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
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.