Why Twitter is so useful for me as a PhD student

Recently I was notified by Twitter, that it was my anniversary as I signed up 3 years ago and it usually comes with a prepared tweet that says something like:

Do you remember when you joined Twitter? I do #MyTwitterAnniversary

In fact, I exactly remember when and why I (officially) joined Twitter and I had many positive experiences since. That’s why I decided I would write about why I think Twitter is really useful, especially for PhD students.

I had been on Twitter as a so-called “lurker” with a private and anonymous account for some time. But it was not until I attended the Experience as Evidence symposium at the University of Oxford, that I decided to join officially. While attending the symposium, I followed the specific hashtag and noticed that thought-provoking discussions took place on Twitter – during the presentations! For example, Trisha Greenhalgh gave a presentation that included a patient called „Walter“ and it was the late Rosamund Snow that commented on this account compared to other accounts of experiences. There was one particular comment that caught my attention and gave me lots to think about:

I highly appreciated the presentation Trisha Greenhalgh gave and couldn’t really get my head around how it would have been possible for Walter in this case to attend the symposium and tell the story himself. (Side Note: This was of course before I learned about the #PatientsIncluded initiative.) It made me think about HCI conferences, where we also tell the stories of others (users, stakeholders, etc.). And I wondered: Should we have users on stage as well?

Anyway, that was the day that I joined Twitter and although there are many other blogs that point out, why PhD students should use Twitter (e.g., BDC Blog, THE), here are some of my personal experiences that make Twitter so valuable for me:

Challenging my Views – Learning from Others

I am doing research in HCI within the healthcare domain. As the example above illustrated, Rosamund Snow who was also the BMJ’s patient editor since 2014, challenged my views, pushed me out of my comfort zone, and made me reflect. Over the last three years, several people did that, for example Hugo Campos, Sara RiggareDariusz Galasiński, Carolyn Thomas – just to name a few. Although there are initiatives to invite patient advocates to conferences, this can be quite challenging for them, as Carolyn Thomas described in her open letter to “Patients Included” conferences. If we want to change healthcare for the better, we need the patient perspective and for me it is often a “reality check” that we still have a long way to go to end paternalism, when I read their accounts. For example, Jen Leavesley reported on Twitter that her GP refused (!) to give her detailed values of lab results, which are however crucial for her as they explained issues that had been dismissed as normal before.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t see those encounters as sufficient to understand the perspective of others. But I do think it is extremely helpful to get a conversation started and to sometimes even to learn, where a conversation is needed.

Networking: online and offline

Countless times I have heard, how important it is to engage in networking (Listen for example to Geraldine Fitzpatrick’s interview with Cliff Lampe, where they discuss Phil Agre’s essay on networking and how to walk up to famous researchers on a conference). When I attended my first conference, I didn‘t know anyone and I realised how difficult this actually is. It’s not that I have a problem talking with people I’ve never met before. It’s the approaching part, that I find difficult. I just don‘t feel comfortable „forcing“ people into a conversation with me, just because I want to talk with them. That may seem silly to others, but it‘s just easier for me when I have met that person before (for example at a pre-conference workshop or something) and not have to approach them out of the blue. In that respect, Twitter has helped me tremendously with networking. It has happened that people approached me for example at conferences, because they saw my tweets and this was their starting point to talk to me. Or I had contact with a person before on Twitter and thus dared to approach them when we finally met in person. Coming back to “famous researchers” mentioned before: The easiness to get in touch with them on Twitter helped me also to talk to them in person. Especially when that famous researcher invites you to come to them, as Celia Kitzinger so kindly did:

Twitter Timeline and the Fear of Missing Out (FoMo)

It depends on who you follow, but I learned about many relevant things through my Twitter timeline, for example because researchers posted information on summer schools, upcoming books, conference deadlines, or job offers. The information flow can be overwhelming and I caught myself reading on Twitter while being on vacation, because I was afraid that I would miss out on something. Now I think, that although I might miss out on things, I just hope that important stuff will be retweeted later by someone I follow and then it’ll appear again in my timeline.

Fear of Missing out can be related to conferences as well, as was pointed out by Margaret McCartney, who called this FOMOOC (Fear of Missing out on Conferences). I recently learned that SIGCHI (the special interest group for Computer-Human Interaction) is the main umbrella for almost two dozen HCI related conferences. When I think of my own research, other disciplines such as Medical or Health Informatics also have conferences that might be extremely relevant. How can I possibly keep up? I know how valuable it is to attend a conference in person to meet other people and to have valuable talks over coffee (or other beverages). However, when this is not possible, I found it very useful to follow the conference hashtag to learn about recent research that may be relevant for me. During the last CHI conference, I made it a habit to check out the #CHI2017 twitter stream with my morning coffee. Hopefully, our paper is accepted for CHI 2018 and I can tweet from Montréal to keep those in the loop who couldn’t attend.

These are the three main areas why I think Twitter is very valuable for me. Although it can be very time consuming and distracting at times, for me the advantages outweigh the disadvantages by far.


Conference, Discourse, Networking, Reflection,
#AcWriMo: Write Like There Is No December

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