Twitter Chat 101

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) often participates in cancer-related Twitter chats, and we welcome Twitter novices and experts alike to join the conversation. If you’re leaning more toward novice than expert, don’t worry—these chats are easier to pick up on than you might think!

A Twitter chat harnesses the global reach of this microblogging platform to connect like-minded people in real-time conversation. In the past week alone, the Healthcare Hashtag Project reported more than 140,000 chat tweets from over 34,000 chat participants. At first the face-paced, worldwide conversation may seem overwhelming, but once you learn the ropes the experience can be quite rewarding. Twitter chats offer scientists the opportunity for informative, informal discussions with patients and advocates plus the chance to network among peers and promote their latest research. Often, conversations that begin on Twitter turn into lasting connections when fellow Twitter users meet face to face at the AACR Annual Meeting.

The basics

The format may vary from chat to chat, but in general Twitter chats occur at a set time with a designated hashtag and are run by at least one moderator who poses questions or discussion topics to keep the conversation flowing. Confirm your chat’s hashtag and make sure you use it in every post you make.

Many moderators assign numbers to their topics or questions, such as T1 or Q1, and participants will assign corresponding numbers to their responses, such as T1 or A1. It’s not necessary to mention the moderator’s Twitter handle in your response. The tweets below demonstrate the topic numbering system used by the weekly #abcDrBchat with ABC News Medical Editor Richard Besser, MD.

Some participants like to retweet the moderator’s questions so their own followers can find some context in the conversation without actually following the chat. You may also want to retweet the questions or comments you find most compelling. If you’d like to follow up with a specific participant about a question or comment, feel free to tweet at that person directly, using the chat’s hashtag.

Take your time

These chats may move quickly, and it can be easy to lose track if you read everything closely. Fortunately, you don’t have to read every tweet in the stream to benefit from the chat. If comments are coming in faster than you can keep up, try skimming the stream for keywords that interest you. For faster chats, it’s also helpful to participate through a social media dashboard and set up a designated column for tweets from the moderator(s) so you don’t miss anything important (see “finding the right tools,” below, for more information.)

If you see a tweet you’d like to revisit later, you can use Twitter’s “favorite” button to bookmark it. This can be especially helpful if you’d like to refer back to a link or photo after the chat is finished.

Many chat moderators will post a transcript or summary after the chat is finished. If you can’t find one, it might be available through the Healthcare Hashtag Project.

Finding the right tools

Even if you use Twitter’s website or mobile app for your everyday tweeting, most chat participants find it easiest to follow along when using a specialized chat tool or social media dashboard. Free tools like Twubs or TweetChat allow you to follow a chat without refreshing your page, and if you log in these tools can automatically populate your tweets with the chat’s hashtag. Dashboards like HootSuite and TweetDeck are also free and offer multistream views so you can follow the chat’s hashtag, see every tweet sent by the moderator, track your @ mentions, and more.

Want more?

Often, people will begin discussions before the scheduled chat time, or may keep the conversation going after the official chat has ended. Check the hashtag stream before and after the chat for materials such as videos, blog posts, or peer-reviewed journal articles that relate to the discussion.

And don’t forget—these networks are called “social” for a reason. Don’t be afraid to reach out to chat participants before, during, or after the chat to introduce yourself or ask some more in-depth questions about a talking point. You can make some valuable connections!

Cover photo: “Twitter Buttons at OSCON” by Garrett Heath is licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons