that render beautiful ‘tweet walls’ which display to your audience the conversations that are taking place online about your event. Here’s is a picture of how we used this at the 6th SAES – the audience loved it!
A Twitter wall being displayed during the break, on one of the main display screens at the 6th South Asia Economic Summit, 2-4 September 2013 in Colombo, Sri Lanka (image courtesy – Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka)
Navigating the risks
Amidst all this however, there are some risks and pitfalls to look out for. Some questions that I posed to the group in Nepal were – “how do you balance your views shared on Twitter with those of your institution?”; “Could your tweets, no matter how much you have a disclaimer in your profile, be construed as the views of your institution?”; “How can you avoid your tweets hurting your institution’s brand?”; “Are you willing to be OK with your tweets online being quoted and used offline?”. I don’t have any set answers to these questions and I guess it depends on the individual, the institution, and the circumstances. Your institution may have to introduce a social media policy for its staff that sets out some basic guidelines and disclaimers.
Saying it on Twitter
Despite these concerns, I find Twitter an invaluable tool. As a researcher who is most comfortable writing pages of text, Twitter forces you to take a step back and figure out – “What am I really trying to say here? What is my key message and how can I say it best, to grab attention?”. Understanding what the purpose of your tweet is – is it to inform? Is it to just share a thought, idea or emotion? Is it to plant a seed of thought in your followers heads? Is it to demonstrate your knowledge/insight on a particular issue?
I believe, this goes back to the heart of research communications, especially policy research. Being able to break down a complex message to something that still maintains the essence but communicates it in a clear and concise way, is increasingly becoming a highly sought after quality in a policy researcher. As an economist and a policy researcher, Twitter is certainly helping me get better at this – with just 140 characters in which to say it in, you don’t have a choice!
*James Georgalakis created a Storify page for the workshop, which is well worth a look as is demonstrates the value of this tool well.
This blog post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However, these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec