How Twitter is tearing down academia’s Ivory Tower

There's a vocal community of academics and intellectuals using Twitter as a way to enlighten followers and spread word of their research.

Mar 2, 2020, 9:07 am*



Jack Flanagan

Twitter has always had a vocal community of academics and intellectuals. You might not know it from all the noise and trolling, but there are people using the platform as a way to enlighten their followers and spread word of the work they do.

It’s a move away from academia’s proverbial Ivory Tower—the notion that researchers are locked away with microscopes and lab coats, oblivious to what’s happening in the real-world. Increasingly, academics are taking their work straight to the people, offering their ideas, updates, and breakthroughs in 140-character bursts.

They’re also finding a sense of community, establishing a scientific and supportive scene on the network that could be characterized as “Intelligent Twitter.” Queer Unity and Black PhD Network, for example, are using Twitter as a news feed specific to the mandate of their organizations. The latter account is a doctoral network for black and Latino people, focused on closing the achievement gap in the U.S.

TTG+Partners, a communications consultancy, hosts a monthly conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #ttgpchat, focused on promoting diversity in higher education. In January, it took discussed what it’s like to be a black woman doing a Ph.D. During the discussion, two academics addressed the racism and sexism they’ve dealt with in their careers.

People watching the chat unfold contributed in the conversation, too.

Other academics use Twitter as a platform for engaging others with their work. Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, publishes a sort of stream of scientific consciousness. She’s on Twitter as @DrHelenFisher, and her tweets read as, and possibly are, what she’s thinking at the moment on a subject that has occupied her since her Ph.D. It’s a pleasant antithesis to most science-focused accounts, which often curate the news but don’t offer original insight from the people themselves.

“I use Twitter only to advance the public understanding of the sciences,” Fisher says of her profile. “I read various articles that come in over the Internet, then make a comment stemming from this reading. My tweets hopefully give some insight. But, of course, one is really constrained by 140 characters.”

Dr. Fisher doesn’t bring her personal life into it, “largely because I don’t see why anyone would be interested.” But there’s still an intimacy to her Twitter stream, making her followers feel closer to her and her work. That’s one of the platform’s biggest strengths, yielding personal insights into the lives and activities of people we admire, be they celebrities, sports figures, or professors.   

It’s a shame more leading-edge scientists aren’t using Twitter as a place to record their professional thoughts. Scientists, academics and even journalists have built careers around being creative and motivated to work in their specific field. They should, if they find the time, develop their Twitter feeds to reflect what they think and believe, to go one step beyond what’s found in academic journals and communicate with ordinary readers.  

Twitter can also be a great resource for scientists who export the fun side of science. Psychologist and magician Richard Wiseman and cognitive scientist Tom Stafford both toss around ideas on Twitter, in addition to sharing the things they find online. Here’s Stafford basically debating himself on the difference between causation and correlation:

One tweet at a time, such academics are tearing down that Ivory Tower, once and for all.

Illustration via mkh marketing/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

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*First Published: Feb 11, 2014, 9:30 am