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Science in 140 characters: using Twitter like a boss

Social media and science are already intertwined – so why not embrace it? NASA HQ PHOTO

Science in 140 characters: using Twitter like a boss

Social media and science are already intertwined – so why not embrace it? NASA HQ PHOTO

With each passing year, technology percolates further into academic life. The year 2013 might look, in hindsight, like the year academic social media use went mainstream.

Numbers of tweets and Facebook likes are no longer the sole obsession of Conversation authors. They now get tallied by university administrators, funding bodies and journal publishers as “AltMetrics”, and soon academics may be judged on their social media performance as much as they are on their teaching evaluations and grant success.

Academics have embraced social media for a variety of uses: networking, teaching, collaborating, open research, activism and more. Opportunities for fruitful conversation and new approaches to our work abound; and yet, the halls of the ivory tower (which, for ethical and budgetary reasons, is now made of melamine) reverberate with grumbling disaffection about the place of social media in academia.

If you’re an academic who uses social media, you’ve almost certainly heard the complaints and questions; if you’re an academic who doesn’t, then you’ve probably uttered them yourself.

There are plenty of helpful people on Twitter willing to let you know what they think. Twitter

We asked our followers on Twitter what they thought, and here we tackle the most common of these objections head on.

How else? We’ll tweet the answers.


‘It’s only for students and early-career types. I don’t need it or it doesn’t need me’

As social media (SM) take-up is age-dependent, we present views of an early-career researcher (Steven: @BehavEcology), a lecturer (Mike: @mkasumovic) and an ossified professor (Rob: @Brooks_Rob).

@BehavEcology: I wouldn’t force SM on anyone but to say that we don’t need you b/c you’re not a grad student is just wrong. We need more voices, not fewer.

@Brooks_Rob: “Only for young people” is a typical crusty academic objection. They said the same thing about the Rolling Stones. And the internet. Who looks silly now?

@mkasumovic: But then again, we don’t need folks that don’t want to be there. That being said, don’t grumble when you’re left in the dust …


‘You can’t speak in full sentences or say anything useful in 140 characters’ via @BioInFocus

@Brooks_Rob: Tweeting is a form of conversation. Monologues always stifle conversation – a point to note for verbal interaction. 1 tweet=1 thought.

@mkasumovic: Short tweets also allow others to chime in with their own ideas. More contributors can mean more flow in a discussion.

@BehavEcology: It’s useful to practice concision (ahem #3), and appropriate simplification is not the same as dumbing down.

Twitter founder Evan Williams explains how the idea of twitter started at a TED. jurvetson

@Brooks_Rob: All media have strengths & limits. Blogs provide unlimited space, you can go for hours on YouTube. Choose the right medium for your message.

@BehavEcology: 3hr videos & 7K word blog posts are often ignored. Simplifying & clarifying a msg is a highly useful skill that requires deep understanding.

@mkasumovic: Now if only scientists could hone that skill for use in their research contributions. Think about how much easier papers would be to read!


‘There’s too much noise and not enough signal’

@mkasumovic: Noise is common in today’s world. Learning how to sift through it is another valuable skill.

@Brooks_Rob: True, in a random sample of @Twitter. Don’t be random: follow good people, unfollow blatherers & curate lists of people worth following.

@BehavEcology: SM can be a firehose. Don’t be afraid to miss important things, because if they’re important, you’ll see them again (retweets, shares, etc).

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@mkasumovic: SM allows you to move in and out of connections and conversations at your own pace. It’s not like exercise where it’s something you have to do.

@BehavEcology: Also: garbage in, garbage out. If you want more signal from social media, create it by interacting with people that you find interesting.


‘It’s too hard to get into. I don’t know what to do’ via @phylorich

@mkasumovic: Technology is only going to get more complicated no matter how much Apple tries to simplify things. Technological literacy is important.

@BehavEcology: Social media requires some effort to find interesting people. Start slowly; use search to find people you know / admire on that platform.

