Scientists: Social Media Is Not Necessarily a Waste of Time

This is how many scientists view social media – pictures of cats on computers. (Photo: Krappweis/stock.xchng)

When it comes to social media, there seem to be two schools of thought in the science/research community. One posits that spending time on social media can be extremely useful. The other posits that spending time on social media is stupid. The truth, in my opinion, is that it can be either.

I know scientists who have reaped significant professional benefits from their use of social media (particularly Twitter), so I know that it can be a good investment of time and effort for researchers. But before I go into that, let’s talk about why social media does not have to be a fruitless time-suck.

Social media posts are not inherently stupid

There are people that think Twitter, Facebook, etc. are used solely to tell the world where you ate lunch. Or what cute things your cat has done recently. That is because there are lots of people who use Twitter, Facebook, etc. solely to tell the world where they ate lunch and what cute things their cats have done recently. To most scientists (and many non-scientists) this is a waste of time.

But – and this is important – no one can make you post trivial things on social media. And – this is even more important – no one can make you follow people who post things you don’t care about on social media.

Social media is a catch-all term used to refer to a variety of communication platforms. Those platforms do not control content. Users control content. You can use email to send someone a long list of knock-knock jokes. This is not useful. But most people have accepted the fact that email has practical utility. For example, you can use email to share information with colleagues and peers about grant opportunities, new research findings or job openings. The same is true for social media.

In short, Twitter (for example) is a tool. If you want it to be a stupid time-suck, it will be. But you can also use it to create meaningful networking opportunities.

Why don’t I just use email?

Because email only works if you know precisely who you are trying to reach. By all means, if you want to communicate with a specific individual, email them. But social media can be great tools for engaging a larger community of people – some (or most) of whom you don’t know.

For example, I know of a LOT of neuroscientists on Twitter. And anthropologists. And entomologists. And physicists. If you become part of the online community that is relevant to your work, you can tap into the experience and expertise of a lot of people in your field that you don’t already know. Looking for a new lab supplier? Ask them. Interested in job opportunities because you’re a post-doc (or have post-docs in your lab)? Ask them. Networking doesn’t just happen at conferences anymore. It happens online every day.

The benefits are real

Actual scientists listing actual benefits.

Karen James, a scientist at the Mount Desert Island Biological Lab in Maine, recently put out a call (via Twitter) for active researchers to list ways they have benefited from using social media. The response was interesting, with scientists citing everything from job offers and professional collaborations to camaraderie as tangible benefits of interacting online.

Because the responses were brief overviews, I contacted James and asked her to flesh out some of the benefits she has personally accrued from using social media. She sent me a comprehensive list, which I’m including below:

  • “Discovering content online that is timely and relevant to my research and career.
  • “Discovering (and being discovered by) potential collaborators.
  • “Invitations to give research seminars and other talks, or to chair/moderate conference sessions, often involving free travel and honoraria.
  • “Invitations to write book chapters.
  • “Familiarity with disseminating the results of research to a broader audience using social media, which can help satisfy NSF’s requirements for ‘Broader Impacts‘ statements in grant proposals.
  • “Job and consultancy offers.
  • “Content for my CV to demonstrate communication skills and outreach savvy.
  • “Direct access to important people in science and government.
  • “Access to papers using #icanhazpdf (especially helpful now that I’m at a small non-profit research institution instead of a university department or large museum).
  • “Getting near-instantaneous answers to questions ranging from technical troubleshooting to polls.
  • “Last but not least, an incredible amount of support and camaraderie, which has been especially helpful during my recent career transitions and a transatlantic, urban-to-rural move.”

There’s no guarantee that social media can deliver these benefits. However, I know enough researchers who have benefited from social media use to know that James’ experience is not anomalous. Heck, a recent story shows how social media can even help you find seemingly lost research samples.

Social media is not magic

You can’t simply create a Twitter account and expect the world to be on your doorstep. When you create a Twitter account you will have no one on your doorstep. You have to build and sustain a following by engaging with other users. This requires effort. It is called social media because you have to interact with other people. In an earlier post, I laid out a few basic notes on using social media (and blogging), and will certainly be writing more on it in the future. It’s also worth checking out Catherine de Lange’s tips, published on Nature Jobs.

In the interim, Oregon State University has assembled a lengthy (but far from exhaustive) collection of links for scientists interested in pursuing a social media presence. And, as always, please chime in on comments if you have any questions or, well, comments.

Do me a favor

The big challenge with this post is that the people I would most like to read it will probably never see it. This blog is primarily disseminated via social media, so scientists who don’t use social media have no idea it exists. So please do me a favor. Print this out and give it to a scientist who you think might actually read it. Or email it to them. Hopefully it will encourage some constructive discussion, even if it doesn’t convince people to become social media mavens. And constructive discussion is always a good thing.


