We Need To Talk About Twitter

This is a post by guest contributor Mark Boersma.

Twitter represents an important networking tool for many researchers and scholarly communities. Particularly in some niche fields with a relatively small number of scholars, Twitter plays in a special league, permitting scholars to connect with the public and each other. However, by now it is public knowledge that Twitter has been experiencing some kind of upheaval, perhaps even a series of upheavals. This is generally attributed to Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of the social media site. Indeed, the new owner explicitly states that he has taken, or will take, actions that may have caused or exacerbated the events with which Twitter has recently made quite a few headlines. It remains to be seen whether Musk’s promise to step down as CEO of Twitter once he has found someone “foolish enough” (sic) to accept that position will turn out to be a prelude to calmer times, which the remaining employees at Twitter and (potential) advertisers may very well crave by now.

In light of these developments, many have turned their back on Twitter, and I can imagine more doing so, given that there has been a conspicuous surge in hateful tweets in the last few weeks. Users who found themselves banned from Twitter due to hateful conduct (which, in some cases actually shaped or rather disfigured political discourse!) have been granted clemency, which very well may cause the overall atmosphere on the platform to worsen even further. Since Twitter presents an important network and information exchange for scholarly communities and researchers, even those without permanent academic positions, this has negatively impacted some researchers and their communities and may continue to do so.

Although it is important to understand the reasons why Twitter may have become a less attractive platform ever since it has become Musk’s property, I would still like to bring to your attention to accounts that I have found insightful as someone who is not affiliated with any university or academic institution. My selection is a bit biased on account of the field for which I wish to obtain more relevant knowledge and skills: the study of the Ottoman Empire and its languages. Most of all, Twitter has been instrumental in finding relevant open access materials, since I currently lack access to major (digital) libraries. It furthermore offers me a window into new developments and initiatives that would escape my notice had I not been on Twitter. Twitter functions in that regard as some academic news ticker, if, firstly, one follows the accounts that send out Tweets with relevant news and, secondly, the Twitter algorithms make sure that similar content from other accounts will also find their way into one’s own Twitter feed.

I would like to present you with a couple of Twitter accounts I have found on Twitter over roughly the last eighteen months, and whose work and references to open access materials would have remained unknown to me  had it not been for the Bird App. You may take these as a personal recommendation from yours truly to follow them on Twitter. Or, if you do not spend time on that medium, you can recommend them to others who might have use of them.

  1. Khalid Yousef (@khalidsyossef)

Based in Cairo, this account regularly tweets about scholarly publications that are either upcoming or only very recently published. The owner of this account, Khalid Yousef, mentions Byzantine, premodern MENA and Persian studies as his main fields of interest. He occasionally tweets about titles that pertain to other fields, such as Buddhist monastic life in Southeast Asia. One of the very fine things about this account is that, whenever it tweets about an open access title, it also links to the source. He presents new, freely downloadable works quite regularly, at times daily. If the book in question is not freely downloadable, he attaches screenshots of its table of contents (i.e., the chapters and/or paragraphs with page numbers), which is helpful in deciding whether the title in question constitutes an interesting enough addition to one’s library, or whether it is worth trying to borrow it from the library.

  Since the titles Khalid Yousef passes on tend to be rather typical modern works of scholarship, where historiography and religious studies  are strongly represented, these studies are less apt to produce textbooks on linguistic matters. References and/or links to linguistic textbooks of any kind appear less frequently, only every now and then. All in all, I would like to encourage anyone interested in philology and manuscript studies, to follow @khalidsyossef on Twitter.

  1. Vezvez-e Kandū (@vezveze_kandu)

Another inspiring account for me is @vezveze_kandu. This user, Vincent Vaessen, (a student at the University of Cologne), maintains a site outside of the Twittersphere as his repository of helpful and interesting online resources. He regularly updates this “a digital toolbox for Iranian Studies.” The site covers methods and provides databases for Iranologists. I  like the links it offers to several podcasts (quite a few of them in German!), as well as the beautiful photographs of Central Asia from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not surprisingly, given the owner’s academic background and geographical location, the bulk of his sources include works in Persian and German, besides English.

