The Physician’s Guide to Twitter is part of The Public Physician, a resource created to help doctors navigate their professional life online. Check out our landing page for other great resources.
It’s safe to say that Twitter is the platform of choice for doctors. Here’s why: There are lots of doctors who use it, it has a low barrier to entry, and it’s just a great way to share information. So we definitely need a basic Physician’s Guide to Twitter.
Let’s talk a little bit about how to get started and how to use it effectively. This Physician’s Guide to Twitter could fill a book, so I’ll try to keep it quick, dirty (sort of) and with lots of subheadings! So feel free to scan down and see what grabs you.
I’m not going to waste your time with idiot-proofed instructions. Most of this stuff is intuitive. And where necessary I’ve linked out to some resources that give you that step-by-step.
What is Twitter?
For the uninitiated, Twitter is a social platform that allows you to publish messages in 280 characters. In that tiny space (believe it or not) you can make a point, make a comment or share a link. If people are interested in you, they will follow you and your tweets will appear in their ‘stream.’ The tweets sent by people you choose to follow appear in your stream.
That’s pretty much it.
Ask three doctors what twitter is and you’ll get five answers. It’s a very versatile social tool and you can use it in a number of ways. For some, its a place for conversation and relationship building (the old fashioned idea of the cocktail party). Others see Twitter as an information tool – a place to share and gather links to interesting things (This is how I use it). But your mileage may vary.
Twitter’s power as a human filter
The challenge I face as a 21st century doctor is noise. We’re facing a crisis of information, so I use Twitter as a human filter. I follow a thousand really smart, trusted people from a variety of backgrounds, and they tell me what’s important.
The way it works is that the nine hundred or so people I follow create a human signal. All of the things that they think are important come together in one brilliant stream. Think of it as a personally fashioned news and information channel created by my peers. My well-oiled feed allows me to rest easy, knowing that if something’s important, my network will bring it to me.
And it works. I frequently find articles and journal publications that I share with my real-life peers at Texas Children’s Hospital. Everybody wants to know how I have so much time to read. My response: I don’t. I just listen to the right people.
How you should start using Twitter as a doctor
Here are a few things to get you out of the gates.
Take time to think about why you’re using Twitter
If you haven’t done it I would wander over to Physician Identity Online. It’s always good to have some idea of how and why you want to use a tool like Twitter. Also, the stuff under ‘How to be a Public Physician’ is a good place to start if you’re new. You don’t have to have it all figured out but a little thought is a good investment.
Create a great Twitter profile
When you sign up you will create a twitter profile. Key elements are:
- Twitter handle. This is your Twitter name. Make sure you read The Public Physician primer on naming your profiles. You can change your handle, but it probably isn’t a good idea to do it very often.
- Twitter bio. The Twitter bio is a great place to be a little creative. I suggest that you spend a lot of time looking at other people’s bios and choose what fits your personality and personal brand. You can change this as much as you want. When I change my bio I usually write it first on a place where I can see my character count. This insures that I’ve optimized the space. Then I just paste it into my bio. Easy-peazy.
- Image. This is often a headshot. But like your bio, some people use cartoons or get real creative. Also, you’ll hear it over and over again on The Public Physician: Use a current head shot!
- Wallpaper. This is the ‘banner’ image above your profile. Pick something fun and creative.
- Link to your home base. Twitter allows you one link to a web page. Refer to a key point on your digital map. For me it’s my blog. If you have nothing, link to your LinkedIn profile (hopefully you have that). Some docs link to a practice site or hospital bio.
Start small, grow smart
- Build a group of secret mentors. Begin by finding a small group of people with interests in line with yours—perhaps friends or peers who do what you do or run in the same circles as you—then look at who they follow. Look at their bios and peek at their tweets. Find a dozen or so interesting people to start with and then leave it at that.
- Watch how your mentors work. As you follow this group, of people you’ll see that they will share interesting tweets with great information originating from other people. You’ll soon see that there are people who do a remarkable job of finding and sharing great content. Follow them. At your next medical meeting ,there may be a keynote speaker with a brilliant view of the world. Check out his or her feed, and if it looks good, follow and listen to what he or she has to say.
- Grow slow and smart. Keep your feed clean and useful. Remember to view your social feeds as new tools of your profession. Be selective and let in only those who seem like they would bring you something valuable or unique. You do NOT have to follow back people who follow you (see below, ‘to unfollow is human’)
Other key features of Twitter
Sometimes we need more than one Tweet to get our point across. A thread on Twitter is a series of connected Tweets from one person. It allows you to share a longer form idea within the Twitter stream. Medical educators have taken to threads and will use them for extended teaching points on a subject.
Remember that while threads will give your subject some attention, it only amounts to 15 minutes of fame. The Twitter stream will sweep it away. You can keep a link to it but keep in mind that in the future people may not be able to find it very easily. For me, this builds the argument for having a place on your digital map for longer form ideas.
This page gives you a step-by-step guide. They do it better than I could.
Retweet, retweet with comment, or just comment
If you like something someone says, you can ‘engage’ with it. There are three ways people do that. I’ll go through the three:
- Retweet. If you RT a tweet it gets shared in your feed in its original form. All of your followers will see it and there will be a tiny notation that you have shared it. Just hit the little ‘two way arrow’ icon below the tweet and it will prompt you to retweet.
- Just comment. If you like something and you want to put in your two cents worth, you comment. In this case you just hit the little ‘cloud’ icon below the tweet and type your brilliance. You can also comment on someone else’s comment. In the event of a hot button tweet your comment may appear along with dozens of others rendering an opinion.
