Fergus McNeill, @fergus_mcneill, leading academic on desistance – how and why offenders give up committing crime – writes on why he tweets.

Why I tweet

 I have to admit that I can’t remember why I signed up to Twitter, but I do remember exactly when it sprang into life for me, and when I started to see its potential. That was during the screening (early this year) of “Public Enemies” – the BBC drama about probation and public protection. Up until then, I had been following a few interesting people and trying to work out how and why Twitter worked. Suddenly, thanks to the hashtag, I was plunged headlong into a fascinating, lively and diverse discussion forum reacting to the programme in real time.

Though I was quite enjoying the drama, I enjoyed the Twitter discussion of it much more; probation officers, criminologists, fans of Anna Friel (actually there were more fans of Daniel Mays), “ordinary” members of the public, all tweeting about the stuff that matters to me.

 That moment of virtual collective TV viewing woke me up to what Twitter does. Basically it creates communities of interest. There are (at least) two types. The first are conjoined in their reactions to events (via the hashtag), the other are conjoined by following and being followed by people with common values, interests or concerns.

 So, why do I tweet? Basically to share in a conversation with interesting people on interesting topics. Like the best of ‘ordinary’ conversation, I learn more by listening, but I know I have to pull my weight and make a contribution when I can.

The best and worst things about tweeting

 As an academic, and a catastrophically poor self-editor, I feared that I’d never be able to say anything in less than 140 characters. Actually, the discipline of the tweet turns out to be one of the best things about Twitter. I hope that tweeting is making me more skilled at cutting to the chase. That said, I also have a safety valve… the blog entry (which allows me to elaborate a bit, like I am now)… and behind that the luxury of composing long and tedious journal articles, book chapters and even books!

I think of these three forms of writing as three levels of depth… and my cunning plan is always to draw readers deeper. On the other hand, I don’t really mind if people choose to dive no deeper than tweets and blogs; we’re all busy with life and work and if I can’t tempt you from the surface to the depths, then I’m content if I made you pause for thought and tread water for a moment.

 The worst thing about tweeting – the most difficult thing – is knowing where and when to stop. It’s just too easy! If the TV is boring; if I’m waiting for a bus a train or a plane; or more problematically, if I need a break from some more substantial piece of work, the bite-size nature of Twitter makes it very hard to resist. But, like with any convenience food, it’s important (and just plain hard) to avoid snacking continually – and it’s important to leave the snacking out when it’s time for a proper meal.

 The second worst thing is Twitter’s potential for encouraging narcissism (counting followers, retweets etc.). A lot of academics need no encouragement in that respect.

 What I get out of tweeting

 Leaving the narcissism aside, there are two main benefits of tweeting for me, linked to what I have said above. One is that I have routine and regular access to a previewed (and sometimes quality assured) digest of stuff that I know will be of interest and use to me, because it comes from people that I am interested enough to follow. The global nature of Twitter networks is a real asset in this regard, and an antidote to parochialism.

 The other is that I can get my ‘outputs’ (blog posts, papers, articles, recordings, etc.) out to a community that I know is likely to be interested in them (at least sometimes!). One of my favourite examples of this concerns a recently article that I wrote for an academic journal — of the sort that few practitioners have time to read. I adapted the conclusion of the paper as a blog post, and posted the full pre-publication version of the paper on the ‘useful resources’ page of the blog.

Then I tweeted the link to the blog post to my Twitter followers with a polite request for retweets. Within 24 hours I had a response from a prison-based practitioner about the article (he had been tempted to dive in deeply!) and how he could use it in his work. For an academic used to the obscurity and snail’s pace of peer-reviewed publishing but still intent on (somehow) ‘making a difference’, the speed of this interaction was pretty mind-blowing.

Tips and successes

Choose who to follow carefully so as to avoid your timeline being clogged up with stuff that doesn’t really interest you.

But… keep it interesting by reflecting the diversity of your interests in deciding who to follow.

If you are tweeting in a personal capacity (as I do) but tend mostly to tweet about work-related stuff, I think it’s nice to occasionally reveal a little of your humanity! I like it when people I follow share music, favourite books or other cultural stuff on Twitter.

Ask intelligent questions of your followers. They (collectively and sometimes individually) probably know more about the stuff that you think you know about than you do.

Mistakes and failures

Don’t drink (to excess) and tweet. You may crash and hurt someone.

Find the off switch, if you can.


Next Wednesday: An anonymous tweeter based in a West Midlands Probation Hostel, @SWMPTrustAPLive, writes about why s/he tweets.


Get Russell’s free guide to Twitterfectiveness.

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