North American archaeologists have been slow to board the Twitter train, and I’m not sure why. It might be because of misconceptions about the value of Twitter based on ancient perceptions (ie. before 2013), or perhaps it is the embarrassment of the lexicon, such as tweeps, twibe, twournal, and tweetiquette. In any case, archaeologists should give serious consideration to what Twitter has to offer. It is time. To use a fashion analogy: Twitter is the new black.
The numbers of active Twitter users has risen significantly in recent months, doubling between September, 2011 and December, 2012. There are now more than 200 million users, sending an average of 400 million messages in 140 characters or less each day.
Results of a survey reported in Archaeology and Twitter: An Archaeological Network in 140 Characters or Less, by Lorna Richardson (@lornarichardson) suggests that in 2011 there were about 1,000 archaeologists worldwide using Twitter, mostly concentrated in the UK and US. I think a reasonable estimate of the number of archaeology professionals and students now using Twitter is at least several thousand. To give a sense of the substantial recent increase in Twitter users in archaeology and the other branches of anthropology, consider the 2012 survey by the American Anthropological Association on the use of social media, which indicates that in May, 2012 the association’s twitter account (@AmericanAnthro) had about 7,600 followers. It now has close to 11,000.
Consider also the number of those on Twitter following some North American archaeological associations. The Archaeological Institute of America (@archaeology_aia) has more than 4,500 followers; the Society for Historical Archaeology (@SHA_org) has more than 3,500 followers, and the Society for American Archaeology (@SAAorg) has more than 1,100 followers. Archaeology Magazine (@archaeologymag) has more than 17,000 followers, and Sexy Archaeology (@sexyarchaeology) has more than 1,300.
There are many ways that archaeologists and other scientists use Twitter. Some have been outlined in Scientists: Social Media is Not Necessarily a Waste of Time by Matt Shipman, who recognizes that for some scientists social media is a good investment of their time; “social media does not have to be a fruitless time-suck”; it can be used to create meaningful networks; for discovering content that is timely and relevant to research; discovering and being discovered by potential collaborators; receiving invitations to participate in scholarly activities; obtaining easy access to papers; and support.
In Twitter and Archaeology: An Archaeological Network in 140 Characters or Less, Lorna Richardson discusses the potential benefits of Twitter specifically to archaeologists, including the ability to foster immediate communication, live tweeting excavations, crowd-sourcing archaeological problems, sharing images and maps, developing discussions, networking, and for public engagement.
Many professional organizations broadcast important information via Twitter. It was through Twitter, for example, that I obtained links to download the program and abstracts for the meetings of the Society for American Archaeology being held in April.
Although there is a clear increase in the numbers of archaeologists using Twitter, my sense is that much of the increase is from graduate students and early career professionals. Undergraduates and those already established in their careers seem more hesitant to join. One of the reasons why archaeologists may be slow to pick up on Twitter may have to do with culture of academia. A March 18th Scientific American blog by Scicurious (@scicurious) focuses on why neuroscientists recognize the value of social media, but don’t read it. Scicurious writes “…it’s clear that many neuroscientists are not remotely aware of the large amount of science there is on social media”. I think the same can probably be said for archaeology. Scicurious wonders “how much of this lack of awareness is an indication of the ivory tower culture of academia, a culture that, in many cases, thinks that communicating directly with the public is a waste of time” and suggest “Maybe it’s everyone in academia, assuming that social media just isn’t reliable, deep, or that there are simply too may LOLs and too much commercialization.”
There are, undeniably, problems with Twitter. One of the most important is the widespread sharing of archaeological research and popular media stories about archaeology, without useful comment. Probably more than 90 percent of media links on archaeology I see being distributed via Twitter are shared without comment. A concern is that those unfamiliar with the rigors of archaeology may not see the problems with interpretation and accept media reports as fact. Further, the ability to share the reports on-line gives a staying-power to misleading interpretations. In ‘Archaeology and Twitter’ Lorna Richardson uses the example of the Gay Caveman story that was perpetuated through Twitter.
Some of my colleagues have been asking me how to get started on Twitter. Signing up is easy. Choosing who to follow and attracting followers is a bit more difficult. I suggest starting by looking at the lists of followers of the Twitter accounts of the archaeological organizations or individual archaeologists, and then simply clicking on the “follow” button. Some will “follow” back.
In many ways using Twitter is akin to flicking through the remote for a television until you see a program you like, and it reminds me of the old days of pre-digital research when one would stumble across interesting articles by accident. Those who follow me (@bobmuckle), for example, are mostly seeing tweets related to archaeology. They also see tweets though relating to my other areas of interest, including contemporary waste, palaeoanthropology, cultural anthropology, education, and the Indigenous Peoples of North America.
I doubt I will see the day that archaeologists compete with celebrities for the number of Twitter followers. Justin Bieber has 36 million followers and Lady Gaga has 35 million. Only a relatively small number of archaeologists currently exceed 1,000, and I suspect most of those are in the UK. Neil deGrasse Tyson, (arguably among the most well-known popularisers of science) has more than one million and astronaut Chis Hadfield (who regularly tweets from the International Space Station) as more than 500,000. It is always hard to beat an astronaut.
Robert Muckle has been practicing, teaching, and writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. He has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology, Reading Archaeology and The Indigenous Peoples of North America, all published by the University of Toronto Press. He has archaeological field experience in both the United States and Canada, continues to direct field projects in the summer months, and is based at Capilano University. He may be followed on Twitter at @bobmuckle or contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org