The @sweden Twitter account is fascinating: It’s the official Twitter account for the country of Sweden, and each week it’s run by a different Swedish citizen. “Every week, someone in Sweden is @Sweden: sole ruler of the world’s most democratic Twitter account.” It’s a lovely point of inspiration. But how do you actually make a collaborative Twitter account?
This post lays out one way of doing so, using my experiences with the @HASTS_MIT project—inspired by @sweden—as an example. If you want to know more about the project, please check out @HASTS_MIT: A Community & Public Scholarship Twitter Experiment.
1. Decide on your goals for the project.
The @HASTS_MIT project has two goals: to engage in public scholarship and to create an inclusive HASTS community space.
2. Seek collaborators.
As with any such project, this involves persuading people to share some of their limited time and energy. In this case, the first set of participants came from three sources: 1. The HASTS Digital STS Working Group, where I workshopped the idea. 2. A handful of specific community members I know well. And 3. An open call on the HASTS community’s various lists.
Why didn’t I rely solely an open call? I discovered while workshopping the project that it was surprisingly difficult to explain the project before it was launched. I had much better results when I did so one on one. Also, I suspect the people who know me well were willing to extend some faith to spackle over holes in my explanation. As with most projects, getting people to participate takes more time than you expect.
3. Figure out technical access.
For the @HASTS_MIT project, this boiled down to questions of password. Should the account have only one password or should the password change each week? I decided to go with the latter. It meant slightly more work for me, but reduced the possibility that someone with access to multiple Twitter accounts would end up tweeting as @HASTS_MIT by mistake. (This happens, people regret it.) This went mostly smoothly—the only hiccup was with two passwords that danced with the I/l (upper case i and lower case L) homograph issue. Because I had created the passwords, I knew which letter I meant and why. Not so for the two hosts.
4. Decide what kind of mentoring or structure to provide.
During the fall semester, hosts varied considerably in their familiarity with Twitter. Some had tweeted thousands of times. Others had never used a Twitter account before the project launched. What kind of structure could support them all? I developed a set of broad guidelines over the first four weeks of the project.
I gave the first host, Mitali Thakor, rough guidelines and then watched how she used the account. On the spectrum of familiarity with Twitter, Mitali fell nicely in the middle of our host group: she’d had a Twitter account since 2009, but averaged only one tweet every four or five days.
After watching Mitali in action, I tweaked and clarified the guidelines, particularly with regard to following practices. I wanted the account’s home timeline itself—not just the hosts’ tweets, but the stream of tweets from accounts followed—to be collaboratively created. That meant I wanted each host to make decisions about other accounts to follow. I also didn’t want any one host to follow so many other accounts that their choices dominated the timeline for all future hosts. (FWIW, I’m not sure this worked well, as at least one host found the account timeline chaotic and difficult to digest.) By the end of that first week I basically had the semester’s guidelines.
They were tweaked once more. Wade Roush launched the fourth week of the project by laying out his plan for the week (here and here, though really it’s part of a longer sequence he tweeted that day). I loved the clarity and structure of this and so added it to the guidelines. Here’s the tl;dr version of the result:
Introduce yourself by name. Explain your interests. Give followers an overview of what you’ll be tweeting about & what you hope they’ll get out of your week. Tweet at least 4x a day. Check what the HASTS Twitter community is saying. Read account notifications daily & reply as appropriate. Follow 10 – 50 accounts over the course of the week. Send a concluding tweet at the end of the week. Share your participation.
Okay, so you’ve thought about goals, collaborators, technical access, and guidelines. What next?
5. Project manage.
I underestimated the amount of time ongoing management would take when I originally outlined the project. This kind of project management isn’t particularly difficult, it just requires regular attention.
In the case of @HASTS_MIT, every week I sent the guidelines to the upcoming host a few days before their week was to begin. I also tried to check in with every host at roughly the midweek point, though some weeks this fell through due to fieldwork busyness (hi, dissertation research!), particularly with hosts who were already very familiar with Twitter.
The check-in was to answer any questions that might have come up, but also to provide suggestions tailored to that particular host. This ranged from suggestions of hashtags to explore to explanations of the addressivity of @mentions to data from the Twitter Analytics for the account.
A couple of days before the week ended, I sent a wrap-up email, asking hosts to announce the end of their week and sign out of the account in any app they’d used to access it. The subsequent week I sent an email with prompts asking for reflections. For those into counting “touches” (popular with everyone from truffle makers to NASA social media managers), that was four touches from me each week, three general/repetitive, one specific/tailored.
On top of that there was stopping by to make sure the project hadn’t been forgotten in the midst of life’s busyness (thankfully it never was) plus creating relevant paratexts—lineup announcements to different lists each month, posts about the project on different social media, etc. As noted in the earlier post about the project, the paratexts themselves seemed to encourage community, so they shouldn’t be brushed off as unimportant, if community building or bonding is one of your goals.
So there you go! If you build a collaborative Twitter account of your own—on this model or another—please drop me a line, I’d love to hear about it.