I have my qualms about Twitter. Some are small, like “Should I unfollow some accounts?” and some are big, like “Is this thing toxic for my soul?” (More on that later.)
Still, when people email me questions about teaching, I always ask: “Are you on Twitter?”
Twitter is arguably the cheapest and most powerful form of ongoing professional development for math teachers. There’s a big, generous community of mathematical thinkers there, and I’ve learned a huge amount from them.
It’s a little tricky to get started, so in this post, I’d like to boil Twitter down to two questions, to which I shall offer scattered (and roughly tweet-length) advice: what should I be reading, and what should I be writing?
In other words: who should I follow, and what should I tweet?
(And then I’ll add a few other thoughts on why I’m ambivalent about Twitter, and give some advice that’s really for myself as much as anyone.)
Anyway, all opinions are my own. Your mileage not only may vary; it will vary.
Part I: Who should I follow?
- Go to a person’s profile and read their 5 or 10 most recent tweets. Are these tweets interesting? Helpful? Encouraging? Thought-provoking? Do you want more? If so, follow.
- Is there someone you find especially fascinating? Want more people like this? Then go to their profile and click on the list of people they follow. I’ve found some of my most interesting follows this way.
- Eclectic is okay. I follow a lot of math teachers, researchers, and popularizers… but also philosophy students, singer-songwriters, cartoonists, parody bots, rationalist contrarians, fiction writers, and friends from college. If you want more structure, you can organize these categories in lists.
- Just as important, don’t be afraid to unfollow people. You can even mute (so you no longer see any of a person’s tweets, even if they tag you) or, if necessary, block (like muting, except they’re forbidden from seeing your tweets, too).
- I tend to avoid accounts that post a lot about U.S. national politics. This includes some people whose work I love, and whose politics I share. I mean no insult by not following them; it’s just not what I want out of Twitter. (See Part III below.)
- By the same token, I take no insult when people unfollow or block me. It’s their call!
- Finally a few of my favorites: Howie Hua for memes and teaching conversations, Catriona Agg for geometry puzzles, Michael Pershan for an analytical perspective on all things, Liam Bright for funny philosophy and academia stuff, plus the other 600ish people I follow.
Part II: What should I tweet?
- To get conversations going, try using the hashtags #MTBoS (short for Math Twitter Blogosphere) and #iteachmath to get your tweets into other people’s feeds.
- Tweet a question at a specific person. If you tweet “Hey @benorlin, I was wondering…” I’ll always do my best to reply or retweet. But don’t tag five or ten people, which creates a kind of bystander effect, so that everyone winds up ignoring it.
- Try to avoid acronyms and abbreviations. These vary from place to place, and can make text a little impenetrable. (Exception: once you’re engaged in conversation with someone, it’s often handy to use abbreviations, as long as you both know them.)
- An old truth of social media: images go over well, whether they’re reaction gifs, dumb memes, great memes, or hand-drawn cartoons.
- Ask questions whose answers you care about. I’m not always great at this, sometimes using Twitter too much to broadcast, but I still love revisiting answers to questions like “What is your earliest mathematical memory?”
- If you’re broadcasting, be honest. I use Twitter to promote my books and other writing. I’m sure this annoys some people. Oh well! I try to be direct about it, saying “I’m proud of what I’ve created here” or “I’d be honored if you’d check this out.” Humblebragging is out; frankbragging is in.
Part III: What if I fall into the sinkhole?
- I sometimes describe math teacher Twitter as a beautiful village on the edge of a giant sinkhole.
- What’s the sinkhole? It’s a cultural warzone into which Twitter’s algorithms systematically lure you. It’s a place where you encounter jerks and heroes, villains and victims, warring armies, terrible injustice. It is a theater of perpetual outrage.
- If I’m discussing issues with friends, or weighing matters in my immediate community, that’s not the sinkhole. But if I’m mad at public figures, or at strangers’ reactions to public figures, or at the unnecessary policing of strangers’ reactions to other strangers’ reactions to public figures… that’s the sinkhole.
- Once or twice, I have gone into that place and emerged wiser. When protests swept the US after the murder of George Floyd, I went to Twitter to watch videos of people’s grief and outrage, and of the state’s brutal overreactions. I benefited from Twitter then.
- But 99.9% of the time, I hate the sinkhole. Not the people; I admire many of them. Not the causes; I view many as morally urgent. I just hate how the sinkhole makes me feel: like being in a dark pit, catching glimpses of terrible monsters (or are they? I can’t quite see!), and being told (by whom? is that voice just in my head?) that it is my moral obligation to close my eyes and start punching.
- I believe the powerful have obligations to the powerless. The rich to the poor; the free to the unfree; the high-status to the low-status. But I’ve never felt that Twitter is a good place to practice this aspect of my politics. The sinkhole does not enhance my knowledge, deepen my compassion, or help me serve people in need. It just stresses me the hell out, and leaves me of no use to anyone.
- People with the opposite view voice it often, and people with my view voice it rarely, so I want to say this loud and clear: You have no moral obligation to engage with politics on Twitter. You may or may not have a broader moral obligation to engage with politics; that’s a question for your favorite preacher/therapist/political philosopher. All I’m saying is, if such an obligation exists, it surely does not specify Twitter as the medium of fulfillment.
- To be clear, if political Twitter does better things for your soul than it does for mine, then that’s great! Engage away.
- But if not, please know that Twitter should benefit your life. Is it relaxing you? Bringing you exciting new ideas? Connecting you to fascinating people? Right on. But if not? Sign off, commit to a full week away, and when you come back, use the “mute” and “unfollow” buttons as needed to climb your way out of the sinkhole and back into the beautiful village.
Part IV: Further Tips
- [This space reserved for the advice, superior to my own, that I know folks will add to the comments and on Twitter itself.]