Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tweeting or just twittering?

The newest edition of the Bulletin of the Entomological Society of Canada (Volume 45, issue 3, September 2013) begins with a column (pp. 101-103) about digital media, its usefulness, and its pitfalls, by the president of the ESC, Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate. She writes about how online tools can be useful, but also notes that scientists should be judicious in their use of these tools: a fair point. In something of a counterpoint, the last column in the Bulletin (pp. 151-152) takes a different view of online tools, notably social media. Editor Cedric Gillott holds a less rosy view of social media's role for scientists, proclaiming:
However, I have never found a need to open Twitter or Facebook accounts or to blog. And even in retirement I find myself so busy that I doubt I would find time to tweet, or post  items on other social media sites.
It's worth your time to read the entire column, but his main complaints about social media and blogging amount to (1) not having enough time for it and (2) not seeing the usefulness. Gillott does mention that blogs can quickly answer scientific questions, but he ascribes no such benefit to Twitter. As someone who often blogs and tweets (I've been doing both for about three years now), I feel that I can answer his concerns.

As for the time commitment, sure, maybe social media (I'll include blogging under this umbrella for simplicity from now on) would take up too much time for some people. But everything eats up time: television, reading, socializing...particular activities aren't the issue. What matters is budgeting time correctly. I use Twitter during my daily bus commute, while waiting for people, during lunch, and later in the evening when I'm relaxing at home. It doesn't have to be a constant time suck, nor does it take much time to read through some tweets.

As with any other activity, if it's important to you, you'll make time.

Now to tackle the usefulness of social media. I often meet scientists who have the perception that Twitter is useless and it's just people talking about what they had for lunch. Sure, some people tweet about their food choices and post selfies all day, but as Tom Houslay elegantly puts it: "the wonderful thing about Twitter is that your feed is entirely as interesting as you make it." If you see something you don't care about on Twitter, you can unfollow people and follow others who are more interesting. If you find your feed uninteresting, that's your fault.

I want to point out that the "Twitter is useless" attitude comes mainly from scientists who haven't used it. Gillott admits that he himself doesn't use social media. Twitter isn't perfect, but I would encourage scientists to give it a shot before concluding that it's not useful. After all, that would be making a conclusion without any evidence, and that's a science faux pas.

So where's my evidence that Twitter is useful?

For one thing, I found my current job through Twitter. I'm earning my Master's degree because I saw the position advertised in a tweet, and I wouldn't have known about it otherwise. That pretty much sealed the usefulness argument for me. It's an example of Twitter's biggest strength: networking.

I follow almost 1,000 accounts on Twitter, which mostly consists of scientists, including many other graduate students. I can ask a question about a concept or something I come across in the field and get an answer quickly. (I just did this today, in fact, and received an answer two minutes later.) I hear about struggles other students have, learn about what research is going on, and meet others in the field. It's a natural way to network: I meet someone based on shared interests and make a friend instead of just a colleague.

I've received specimens from people I meet on Twitter, and I've sent some as well, aiding in research. I'm interested in millipedes, so I monitor the millipede hashtag on Twitter, identifying species for people when possible. Most of the tweets I find are from people who aren't scientists, and sometimes they send me photos of other bugs they've found and want to learn more about. Twitter is a great tool for reaching the general public (that Holy Grail of "outreach" that scientists love to give lip service to), and enables me to help people make connections with the natural world. That's not useless. It's what social media should be about.

As for this blog, I haven't gotten any scholarly publications from it (yet), but it has helped me hone my writing skills, organize my thoughts, and connect with the general public. I get emails from people who were able to identify an insect or millipede after they read one of my posts, and that information might not be easily accessible to a non-scientist (especially the millipede information).

As scientists, we should embrace new media to disseminate our knowledge. We pride science on being ever-changing, incorporating new ideas and data, so why don't we apply that mindset to our scientists?

If I think back on all the time wasted by scientists not knowing their way around Powerpoint* or fiddling with a projector to put up a new transparency, I realize that I could have written a bunch of tweets or blog posts to better use that time. As scientists, we shouldn't be resistant to new technologies because they're viewed as immature/time wasters/too complicated. We should give them a chance and try to find their usefulness, instead of automatically writing them off as bad.

If you're a scientist who wants to try Twitter, but are unsure of where to start, check out these links:
What is Twitter and Why Scientists Need To Use It
Scientists On Twitter: 30 Biologists And Chemists To Follow
Tweeting for Science (with links to other resources)
Twitter for Scientists (and why you should try it) (#ScienceShare)
Why should scientists use Twitter?
Guest post: creating scientists in 140 characters
Don’t throw away the Twitter manual yet!
More resources, including a Twitter guide, from the Bennett Lab at McGill University
Why I spend so much time on the internet (#ScienceShare)
Social media for academics
Scientists & Social Media; A Popular Subject

You can follow me on Twitter: @derekhennen. While I don't tweet about what I had for lunch, I do tweet photos of cats sometimes/often. Fair warning.

*Protip: If you want to enter presentation mode on Powerpoint, just hit F5. It takes half a second and people will be impressed that you know your way around the program.

4 comments:

  1. I teach biology at a community college. Being separated from the research university made me feel like I wasn't able to keep up with scientific advances. There are no lectures to attend, no research focused peers to communicate with, and meetings that occur during the teaching semester are not a good option.

    I felt isolated and out of the loop.

    Then I found Twitter.

    I follow a lot of different scientists on Twitter. It helps me keep up with the latest research and controversies and I can follow live tweets of scientific meetings.

    I feel connected again. And I can pass on the latest scientific research to my students. Win-win!

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  2. My reason for disliking Twitter is not either of those given, but rather, I see it as yet another consequence of short attention spans and soundbite culture. Not to mention all the text-speak. But I will give your links a go.

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  3. Such a useful post. Thank you for writing it and providing those links; I'll be referring to people here. So tired of people brushing off these things. If they don't perceive that they have the time, presumably nobody else does either. Meanwhile, I've used Twitter (@AlongsideWild) and my blog: www.livingalongsidewildlife.com for effective outreach to the general public. For example, the blog is approaching one million views. Twitter has also been effective for professional networking, I've 'met' other researchers and established collaborations through it.

    Thanks again.

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    1. Thanks for your input! Most of my collaboration and networking is through Twitter, and those connections have proved invaluable. I always enjoy hearing how it's been useful for others as well.

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