18 thoughts on “Scientists: Social Media Is Not Necessarily a Waste of Time

  1. Thank you for highlighting the utility of Twitter for scientists. I use it on behalf of my CRO to connect with the scientific community in our niche, infectious disease. I find it to be an invaluable source to stay apprised of developments and understand our competitive and scientific landscape both locally and globally. We recently completed a project for a researcher in the UK that I met by discussing one of our capabilities by tweet. I would have never met this person otherwise. It was the first such collaboration for both of us! I hope there are many more to come, and look forward to your input @IBT_Bioservices

    Todd Pelham
    Business Development
    IBT Bioservices


  2. Great post. I agree with everything everybody contributed. I am a post-doc at the University of Utah and I find this post timely as I am just starting to find my social media identity. It is funny, and so true, that “no one can make you post trivial things on social media”. This is what I found myself doing when I first got a twitter account! It was exhausting. Then I realized why people (scientists) don’t want to do this. However, once I streamlined and prioritized which outlets fit my style, I started seeing twitter/ tumblr/ pinterest as tools–and not only for sharing and discovery. I really think the thought that goes into the content of a post is an excellent exercise in critical and creative thinking, writing, and communication. I think understanding the audience you want to reach and the purpose behind a post also becomes more clear as one uses social media–something I did not previously consider when writing a manuscript or preparing a seminar for example. Ultimately, I think there is some culture shock associated with getting into the social networking arena. Helping others find their way may be the next phase after convincing them of the benefits. Thanks again, I enjoyed the post.


  3. Hello there, Matt,

    You have a great post here that critiques errors in thinking both by the scholar and the lay person. Your insights are powerful, and I have puzzled over the scientists and critical thinkers out there who dismiss the social media or, worse, claim that it causes damage.

    I wrote about the topic a little while back, and I’ll include it here, not as a plug but because you are interested in the topic. The title is “5 Reasons why social media are increasing intelligence” and the url .

    I will help get the word out to some of the right circles. I am an English Professor at Idaho State University, own and write, and have healthy social networks. I also write for Technorati, Social Media Today, Broowaha, and LifeHack. I am going to write up a short curated piece for this on my website. I’ll try to remember to post the link for you .

    I mention all of this because your article is engaging and insightful, and I want to help. Thank you for your work, and I am going to explore your sight.


  4. The systematic scientific evidence shows predominantly positive effects, as new media intertwines with and extends in-person relationships. Lee Rainie & I summarize this in our Networked book (MIT Press, 2012).


  5. Thanks for the great article. I struggle convincing many of my colleagues and investigators on the value of social media. It is why I created the list of resources that you link to in your article (thanks for doing that).


  6. Naomi – thanks for pulling those resources together into one, easily-accessible site! I have collected a ton of great links, but had no easy way to link to them — without creating a laundry list that would scroll on forever (or creating a new page from scratch). The page you created for OSU is great.


  7. Thanks for elucidating this so well. Too often do colleagues scoff at my use of Twitter, but I learn so much on it. I would also add that using it during conferences – to keep up with parallel sessions (or even an entire conference) that you can’t attend, to identify people worth talking to, to ‘meet’ them before you meet them, to get a sense of people’s reactions, to get a digest of the most important take-homes – is invaluable. I also think the opportunity to create an online presence for yourself is too good not to take advantage of in an increasingly competitive world. Your point about it being up to the user to make it useful is absolutely key. Maybe one day getting ‘caught’ on Twitter or Facebook at work won’t be so embarrassing. Keep up the great work!


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  9. commonsense

    Overall, social media is wasting peoples youth. It is a tool of corporations to build stats for marketing products. It does more harm than good. People stare at their smartphones all day long instead of living life.
    Yes, it is just a tool, and can be used for good. but, the potential (and by design it is addictive) for misuse and harm far out ways the benefits, especially for the naive. It is an insulating technology that produces a false sense of community and involvement in place of real life.
    I am sick of these biased articles. Are these funded by facebook, twitter, etc.


  10. I appreciate your concern, and note that many people do not use social media for those very reasons. However, it’s worth noting that many scientists, science writers and others have found various social media platforms to be effective tools for identifying valuable resources that they may otherwise have missed. It can also be an effective means of disseminating information.

    It is certainly true that it can be misused and become a waste of time — but only if the user chooses to do so.

    And I can state, with complete honesty, that I’ve never gotten a cent — in cash or in kind — from any social media company or related entity. Also, I find it a touch ironic that this conversation is playing out in the comments section of a blog — which is, by most accounts, a form of social media. 🙂


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  12. Robert Woods

    Headline (above): “Scientists: Social Media Is Not Necessarily a Waste of Time”

    New Flash: “Media” is plural. Headline should read “Social Media Are Not Necessarily as Waste of Time.” One social medium; several social media. An example of a social medium is Facebook. Twitter and Linked-In are also social media.


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