Unpacking @AcademicsSay: Part 1

N. C. Hall  /  06/05/2016

This is my first blog post.

And the only reason you’re seeing it is @AcademicsSay, ostensibly one of the most influential academic social media accounts reaching upwards of 24 million views a month across platforms.

Although polite company warrants eyes-down, humblebrag explanations of the success of this social experiment as serendipitous, that’s not entirely accurate. Instead, the account growth has been markedly consistent, largely anticipated, and intentionally facilitated by strategies common to influential accounts.

To the extent the following may read as a self-indulgent, overthinking, faux-Machiavellian hyper-justification of writing procrastination, I apologize in advance. Below is Part 1 of a tl;dr overview of the varied growth hacking strategies derived mainly from observation, basic psychology, and trial-and-error that may or may not have contributed to the success of @AcademicsSay.

1.   Opportunity. When I set up my professional Twitter account in May 2013, there was no common gathering point for faculty or lightning rod for feedback/sharing. There were no clear accounts to follow first, nothing central that really got academics excited. I wanted to create that, first because it’s confusing and boring to go online and not have a place to connect with others. Second, I was feeling burnt out and needed a laugh. There were also no humour accounts for faculty, aside from scattered student-shaming efforts and @PhDComics for grad students, so I made one. I am not a humour writer. But you don’t need to be great when there’s no competition; you just need to show up.

2.   Tone. I am not a generally positive person. So when deciding how to sound online, I went with my regularly scheduled deadpan, sarcastic, depressing, uncomfortably self-aware over-explanations that make for awkward conversation. I also pride myself on avoiding the wrath of colleagues by getting a laugh despite my interrupting their work as a way of procrastinating on mine. So the overall tone of @AcademicsSay was basically an extension of what I was already doing, just in a more distilled online format. I then found a recognizable meme that fit the tone and went from there. Fortunately, as non-intellectual or unintentionally humourous aspects of academic content tend to get the most attention on social media (e.g., the “Gabor” effect), I was immediately in business.

3.   Authority. I regularly get comments, questions, and surprisingly impassioned critiques about the account behavior; hopefully this section addresses some of that. In addition to content tone, I incorporated from the outset a set of implicit cues to convey authority to potential followers and expedite follow/retweet decisions. This was for two reasons: first, to provide an ironic take on the stereotypical aloof, egocentric academic persona; second, to mimic the profiles of existing viral parody accounts in the history or science domains. Some examples involving language, formatting, colour, and ratios are below.

4.   Language. The word “shit” in the account name implies irreverence or catharsis and is unexpected in academic timelines, grabbing attention while providing ironic context for otherwise curse-free content. The account handle remained curse-free to accommodate more respectable manual retweets. Similarly, “academics” not “professors” were referred to in the account name to convey faculty responsibilities beyond instruction (e.g., writing, tenure requirements, work-life balance). As the content was to be more “water-cooler gossip” or internal self-talk than in-class “dad jokes,” the less-than-student-centered approach was intentional.

5.   Formatting. Tweet text was formatted to exclude “all caps,” emoticons, exclamation points, and question marks to mitigate impressions of attention-seeking and uncertainty. In addition to facilitating a deadpan or aloof tone, ending sentences with periods was also a bit of a inside academic joke not unlike how Kanye West describes the private hilarity of not smiling. To not dissuade engagement among academics who are typically less than familiar with Twitter protocols, I also initially tried to avoid including nonintuitive hashtags (e.g., #ecrchat) and acronyms (e.g., H/T) in favour of more accessible terminology (e.g., via, courtesy of).

6.   Colour. The colour profile was also intentional. Although the specific profile image (“avi”) was selected almost at random from my cell phone, it needed to satisfy two  conditions: it had to show well at lower resolutions and needed to be red. The colour red was emphasized based on research showing red to implicitly convey competitive success and dominance in affiliative and advertising contexts (e.g., CNN, Time, Science, Netflix, BuzzFeed, TMZ, TED Talks) and to solicit more online engagement (e.g., link clicks) than other colours. The image itself is simply a cropped photo of a graffiti art gorilla I took on the sidewalk after a disappointing trip to the farmer’s market. I’d like to think the gorilla signified other elements (e.g., stoicism, “300-lb gorilla” metaphor), but it’s mainly just red.