@Brooks_Rob: Like all conversations, listen in for a while. Find good people to follow. Don’t try to read it all. Expect trial & error.

@mkasumovic: And really, what’s simpler than just writing down a thought. It just means that it may lead to a conversation and discussion. Isn’t that good?


‘It’s a waste of time / reduces productivity / creates opportunity cost for writing papers and grants!’ via @cmbuddle, @nhcooper123 and more

@Brooks_Rob: I’ve heard the same said about writing for @ConversationEDU which is among the most rewarding things I have done as an academic.

@mkasumovic: Productivity can only be judged in hindsight. I’ve read some great articles through Twitter links that gave me some new research directions.

@BehavEcology: SM can also lead to new collaborations, invited talks, job & grant proposals, etc. that help your career. All of these have happened to me.

SnaPsi Сталкер

@Brooks_Rob: Social media are tools. Use them well and they can enhance your work. Use them poorly and you can waste a lot of time.

@mkasumovic: No one is productive for a straight 8 hours. Everyone needs breaks. Twitter simply provides snapshots of what going on in digestible bits.

@BehavEcology: It can and should be said that SM isn’t for everyone. It also requires a lot of effort for these benefits, which don’t appear magically.

@Brooks_Rob: The net reaches a lot of people who could be subjects for a survey, or who might know the answer to an arcane question. And some make an art-form of helping.

@ResearchGosling is always happy to help social and psychological researchers, and to offer affirmation and support. Twitter

‘It’s narcissistic / it’s just self-promotion’ via @CoopSciScoop and others

@BehavEcology: Postdocs and grad students like me could stand to learn a little self-promotion. It’s a hard scientific economy out there.

@mkasumovic: What’s wrong with stating how awesome videogames are, or how they can change kids’ world views?

@Brooks_Rob: Media stories focus on top tweeting celebutantes and entertainers. Their narcissism is outweighed by humble people tweeting genuine news & high concepts.

Some really good examples of people to follow:

  • @ClairLemon mentions and analyses interesting stories about sex, gender and evolution faster than anyone I know.

  • PhD student @Tomhouslay covers evolutionary topics in my areas of specialty. I often find new papers through him.

  • @DrEmmaLJohnston tweets on environmental change, ecology and marine science.

  • If you’re not reading people like @edyong209, @carlzimmer or @marynmck (among many others) then you’re missing out on great science writing.

@mkasumovic: But not everything you say needs to be “high concept” or self-promotion. Not even an opinion!


‘It’s not supported by senior admin’ or ‘senior admin are pushing it’ via @cmbuddle and others

@BehavEcology: I’ll admit that this isn’t one I’ve run into so far. Everything I’ve done with SM has generally been ignored by admin. Lucky?

@Brooks_Rob: Social media is a versatile extension of your professional & personal self. Beware admin attempts to brand, standardise or sanitise it!

@mkasumovic: It’s important to keep social media out of the reach of senior admins, but also important to remember you are responsible for what you say.

@Brooks_Rob: Administrators should be happy: social media reduces the financial and time costs of networking.


Why we use Twitter and what we’ve gained

@mkasumovic: By following @JennyJohnsonHi5 I can have a laugh & folks like @TomEdWhite can keep me abreast of conferences I can’t attend. How versatile!

@Brooks_Rob: Travel, for Austral academics, is more onerous than for our boreal colleagues. Social media enables me to build and maintain networks without spending all year on ‘planes.

@BehavEcology: I’ve met a lot of people at conferences by organising tweetups (meetings of people tweeting at a conference). It’s a great ice-breaker!

@mkasumovic: It allows me to learn about topics I’d like to pursue. Following @LGamesNetwork provides insight into how to educate using games.

@Brooks_Rob: This cross-discipline conference I am organising next year arose out of social media contact with Jason Collins who writes the exceptional Evolving Economics blog.

@BehavEcology: There’s new ways to gain from SM every day. Example: no journal club in your dept.? Start one of your own online!


Commenters get extra points for keeping it within 140 characters!