The weird and wonderful world of academic Twitter

Once the realm of celebrities and their beliebers, academics are taking to Twitter: about one in 40 scholars now use the popular microblogging site, according to some sources.

While scholarly chat and self-promotion abounds, Twitter also acts as a virtual water cooler, a place where academics go to build community, have some fun, and let off steam.

A short year has passed since I first delved into Twitter, using the handle @AcademiaObscura to explore the lighter side of higher education. It has been a lot of fun, and I shall no doubt be devoting a chapter to the joys, and oddities, of the academic Twittersphere in the Academia Obscura book (crowdfunding now!).

Hashtags, used to collate tweets on a particular subject, are great for community building, with regulars such as #PhDchat#AcWri and #ScholarSunday providing opportunities for academics to interact with and learn from each other. Others, such as #AcademicsWithCats and #AcademicsWithBeer, are a little more light-hearted, building communities around extra-curricular interests.

The recently coined #AcaDowntime is encouraging academics to take time away from work, and a quick skim through reveals that we are an active bunch.

Particularly amusing (and distracting) are hashtag games, whereby people offer up their best humour in response to a challenge posed in a hashtag. #RuinADateWithAnAcademicInFiveWords#AcademicForecast, and #ScienceAMovieQuote are among my favourites.

A handful of excellent accounts dedicated to dishing out academic humour have become staples of the academic Twittersphere.

Shit Academics Say, an account making pithy remarks about academic life, garnered more than 100,000 followers before its author, Nathan Hall, decided to take a well-earned sabbatical. Nein Quarterly, a decidedly hard-to-pigeon-hole mixture of snark, sarcasm, and philosophy, has become (in)famous for its short and sharp quips on everything from current affairs to language. Its author, Eric Jarosinski, was formerly a professor of German at an Ivy League university, but is now dedicated full time to the project.

Fake Elsevier pokes fun at the traditional academic publishing model, while others, like Shit My Reviewers Say, dig into the publishing process itself.

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Even the Oxford Comma, of which I am a strident advocate, has its own account.

If these people (and anthropomorphised punctuation) represent the best of academic Twitter, the now-defunct @GradElitism represented the worst of it.

The account had managed to attract almost 40,000 followers by reposting others’ jokes without attribution (ie, plagiarising). A self-appointed watchdog sprang into action, calling out the plagiarism and getting the offending account shut down in a matter of weeks. This brief campaign was no doubt buoyed by the recent news that Twitter is clamping down on “joke theft”.

During the early days of my foray into Twitter, I noticed that one of my followers would often retweet things he “overheard” from students on Twitter. Students indeed say the funniest things, apparently unaware or unconcerned of the highly public nature of their musings, so we started a dedicated account.

Occasionally more amusing or concerning than students own ramblings are some of the things they quote their professors as saying:

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Finally, there are some dark corners of academic Twitter that don’t make any sense to me at all. The profile of one @SofiaOrden looks like any other student Twitter page yet posts nothing but a never-ending stream of tweets advertising university courses (about one every 5 minutes, over 300,000 in total).

She is then instantly retweeted by 20-100 similarly baffling accounts. Clearly, this is all automated, but by whom and to what end remains unclear to me. Answers on a postcard. The academic Twittersphere is a big place – sadly I couldn’t mention all my favourites. If you want to spice up your timeline, you can check out my lists of funny academics and other cool academic stuff.

Glen Wright blogs at Academia Obscura and tweets at @AcademiaObscura. His book is crowdfunding now.

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