7.   Ratios. The account also manipulated three Twitter ratios to implicitly convey authority. First, an exaggerated “following-to-follower” ratio was achieved by not following other accounts (as per other parody accounts) requiring unidirectional follows vs. reciprocal “followbacks.” Second, the “retweet-to-follower” ratio was bolstered by deleting tweets that did not sufficiently resonate; a ratio consistently held to around 0.001. For example, tweets in Spring of 2014 (~30K followers) that did not reach 30 retweets were omitted (typically within an hour), with the exception of tweets including links or promoting content intended for “clickthroughs” (current cut-off is ~150 retweets <1 hour, >1K likes on FB; see @TheTweetOfGod, @SoVeryBritish for comparable ratios). Third, deleting tweets with insufficient retweets helped to improve the “tweet-to-follower” ratio. Off-brand tweets promoting specific accounts, lists, hashtags, sites, etc. were similarly omitted to provide an on-brand, content-focussed read for timeline scrollers (“grooming”). Overall, these ratios were maximized to create the impression of an authoritative, non-reciprocal, content-provider account where each tweet not only resonated but gained substantial followers.

8.   Branding. Similar to other viral parody accounts, @AcademicsSay does not reply or retweet. Instead, standalone text reposted from other accounts is formatted as per a typical academic quotation (“…” – @source), or (more rarely) as a screenshot image, to visually associate or “rebrand” it with the account name and image. The quotation format is immediately recognizable to academics but differs from typical (less visually appealing) manual retweets in which acronyms and the original account are inserted before tweet content (e.g., RT “@source …”). This form of attribution is generally appreciated by those referenced, avoids “Twitter plagiarism,” and facilitates portability across platforms (e.g., Facebook, Tumblr). However, it can also be seen as particularly distasteful (especially screenshots) as it effectively affords self-promotion and metric gains at the expense of direct engagement with source accounts. Given the markedly ego-involving nature of not following someone on Twitter or Facebook, it’s perhaps not surprising that this strategy has to date been the most negatively received.

9.   Images. One of the most well-known and easily implemented ways of increasing Facebook or Twitter engagement is to just add an image (e.g., by 35%). So after waiting three months to ensure that text-based content was resonating with followers (~7K), relevant images were introduced. At this point, I had decided to use the account to recruit for off-line research and consciously opted to forego whatever old-guard, intellectual cache was attached to excluslively sardonic text in favor of incorporating more accessible, existing visual content that elicited a more visceral response (e.g., May 2014: doubling new followers/day to 450+ by doubling down on comics, graphics, and screenshots). Given a long-standing body of work by academic comic legends (e.g., PhD Comics, XKCD) and creative efforts of emerging webcomic artists (e.g., Errant Science, RedPen/BlackPen, The Upturned Microscope), finding content wasn’t hard and I finally had a chance to indulge my long-time love of cartoons. I eventually introduced original images and memes to capitalize on social media norms, mocked up preview graphics to increase clicks for news articles or blogs (16:9 to prevent awkward Twitter cropping, better Facebook previews), and started embedding square blog logos that are automatically grabbed when link is shared.

10.   Attribution. Given the emotional and financial investment involved in creating visual content for social media, I eventually started to receive responses from artists requesting that additional source information be included in posts beyond that contained in the image. And after a few requests by original artists (e.g., @MacLtoons, Kemson Cooper), online criticism when attribution was not included (e.g., Paris attack graphic), and an education on attribution and copyright by my friend Jorge Cham (@PhDComics) following an uncomfortable Twitter/email exchange with artist @twisteddoodles, I not only research the origins of posted artwork (e.g., TinEye, Karma Decay, Veracity) but try to provide linkbacks to within-platform accounts or external sites to not deprive artists of potential exposure or income. Although posting images without attribution or linkbacks is more efficient (particularly when source/contact info is embedded), a well-worn strategy for expediting growth (see @HistoryInPics, IFLScience), and not unpermitted in the Twitter TOS (see p. 22, Agence France Presse v. Morel), it is more susceptible to removal on Facebook or Twitter (DCMA takedowns) on copyright grounds and is not a good look for an academic audience uncommonly preoccupied with attribution.

