Practical Tips for Science Twitter: Use Your Data and be a Kardashian

In a previous blog post, I attempted to convince the members of ASCB that “Twitter is Fun, Useful and Really Nice.” For interacting with other scientists on social media, I do prefer Twitter. I post on Instagram and Facebook on occasion, but I do not find that they are very good for starting conversations about my data. Maybe I am not using them correctly. As a scientist, I also really like the metrics that Twitter gives me for each tweet (Figure 1). It allows me to experiment with how my followers react to different types of my props (e.g., images and videos) and pitches (words). During these experiments, I have learned a few things that I share below. These are general trends that I have found from my own experience, and there are exceptions to each statement.

1) How you display your data on Twitter matters. Pseudo-colored microscopy data gets more likes and retweets than grayscale data. Movies get more likes and retweets than static images. Also, Twitter will compress your data, so think about whether your videos will play well with a slight blur to them. That is a major annoyance for many scientists. That beautiful lattice light sheet data that you just acquired? You know; the one where each timepoint is like 2 Gigs? It will never look as sharp and clear on Twitter as you will want it to. My advice: let it be a little blurry. Remember. Science Twitter is generally nice, and most people know that the data will be compressed.

2) A good pitch makes a huge difference. I have tried to be funny on Twitter. It has not worked too well for me (based on the performance of my “funny” tweets). People seem to prefer that I just state what the video shows. As such, I have worked to make my Pitch straightforward and user-friendly. This sounds like it should be a simple thing but it was not for me. I have spent my entire career having one person or another tell me that I do not “sound” like a scientist. As such, I spent a good portion of my adult life trying to do just that. Let me tell you, I can jargon-it-up with the best of them now. But it’s exhausting. If you do that a lot in your own life, Twitter lets you take a nice break. For example, I decided a while ago to define mitochondria as simply the “powerhouses of the cell.” I know this hurts the eyes of many who work on mitochondria because it does not encapsulate the myriad of interesting and important roles that mitochondria play in the cell. I did not have this reaction, mainly because I have never really worked on mitochondria. I just had a lot of mitochondria videos, and I was simply trying to be as basic as possible. [If I don’t work on mitochondria, why do I have movies of them? Good question. I use mitochondria markers to try out new microscopes. High-resolution microscopy modalities—especially historically—required big photon budgets. If they did not work with the blazing bright “mito” probes that Mike Davidson gave me, the microscopes were likely not going to be good for anything. The “mito” probes consisted of Cox8a fused to Mike’s favorite fluorescent proteins (all available on Addgene). They are bright and I have used them for years as the first thing I try on each new microscope. As such, I have lots of videos of mitochondria sitting around on external hard drives.] Given my “Twitter Strategy” (see point 3), mitochondria videos work really well on twitter (i.e., they yield good likes/retweets). However, over several years of posting these videos, comments online and in-real-life convinced me that I needed to add something else to the powerhouse role. I had already decided that my Pitches had to be short, simple, and punchy. So, what do mitochondria really do? Well, they’re actually kinda boss: “Sure, I will make the chemical energy to keep this cell around, but if I become unhappy, everybody is going to be unhappy!” Hence, I amended their previous moniker to “powerhouses/overlords.” I think this is both accurate and humorous; a hard combination to find in science.

The metrics for a Tweet promoting a Burnette lab paper.