  1. MENALIB (@menalib) 

This account also links a resource that is outside of Twitter: the virtual library menalib.de. This library offers access to the portal MENAdoc. In my opinion, the main added value of the Twitter account of MENALIB, an affiliate of the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, is that it tweets about works that are being or have just been scanned and rendered online. The most important feature of the virtual library is its catalogue and archive of open access books., It was only thanks to Twitter that I discovered it rather quickly. MENAdoc boasts a lot of exceptionally old titles and some more elementary textbooks, including language learning materials, which I appreciate. My tip would be to search the database for general terms such as “Introduction,” “Lehrbuch,” and “Grammar” / “Grammatik” to see what kinds of educational materials (often from the days of yore) the site returns as search results.

  1. Turkoslavia (@enaselimo, Ena Selimović, one of the translators who make up the central theme of this new literary journal, first informed me of this initiative with a Tweet)

Thanks to my presence on Twitter, I received early notification about a new literary journal called Turkoslavia. Its inaugural issue recently left the press and can be viewed online on Turkoslavia’s website. Its next edition is scheduled for publication in half a year or so..

Although this new journal is clearly conceived as a literary magazine, its aspiration to publish in Turkic and Slavonic literatures and languages could be a good reason for the journal to consider including translations of texts of scholarly interest that pertain to themes such as the Crimean War from the Ottoman Empire’s perspective or relations between the various Turkic peoples and the Russian Empire. I could imagine that it might be appealing to Balkanists, Turkologists, and Slavists to showcase their translation and writing skills by submitting their translations (be they critically annotated or not) of texts that are of philological and historiographical, as well as literary value. In this light, I thought it apt to also include this literary journal (which, again, I managed to find thanks to Twitter) here at the Digital Orientalist.

Now that I have presented you with four examples of interesting Twitter accounts, I should briefly broach the question of what alternative to Twitter can be used as a channel through which information on relevant sources and initiatives so richly flows. Among the options, Mastodon seems the most promising. Mastodon has two shortcomings in respect to Twitter. Its first drawback is only transient in nature: There are still not so many users on that platform. This can change with time, even quickly, as more users may join Mastodon. The second shortcoming is due to its systemic characteristics: Because of its decentralized structure with a plethora of servers (which are called “instances”), it is difficult to find kindred accounts on all the constellations that make up Mastodon writ large. 

I can state with certainty that Twitter is still the most useful social media application for finding academic information and scholarly sources, mainly because of the number of relevant accounts on it. Even though I find the four accounts introduced above particularly noteworthy, not all of the relevant Twitter messages come from them: It is best to have a large number of accounts that convey updates and notifications on scholarly matters and materials, preferably open access ones. Given the number of Twitter accounts focusing mainly on those matters, which dwarf the number of those on other social media platforms, I contend that Twitter is still a most suitable medium for getting acquainted with new works, approaches, and articles. My experience with Twitter as an information source and a repository of links to various useful and inspiring works is influenced by my lack of  access to major digital libraries that people affiliated to educational institutions usually do have, and for which institutions pay hefty subscription fees. If you happen to be one of them, then you could argue that the downsides of social media, which may be considerable even if one ignores the “Musk factor,” outweigh the advantages.    

All in all it would not come as a surprise to the readers that I still intend to use social media in order to catch wind of anything academic and/or open access. My Mastodon account is @PhilologicalEssayist@qoto.org. I hope that Mastodon will prove a useful medium for finding interesting contents and contacts, as the disadvantages of a decentralized structure and a still small number of users may be resolved in the future. For the old schoolers and those who are still hopeful about Twitter’s future (if not short term, then perhaps middle to long term): My Twitter handle is @PEssayist.  Look me up! I would be thrilled to learn about your feats and plans in the fields of Open Access and, more generally, Digital Humanities.

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