You're Not Alone: #tweetyourthesis, or Academic Social Networking as Empowerment
After I submitted the first complete draft of my PhD thesis, I published a post here on HASTAC, titled "Your Brain on Computers: Some Notes on Twitter as an Open Research Community" (29 November 2010). I thought I needed to explain how useful my Twitter timeline had been in helping me along the process. It was also a humble attempt at providing empyrical evidence that Twitter does enable productive scholarly communications and indeed scholarly work.
The typical negative reaction to the idea that Twitter can in fact be useful for academics of all ranks and disciplines is unfortunately still widespread (Kathleen Fitzpatrick brilliantly addressed these anxieties in her Presidential Address at MLA 2012). Those of us who have been advocating the recognition of blogging and social networking as valid platforms for scholarly communications for at least a decade now find it slightly embarrassing, not to say sad, to see that these standard resistances does not seem to go away. Maybe they never will.
But something very positive started happening last Wednesday 11 January, after my colleague Susan Greenberg (who is doing her PhD at UCL and is also a journalist and a senior lecturer in English and creative writing at the University of Roehampton) used the hashtag #tweetyourthesis after a meeting with fellow graduate students. As far as academic metadata can get, the hashtag went viral, as Anne Welsh (also a lecturer at UCL DIS) described on her post on the UCL DIS Students blog. Soon hundreds of graduate (and some undergraduate and postdocs) students where sharing their research questions, establishing connections, promoting the hashtag and (a minority, to be fair) questioning the relevance or pertinence of such an exercise. (The Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus blog also published an article, titled "You Can Summarize Your Thesis in a Tweet, but Should You?", by Nick DeSantis, on Friday).
An essential figure spearheading the hashtag was my former PhD supervisor, Claire Warwick, Professor of Digital Humanities and Head of the Department of Information Studies at University College London; Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities; and Vice-Dean for Research for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Claire has published research on Twitter and is a keen twitterer, and what I think is very relevant in this case is that what inspired the hashtag was something that her students and colleagues know is something she often says: it is very important that academics are able to communicate what they do in a concise and precise manner.
What makes this hashtag stand out from other successful academic hashtags is that it mostly attracted students (as opposed to established academics). As I said in my post I mentioned above, PhD research can be a lonely activity and often it is hard to believe anyone else will be interested or going through similar processes, challenges, successes or setbacks. A critical mass of students talking publicly about their research is empowering: in a field in which it is often quite hard to stand out, and in a cultural context which links social networking with 'updates' about your lunch, tweeting about your research amongst hundreds of others engaged in research becomes a very positive opportunity for community building and self-worth development.
So part of its success was that it started from an offline experience, in other words, it is based on "real-world" pedagogic and funding-bidding experience; retweets were made from institutional and personal accounts, and by accounts with a diverse academic base of followers. Had the hashtag been a cryptic acronym known only to insiders, the response wouldn't have been as big: the tag appealed to everyone who did, is doing or is thinking of doing a thesis.
Its popularity indicates that students on Twitter are eager to tweet about their academic research to a sympathetic audience, and it provides further evidence that Twitter does not only enable "a back-channel" for TV shows, natural disasters, the news, public events or academic or professional conferences, but a "front-channel", a unique space not limited by physical, geographical, institutional boundaries, where the sharing of academic information can take place and collaborative communities can be developed.
Needless to say, #tweetyourthesis is not meant to substitute the actual 100 thousand words worth of rigorous research. It is instead an example of a collective thinking exercise that provides interesting qualitative and quantitative data about the research being done and about the possibilities of the Twitter API and metadata to provide evidence of scholarly uses of social media.
On Friday morning I created a public archive of #tweetyourthesis using the web version of The Archivist. It's not very useful or reliable (it can't collect back in time and one can't export data directly) but the visualisations can be entertaining. It will take a while before it catches up with the whole extent of activity, but hopefully it eventually will.
If you want to catch up with the story so far, I storified the first 48 hours of tweets (minus most replies and RTs) here.