- Retweet with comment. If you have something to say about a tweet that you want to put in to your feed you can retweet with comment. So your followers will see a tweet from you with the original tweet you are commenting on slightly inset just below your comment. The slight downside to this is that if there is a rich thread of heated comments below the original tweet, they won’t get carried through. If you wanna do this, just hit the little ‘two way arrow’ icon below the tweet and it will prompt you to retweet with comment.
Honestly, the best way to understand commenting and retweeting is to watch your feed, see how they it’s used and, of course, do it yourself.
Having a big stream with lots of people is cool. But it can be unfocused at times. Especially if you are in the habit of following lots of people (I’m very selective about who I follow). So Twitter has a great feature called Lists that allows you to create a ‘sub-feed’ of a select group of people. Say, for example, you want to just see tweets from a select group of cardiac EP docs. You can create a list called ‘cardiac EP docs’ and put the 10-12 of Twitter’s best EP thinkers in that list. It’s like having a TV channel that you tune in to.
Once you create a great list you can keep it to yourself or share it with the rest of the world. As Twitter has become a little more noisy compared to how it used to be, I’m using lists more than ever.
If you want the blow-by-blow on how to do it, check out Twitter’s own support page on the matter over here.
A few rando things about Twitter
A little Physician’s Guide to Twitter wisdom.
Twitter at medical meetings
Twitter is a powerful resource at medical meetings. Check out Twitter at Medical Meetings for a deep dive.
Twitter is an outpost
So it’s important to remember that news now flows in a stream. Twitter is a great example. We share and have conversations, but they disappear and move along down the stream. Twitter is not fixed or permanent. Twitter is very much an outpost. So it’s important to remember this when considering what you will do online. It’s a good place to chat and connect, not such a good place for building a reputation. Sure you can do great things on Twitter as a doctor. But you’re unlikely to move the chains with your footprint on a platform like Twitter.
You create your own noise
A friend recently remarked that she was leaving Twitter. She was tired of the noise and reverberation.
I hear this all the time.
Some public physicians see themselves as victims. Many claim that they can’t keep up. Others don’t like what they hear. But we forget that we control what we allow in. We create our own echo chambers. We choose whom we follow. We make a conscious decision about how many sources we draw from.
Throwing out the baby with the bath water isn’t a sensible solution. Ultimately, we have to get serious about how we tune our signal. It’s better to follow twenty smart thinkers than leave it all behind. If you get in over your head you may need to unfollow the noisy folks. And that’s okay (see just below).
I hate the noise as much as my fed-up friend. I just work desperately to tune it out.
Who I follow is probably irrelevant to you
Everyone wants a list of ‘good people to follow.’ This is kind of a funny question because it really depends on what you want to hear. Or who you want to hear from. I have very specific reasons for why I follow certain folks. Sure, I have a few hospital administrators that I work close with that I follow out of courtesy, but I try to minimize this (Avoid the temptation to do a lot of this). What I’m interested in is probably really different from what you want.
So take that for what it’s worth and ignore the ‘recommended follow’ lists unless the person making the list is there for the very same reason you are.
To unfollow is human
While who you listen to may represent your most important digital decision, who you choose not to listen to is perhaps more important.
As your Twitter following grows, you’ll find that there are people aren’t who you thought they were. They create noise (excessive tweets) that hijacks your stream and interferes with your ability to see what your network is delivering. It’s important that you periodically reassess who you follow to make sure they’re working for you.
That means that you will need to unfollow people.
Some still find this difficult to do. In the early days of Twitter, it was considered rude to not reciprocate when you were followed, but times have changed and social media has moved from its orgy-like pit of dialogue to something that can be used as a real information tool.
Increasingly, my view of Twitter is driven by what I need, and like everyone, my interests and personal direction change over time. That, of course, involves regular adjustment of my information filter. When I discuss this in small groups or training sessions with physicians, there’s a tremendous sense of relief knowing that it’s okay to unfollow.
Conversely, I understand that I can’t predict the needs of my followers. I suspect that my stream’s balance of awkward insight and occasional dry humor has relevance to someone, but I accept that I can’t please all the people all of the time. I recognize that there will be those who find what I deliver isn’t what they need, and that’s fine. We’re all feeling as we go.
Public engagement requires a real appraisal of what we want and why we’re here. If it’s all about needing love and someone to follow you, you might consider a lapdog.
Why building your public presence solely on Twitter is a mistake
Some people try to build their total presence on Twitter. This is a mistake. Or a delusion. Some thoughts on why.
- Limited reach. You only reach the relatively small number of doctors who use Twitter. Those of us who are used to using Twitter live in something of a bubble – we like to think everyone’s there. Not true. You need a diversified digital map.
- It’s a stream. Twitter is what’s referred to as an ephemeral media. It’s a fancy word that says the tweets or threads you create will disappear as they float down the great Twitter stream. So in the relative scale of permanence, what you do here is pretty temporary. This is okay for comments on topical news items or funny Super Bowl ads. For solid thinking that you want someone to find and reference 6 months from now, not so much.
- Consider Twitter an outpost, not a base. Think of Twitter as a place to flag people back to wherever you’ve parked your big idea.
- 280 character limit. Twitter is great for quick hits, but it breaks down when sharing longer formed ideas. Since many haven’t thought through where to park their ideas they wind up creating Twitter Threads.
So I’m not goin’ all negative Nelly here. Just trying to get real about what these tools do. And don’t do.
Some of this you just gotta figure out
Some of this won’t make sense until you’ve jumped in and tried Twitter. So give it a go and maybe circle back to the Physician’s Guide to Twitter for a refresher after you’ve been in it for a couple of weeks.
Also, if you think there’s something that I could add or write better please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Physician’s Guide to Twitter is part of a big, bold project called The Public Physician. It’s the world’s most comprehensive resource for doctors figuring out their online presence (I just made that up, but I suspect it might be true). Check out our table of contents to dig into what you need.