Social Media Lessons Learned from Being a Public Facing Academic

November 23, 2021 by Sonja Johnston

The JHI recently offered a social media workshop led by Jooyoung Lee, Associate Professor of Sociology and faculty member at the Centre for the Study of the United States, University of Toronto.

Jooyoung is also Senior Fellow in the Yale University Urban Ethnography Project and an International Scholar at the Penn Injury Science Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Blowin' Up: Rap Dreams in South Central, which won the Cooley Book Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. He has also published articles in the New York Times, CNN, VICE, Globe and Mail, and other news outlets. Most recently, he was in documentaries that aired on Oxygen and Discovery ID.

This workshop focussed on how Twitter could benefit academics who want to make their work more publicly available and who want to take advantage of the connections and expanded audience that Twitter and social media can provide. Jooyoung began the workshop by giving an overview of his experience with Twitter; he then provided tips for getting the most out of the medium and finished with a Q&A session.

We’re pleased to offer a summary of Jooyoung’s tips for using Twitter as an academic, compiled from his talk and the Q&A session.

To build your community, stick to your expertise

Think of Twitter as building an online intellectual community, a community that shares your research interest(s)—that can mean colleagues, students in other departments, people working in media, the general public etc. Your professional identity should be linked to your area of expertise—focussing your posts and follows around that topic will help you to become part of an academic community more easily.

Don’t feel you have to build that community yourself! Sometimes you can get a lot of traction and make the right connections to the other researchers, producers, editors and journalists etc. when you participate in existing, vibrant threads. Jooyoung used the analogy of joining a dinner party in progress with people already engaged in an interesting discussion. When you use your unique voice, people will start to engage with you and notice your tweets.

One of the easiest ways to build your community on Twitter is to like tweets, retweet, and engage with people who are taking the time to like and comment on your tweets. This way you’re not just building a community of followers, but you’re also sharing the work of your colleagues, your students and people who are interested in your topic.

Post quality content regularly

Post regularly, but don’t over post since over posting can be annoying to followers. Regular posting differs for each person: for some it can mean once a day; for others, five times a day. Whatever frequency you choose, it’s helpful to be consistent.

Focus on quality over quantity: Jooyoung used the analogy of graffiti art and two basic styles of graffiti artists. One style, sometimes referred to as graffiti bombing, is more concerned with quantity and not how nice the tag looks, the artist is just trying to get their name visible and recognizable everywhere. The other style is more focussed on quality: artists who want to saturate a space with their unique style, often with big, beautiful murals. This kind of graffiti art wouldn’t be created as often.

Even if you decide to post only once a day, there may be busy days when your expertise dovetails with a trending news item or topic. Try to use your voice to add a new angle to the topic instead of repeating what everyone else writes—this will also help to link your name to a particular issue or topic in a positive way.

Be yourself!

Being candid and authentic online can increase your confidence, lead to better interactions and help develop better relationships with people.

Don’t be afraid to share a little about yourself personally (but don’t overdo it!). People may be more invested if they feel like they know something about you. Maybe you have a hobby or a skill outside of academia—as long as you’re comfortable with it, sharing some personal information can help to open up different levels of connections.

Avoid jargon and make your thoughts clear

Academic research can often be obscured by the use of jargon or oblique language. Twitter encourages brevity and clear, plain language.

Aim for tweets that get your thoughts online clearly and to the point. Think of your tweets as practice for getting your ideas across to an audience that isn’t from your discipline or isn’t as familiar with your area of research as you are. What’s the clearest way you can get your thought across in 280 characters or less?

Ask for advice from a colleague, a friend, or family member—someone not necessarily in your sphere. Does this sound okay? Does this make sense? Is this clear? Condensing an idea into one or two clear sentences will make a big impact.

Use images and media when relevant

Posts with photos or videos drive engagement, so tweets that have some kind of media are generally more interesting to people. If you do interviews with news outlets, ask someone to take a photo of you with or without the reporter. Share a podcast or video that you participated in. Share an article that you wrote. Use a free image from a stock photo site.

Tagging and hashtags

Don’t forget to tag your department(s) and news outlets within the University on relevant content. For example, U of T News is a fantastic resource—they do a great job of sharing content from scholars, grad students, faculty, etc. Seek out communications people who may be able to retweet and share your content. If your tweet is relevant to a professional organization that you belong to, tag them too.

Hashtags can be useful to get your content in front of people who are interested in your research topic or area(s) of expertise. Search Twitter for keywords and take note of how popular the hashtags are. Avoid hashtags with little or no engagement.

Be careful about what you share, especially if the material is unpublished

Be wary of people who reach out to you because you’re an expert—for example a journalist or producer in the early research phase of an article or show. Jooyoung shared that, more than once, he provided information and ideas but didn’t receive an attribution in the final article or show.

Control your image

Make sure you have a professional headshot ready to share if you do any interviews or are profiled, otherwise you run the risk of the creator looking on the internet and using a photo that may not be relevant to the content (for example, an image of you smiling added to an article about a sensitive topic).


“Hot takes” are catchy and can get you high engagement but they’re not subtle and can be controversial. Social media platforms often reward controversy with more likes and shares, but ultimately you have to decide what kind of identity and presence you want to share with the public.

Setting time/use boundaries

Twitter can quickly become a time suck and a rabbit hole. If you’re just beginning to establish yourself on Twitter, you may find yourself spending more time than you’d like building your presence, and getting your voice and ideas out to the public. Be sure to set some goals: how much do you want to be “out there”? How much do you want to contribute? Posting one or two carefully thought out tweets a day and then leaving Twitter alone may be the best strategy if the time you can devote to social media is limited.

Trolls and negativity

You may come into contact with negative people and people who don't like you because of who you are, because of the message you have, or because of the voice and perspective you have. There are a few things you can do. Ignoring posts or accounts can work, but don’t hesitate to block or mute an account if the content bothers you. Sometimes, a day or two away from Twitter helps to put things in perspective. If someone is harassing you, you can report the tweet and/or account holder.

Ideally, departments would have some support for their public facing academics on social media. Check with your department to see if that support exists.