11.   Anonymity. I ran the account anonymously until July 2015 for various reasons. First, I didn’t want my atypical online activities to somehow influence my tenure deliberations. It also helped to maintain a focus on the followers, underscoring the aim of the account to resonate based on shared experiences rather than a self-indulgent showcase of intellectual, writing, or humour abilities. In this way, followers were allowed to perceive their engagement more simply as sharing a laugh or connecting with others by way of satire, as opposed to endorsing the attention-seeking efforts of a specific individual. This decision also helped to circumvent the awkward self-esteem-loaded “followback” expectation otherwise encountered with personal Twitter accounts. In a similar vein, demographic cues involving nationality (e.g., American spelling), gender (typically assumed female), race, rank, or discipline that could unnecessarily complicate or bias content perception and mitigate engagement were avoided. As an anonymous account, I was also allowed more freedom to make mistakes and experiment in term of content (e.g., topics, attribution) or growth strategies (e.g., branding, promotion) without risk of direct criticism or reprisal.

Maybe it’s because academics tend to be familiar with blinded research and manuscript reviews that remarkably few people ever asked who I was. Or maybe it’s that social media platforms generally promote engagement over attribution, a point illustrated by Twitter adding the “quote tweet” function in 2015 while at the same time quietly removing the automatic insertion of quotation marks and account mention (used for manual retweets) when copying tweets in the app (making it much easier to plagiarize). Regardless, it was only after my tenure was confirmed, account influence exceeded relevant benchmarks, the cache of “coming out” could be reliably predicted to bolster off-platform efforts (study recruitment), and these unconventional online activities could be justified in part as a public service to non-social-media users that I wrote the Chronicle piece about the account (as agreed upon one year earlier). However, judging by continued confessions of love for “whoever you are” or “you guys,” and minimal spillover to my personal Twitter account, people generally don’t seem to notice or care who’s running the account.

12.   Efficiency. To promote initial growth, I also pre-prepared tweets that released automatically on apps like Buffer (Facebook pages provide in-platform scheduling) and used free sites like Tweriod to determine optimal tweet times (now largely irrelevant due to international reach). Not unlike other parody or satire accounts, I also regularly repeat content. Although I had previously deleted original tweets to disguise this strategy (some accounts delete tweets wholesale, presumably for the same reason), I now keep them up to gauge growth. I initially felt comfortable repeating only after a 6 month lag (consistent with previous Twitter API restrictions preventing older tweets from being viewed), but now tend to repost within 2-3 months due to a follower base big enough to ensure sufficient sharing from those who would not have seen it, would not remember seeing it, or would not mind seeing it again. Although some repeats are verbatim, others are reformatted or modified (e.g., replacing “book” with “blog” 9 days later) to improve engagement. As for the account meme, the “shit xxx say” format itself affords specific efficiencies, such as a focus on what others say (observation is much easier than inspiration) and basic text (Siri dictation while waiting at Starbucks vs. curated content or creating visuals), as demonstrated by even single-letter posts gaining traction. Finally, one unanticipated consequence of this meme is the extent to which it actually encouraged crowdsourced feedback (replies, mentions, emails) that has to date been highly effective in terms of providing off-platform content, pop culture phrases (e.g., “all of the things”, “Netflix and chill”), timely memes (e.g., Game of Thrones), or even grammatical improvements for repeat posts.

So there you go: a quick introduction to some of the more straightforward strategies adopted a priori or over time to expedite follow decisions and account growth for @AcademicsSay. For more on the roles of analytics, experimentation, and emotions, or more awkward topics such as plagiarism, haters, and monetization, check back for Parts 2 and 3 in the coming days.