Cupcakes for hashtags. (Photography by Quinn Dombrowski, AB’06, AM’06, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Power tweeters

Four professors, an alumnus, and an intern on how and why they tweet.

Like many Twitter users, I’ve been lurking silently for years, mostly out of fear. But lots of faculty, alumni, and students are made of sterner stuff—including the six interviewed below, who have a combined 135,000 Twitter followers.


Peggy Mason

Professor, Department of Neurobiology


Harold Pollack

Helen Ross Professor and Deputy Dean for Research and Faculty Development, School of Social Service Administration

Coauthor of The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Does Not Have to Be Complicated (Portfolio, forthcoming), based on an actual index card that went viral in 2013


Neil Shubin

Robert R. Bensley Professor and Associate Dean, Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy

Author of Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon, 2008) and The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People (Pantheon, 2013)


Richard H. Thaler

Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics, Chicago Booth

Coauthor of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008) and author of Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (W. W. Norton and Company, 2015)


John Scalzi, AB’91

Science fiction writer; latest book is The End of All Things (Tor Books, 2015)

Hannah Gitlin, tweets privately under a pseudonym

Class of 2016; University of Chicago Magazine intern

Why did you start tweeting?

Pollack: I had a private Twitter account for a while. Eventually it became too much of a pain to decide who I was willing to let in. I started to inadvertently insult people. So I decided to make it public.

Shubin: When my miniseries (Your Inner Fish) aired on PBS last year, the folks there asked if I would live tweet during the broadcast. The idea struck me as strange, but almost immediately I heard from college and high school teachers who wanted their students to tweet questions. We were the lead trending item on Twitter for two of the three nights of broadcast.

Mason: I was preparing to offer a MOOC (massive open online course) and my producer, Emily Joy Bembeneck, said I had to get on Twitter. It’s definitely an acquired taste. I use it to talk with my Neuro MOOC students and share neuro things. The other categories I permit myself to write about are cats, the environment, and science.

Scalzi: When a new social network starts up, I immediately go and try to get the Scalzi screen name. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s useful. Twitter and Facebook were coming up at the same time, while Instant Messenger and MySpace were going down. If I wanted to continue to talk to my friends and/or procrastinate my work, I had to get on Twitter.

Gitlin: I joined in 2012 as a senior in high school, but it took me a long time after that to really get into it.

Thaler: Some friends suggested I try it. At the beginning I mostly used it as a news feed.

Do you remember your first tweet?

Pollack: I do not. Probably “Hi, it’s me, I’m on Twitter.”

Scalzi: I signed up on Easter. I believe it was “So much ham.”

Mason: It was on Halloween. “It takes a brain to feel scared.”

Gitlin: Probably like “#Hashtag” or something similarly unfunny with aspirations of meta.

How many times do you tweet per day/week? What affects the frequency? 

Pollack: It’s embarrassing. I tweet a lot. I tweet in bursts.

Scalzi: I have special tools because I’m a verified user. Let’s see. Monday, July 27: 53Tuesday, July 28: 74Wednesday, July 29: 72Thursday, July 30: 86Friday, July 31: 40On average, more than 50 times a day. On July 19, in the last 28 days, I tweeted 167 times. I don’t even know what I was doing.

Thaler: Most of my tweets are really retweets.

What do you like about Twitter?

Mason: It has no creep factor. No one is asking to be “friends” with you.

Pollack: My favorite use of Twitter is complimenting people. All of my TAs and many of my students follow me covertly. So I can say something nice about one of my TAs and they can forward it to their mom.

Thaler: Twitter is probably at its best during a news event, such as presidential debates, where you can get real time commentary and jokes during the commercials.

Ever had a Twitter disaster?

Pollack: James Woods, the actor, went absolutely nuts about me. Then a bunch of people joined in because he’s got a lot of followers. I said something favorable about a speech by Al Sharpton. He hates Al Sharpton. It was bizarre.

Scalzi: I used to be the editor of the Maroon, so people have been sending me hate mail for 25 years. I used to get hate mail on paper, old school, when there was more craft to it. I have no problem muting people. They don’t even know. They can go off as much as they want, but they’re talking to a wall.

Mason: One day in spring Randy Schekman, the editor in chief of eLIFE, wrote an editorial that he’d thought about it again, and if his postdocs don’t want to publish in Cell, Nature, or Science—they’re known as CNS—he doesn’t want them in his lab. Randy had started eLIFE in direct opposition to this idea of CNS supremacy. I tweeted this scathing response. What was the date? April 1. I totally missed that.

How does it compare with other social networking sites?

Mason: My impression is that it’s passé for the undergrads. They’re on to something else. But this is it for me. This is as far as I go. Pollack: The difference between Facebook and Twitter is that on Facebook, you get into conflicts with people you know. On Twitter, you get into conflicts with people you don’t know.

Any advice for people new to Twitter?

Mason: I have no idea what other people should do. A friend of mine who tweets a lot has three or four different Twitter accounts. He tweets science here, politics here, music here. He suggested that to me. OK, no.

Thaler: Spend some time just reading. Find out what you like and don’t like. Then you can start tweeting in an informed way.

Shubin: Stay positive. Don’t try to go viral. Don’t get in arguments.

Pollack: Wait until you have some stuff to say and a reason to say it. Twitter can be very addictive. You can waste a lot of time. Wait until after your first 10 papers are published.

Scalzi: Everything you tweet is in the public forever. Tweets are being archived by the Library of Congress now. To use a high school expression, it’s going down on your permanent record. Just because it’s 140 characters long doesn’t mean it can’t absolutely ruin your life.

I have a dream of getting #OldChurchSlavonic to go viral. Do you think there’s any hope? 

Thaler: No way.

Scalzi: Old Church Lavonic? Oh, Old Church Slavonic. No. The definition of viral is that transmission is easy, fun, something that people do without even a second thought. So the odds are really against it. And eventually someone’s going to send you the picture of Regina from Mean Girls: “Stop trying to make #OldChurchSlavonic happen! It’s not going to happen!”

Mason: What the hell is that? Well, maybe. You could get me, Randy Picker [AB’80, AM’82, JD’85; @randypicker; James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law). Try the Humanities Division. Let’s see whether we can do it.

Shubin: Ask Ellen DeGeneres to tweet a selfie with it.