Social media and evidence-based practice: A primer on Twitter

office with neon sign saying "tell your stories here"

As I keep telling you, we’re busy developing content for a workshop on “Using social media for evidence-based practice” at the upcoming Cochrane Canada Symposium. Our three content areas of focus will be blogs, wikis and Twitter. As we develop a “manual” to hand out to participants, I put together a one- 0r two-pager on Twitter. Just the basics. Take a read, and let me know if it’s clear or if there’s anything, as a beginner, you’d wished you’d known. What do you need to know to get started on Twitter?

Twitter: a primer

Definition: Twitter is a “microblogging” (“tiny” blog) service that allows networks of users to send short updates to each other in less than 140 characters. Initially used to share personal information, Twitter is now a platform for global information dissemination, social networking and real-time communication.

Background: Twitter was launched in 2007 as a tool where personal updates were shared by cell phones but has expanded in popularity due to its simple, accessible way to connect with others. It is estimated that Twitter has 190 million users, generating 65 million tweets a day and handling over 24 billion search queries per month [2]. Today, Twitter allows for updates to be sent using SMS but has expanded to include software for the Web as well as smartphones (e.g. iPhone, Android, Blackberry).

Key characteristics of Twitter:

  • Platform for sharing short updates called “tweets” of less than 140 characters
  • Tweets often include links (URLs) or “mentions” of other Twitter users
  • Personalized profiles include updates from people you choose to “follow”
  • By including a topic keyword preceded by a ‘#’, users can find and track only those tweets related to a specific topic (e.g. #ehealth) or event (e.g. #ccsymp11)
  • All tweets are public by default (i.e. other users can choose to follow you) but may be made private if desired

Uses of Twitter:

  • Sharing links and opinions about online content (e.g. blog posts, literature) [3].
  • Short conversations with other users and sharing of personal/professional opinions and expertise. (“Don’t underestimate this platform” [4])
  • Collecting a broad view of current news and important events in real-time [5].


  • Detailed conversations/debate are difficult to carry out effectively in 140 characters [6].
  • Tweets are meant for consumption by the public; some may be uncomfortable with the “broadcast” nature of the tool [6].
  • Spam and fake accounts are common. Requires proactive maintenance of your followers

Recommended Twitter Users:

  • @cochranecollab: The Cochrane Collaboration: Working together to provide the best evidence for health care
  • @DrVes: Assistant Professor at University of Chicago, Allergist/Immunologist, Internist. Former Cleveland Clinic Assistant Professor and NEJM Advisory Panel Member.
  • @Berci: Medical doctor, founder of, health 2.0 consultant, blogger; Second Life resident, Wikipedia administrator doing PhD in genetics
  • @laikas: Medical Librarian, scientist, mom, wife and human

Recommended hashtags:


  3. Mandavilli A. Peer review: Trial by Twitter. Nature. 2011 Jan 20;469(7330):286-7. doi:10.1038/469286a
  5. Chew C, Eysenbach G. Pandemics in the age of Twitter: content analysis of Tweets during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. PLoS One. 2010 Nov 29;5(11):e14118. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014118
  6. Cunningham AM. What I have learnt about Twitter [blog post]. 2011 Jan 23. Available from:
  7. Hawn C. Take Two Aspirin And Tweet Me In The Morning: How Twitter, Facebook, And Other Social Media Are Reshaping Health Care. Health Aff. 2009 Mar;28(2):361-368. [link to abstract]

2 thoughts on “Social media and evidence-based practice: A primer on Twitter

    1. Thanks, Anne-Marie! Good point about lists! I don’t use them regularly, but that is a major feature that I left out of this (not on purpose!). I’ll drop it in for the next draft.


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