Outreach Is a Skill: a Q&A with David “WhySharksMatter” Shiffman

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If you are interested in sharks, and spend any time on social media, you have probably run across David Shiffman. Shiffman, a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Simon Fraser University, has drawn thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook by sharing facts (and correcting misconceptions) about sharks and other marine species.

But while his social media feeds can be entertaining, they are not simply a collection of amusing facts. Through social media, blogging, and freelance writing, Shiffman has been able to share information (and his own research) with a large audience – and to place that information in the proper context.

We recently had the opportunity to pick his brain about science communication, how he got started, and how social media can benefit the research community.

Science Communication Breakdown: You started blogging for Southern Fried Science when you were a master’s student at the College of Charleston. What were you hoping to get out of it when you started?

David Shiffman (and friends).

David Shiffman: In the world of shark research and conservation, we’ve long recognized the importance of public outreach, which means that I don’t get as much pushback for my outreach as friends who are early career in other fields. People have lots of misunderstandings about sharks, which can lead to decreased support for conservation and management efforts – it’s long been a discipline-wide priority to fix these public misconceptions. I was already giving public talks at schools and libraries and museums and such when Andrew Thaler, my former college roommate and the founder of Southern Fried Science, invited me to join. It seemed like a great way to share facts about sharks with the world outside of who I could reach in local schools. I had no idea how big we’d get.

SCB: You’ve also written extensively as a freelancer for outlets from Scientific American to the Washington Post. How did you make the move from blogging to freelancing?

Shiffman: After I had been blogging for a couple of years, I was approached by Mental Floss to write some quick fun facts about sharks. I spent two weeks on that short nothingburger article, I was paid $50 for it, and I felt like the coolest person in the world.

Since then, my freelance writing has been mostly me pitching, but some assignments from editors. I don’t see it as a “move” from one to the other so much as adding a tool to my outreach toolbox.

And other than supplementing my income and promoting the research of my colleagues, I find it hugely valuable for outreach – although Southern Fried Science is one of the most widely read science blogs in the world, more (and different) people will see an article I write for the Washington Post. My most recent article for the Post resulted in a complimentary e-mail from a Cabinet official who has influence over conservation policy, something that has yet to happen for a blog post.

SCB: You were blogging and freelancing throughout your doctoral program at the University of Miami. A lot of graduate students feel overwhelmed just keeping up with their research and academic responsibilities. How did you make the time for blogging and freelancing?

Shiffman: I could not do everything that I do without speed reading and speed typing, two skills I learned after taking classes in middle school and high school. But it’s important to note that blogging and freelancing were never instead of doing my research, they were instead of, like, watching the game, or going to a bar with friends. The day job always comes first.

I also use very active time management, sometimes planning my week out to the 30 minute level on Monday mornings.

SCB: You started your Twitter account at around the same time you started blogging. Were you already viewing it as a platform for science communication?

Shiffman: Absolutely. Twitter was pitched to me as a way to share expertise with the interested non-expert public, and despite many issues with Twitter, it often works great for that purpose.

SCB: Was there ever a point where you set clearly defined goals for your social media accounts? If so, have those goals changed over time?

Shiffman: I absolutely set goals, and other should too. Social media outreach can be a powerful part of a communications strategy, but “let’s do social media outreach” is not, in itself, a communications strategy. The overall goal has remained the same over time – correct misconceptions about sharks, promote an ocean conservation ethic, and inspire appreciation for marine science. The details have changed, but the overall goal has remained the same.

SCB: I know you wrote a whole paper on this for the fisheries community, but could you lay out some of the benefits that you, personally, have gotten from your social media activity?

Shiffman: If you do it right, social media makes you more informed about the state of your field, as well as the state of academia overall. Every time I check Twitter, I see a new paper relevant to my interests, or a news story about a conservation issue I follow, or an important discussion between experts.

Social media outreach also gives you tons of invaluable experience talking about complex topics to smart, curious people who aren’t necessarily experts in your particular subdiscipline, and also gives you immediate feedback about whether or not it is working. This makes you a better paper and grant writer.

Once you develop a network, you can use social media like a virtual department, getting quick feedback from trusted expert colleagues.

There are also lots of great resources for early career researchers in general, or specifically for historically underrepresented minorities.

In short, social media outreach has made me a better writer, a better teacher, a better scientist, and a more informed person.

SCB: Any tips for scientists who want to do a better job of using social media to engage the public?

Shiffman: Like everything else in science, outreach is a teachable, learnable, improvable skill. You can take classes on how to do a better job with it, or read books or papers about it – you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and you don’t have to guess. Also, people who are good at this and want to do it need to be valued more by academia, and this stuff needs to be factored into hiring and promotions and tenure.

In general, though, if you want to get better at it, talk to people who are good at it, watch what they do, and practice it yourself. It’s okay if you make mistakes as long as you correct them.

SCB: Last question: what’s the coolest pop culture thing that’s happened to you as a result of your science communication work?

Shiffman: I was cited as a shark expert in a question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire last year. Also, SharkNado 2 donated to my Ph.D. research, and is thanked in my dissertation.

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