Another reason academics should have twitter

I had two experiences recently that I’m sure many other people who use twitter have also had.

I was reading about the poisson distribution and there was a great set of lecture notes from a Prof at Oxford University (which are on the first page of google results for ‘poisson distribution’). However, there seems to have been a rendering error and none of the figures are in the document.

I thought I would let the Prof know, because he probably doesn’t realise and he has gone to the effort of posting them so probably wants them to be complete. So I searched for his name on twitter – nothing. My heart sank, as I knew that I would have to email him, and join the queue of hundreds of supplicants in the overcrowded inbox of a university professor.

Contrasting with this, I was watching some of Ben Langmead‘s excellent video lectures, and one of the links was broken. Since Ben is on twitter, I just sent him a tweet and he responded and fixed the issue within a few hours.

I’m not sure whether this is because twitter is all new and shiny compared to email, and people enjoy the novelty. I have certainly had interactions with people on twitter (with, admittedly, relatively low k-indicies) who wouldn’t respond to an email from me in a million years (oh hai Jeremy Farrar!). However, I think that there is more to it than that. Email is broken. So many people are so bad at email, and abuse it (we all know that person who flags every email they send as ‘important’, usually someone who sends no important emails). Twitter on the other hand just taps into something I heard Jimmy Wales say recently, 99% of people are decent people. When you put them into a social arena with an expectation of useful behaviour (i.e. twitter rather than email), they tend to act decently. It also helps that there are platform features that strengthen this tendency (character limit, ability to block).

It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to live in a time with all these different ways of communicating with people, yay for twitter!


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