3) Kardashian Science Communication: If you think about your tweets as entertainment, it’s a whole lot more fun. I like to think of what I am doing on Twitter as Kardashian Science Communication. No, I am not referring to that paper trying to claim that scientists with the most citations should get the most followers on Twitter. I do not understand that logic. Being a highly prolific scientist does not mean you are entertaining. And you need to be entertaining to be effective on Twitter. When I say Kardashian Science Communication, I am referring to how the Kardashians do business. They are extremely entertaining and every-so-often slip in some advertisement. Apparently, the companies associated with the products, ideas, or visuals pay the Kardashians money. That is, they are rewarded for their effort. But what rewards are waiting for you if you put your effort into social media? That really depends on what you are advertising. My personal goal is to get eyes on my lab’s science. That means, when we have a new manuscript, I advertise it by tweeting out links to it and sometimes creating threads summarizing the findings. However, if I only tweeted when we published a paper, it would not be very fun. We do not have papers come out every other day. So most of the time, I am just entertaining. I described in my first blog for ASCB that I have found my people: people who find pictures and videos of cells entertaining. As such, I have found it to be quite enjoyable simply sharing the data that I or my lab members have collected over the years that I think is interesting either aesthetically and/or intellectually. So, during those gaps—typically months—between our papers coming out, I have a lot of fun entertaining my followers with data. The only downside is that I do not always have a lot of time to interact with people who leave comments. As it turns out, I have a pretty demanding day job. But I try to respond as much as I can.

4) Tracking the progress of your tweets can be informative (and fun). Twitter gives you access to the performance metrics for each of your tweets (Figure 1). This goes beyond the number of comments, retweets, and likes, which are displayed at the bottom of the tweet for everyone to see. The breakdown tells you how many people are interacting with the tweet and how. If you added a link to your new paper (discussed in point 5), you can see how many people clicked on it. You can also see how many people clicked on your name to see who you are and what you typically tweet about. This is data. You are a scientist. Given this data, you can experiment around to get the metrics you are interested in.

5) Twitter does get eyes on your science. Let’s say that you have gained a few followers. Your first followers will most likely be people that personally know you (and some Russian bots). You spend time working on your pitch and probably a bit too much time working on your props. Hopefully, people find your tweets entertaining and informative. You either have stuck to your niche or tried for a broader appeal. Either way, you gain enough followers for your tweets to get retweeted and liked. Your “Impressions” (or how many times your tweet came across someone else’s feed) are now in the thousands. Good for you. You have a Twitter presence. So, what do you do with that? The answer boils down to what you want to advertise. As an academic scientist, I personally want people to read the papers that come out of my lab. So, when I get a tweet that takes off and gets lots of retweets and clicks on the link to one of our papers, I am ecstatic (Figure 1). [I will note that the metrics of this particular tweet are about an order of magnitude higher than my normal.] Here, we were lucky that the movie from the paper showed a dramatic cellular phenomenon and the pitch was kind of funny (but not too funny). Now, I do not know how retweets, likes, and link clicks will translate into citations; that eternal metric of how “impactful” your research is. Time will tell. But for the time being, my strategy is simply to get eyes on my lab’s science.

6) Promoting others on Twitter is easy. Let us imagine that you have no interest in tweeting. Like none. Why? Maybe all of your papers are published in Cell, Nature, or Science, and you feel like they get read enough already. More than that, after dealing with the three reviewers, dealing with the outside consultant the editor calls in to weigh in on something that raised Reviewer 2’s hackles, and dealing with the editor openly musing about whether or not there is “room” in their journal for your paper, you are just done with the selling. As such, you are on Twitter to follow the conversations about preprints and see @Mag2Art’s cool pictures and videos of cells. Great. As it takes very little work to promote others’ efforts, you might as well do that. Like and retweet. Given your own lack of having to promote yourself and your history of high-impact papers, you probably even have a few thousand followers already. Share with them the things and people you find interesting. If you want to step it up, join the conversation yourself. The comment button is right next to the retweet and like buttons. Also, keep in mind that while you may be famous and above the need for promotion, the co-authors on your Cell, Nature, or Science papers may not be, especially the graduate students and postdocs. You should be tweeting about them. Chances are that they are on Twitter themselves. If they are, use their Twitter username and make sure to include the @ in front of it. It makes it super easy for others to click and go to their Profiles where they—hopefully—have filled out their personal statement and maybe have some interesting tweets in their feed. Having an interesting feed is on them, not you. Just do your part.

About the Author:

Dylan T. Burnette is an Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine. He is a cell biologist by training and remains a cell biologist by choice.