Why I twitter

A recent interaction with a scientist left me both bemused, and if I am honest a little bruised. He described twitter as "that rather infantile social network system."

Co-incidently Peter Gibbs, an ex-Antarctican, BBC broadcaster and weather forecaster asked me about media work as a scientist - but given my recent interactions I flunked the exam by not answering his question. Sorry Peter. What I did do was write something quickly on why I like twitter.

Here it is for posterity.

The TL; DR answer is personally I think twitter is good for science, scientists, and for most people really.

Why do I like twitter?

Summary

I cannot sit on the fence. I like twitter and what it offers. I have learned things I never would, built genuine relationships with international people who I would have perhaps have only met over a quick coffee at a conference. And I have changed the way I speak about science.

It is interesting, and often funny.

It can of course be a harsh and challenging space. I am genuinely horrified at what I have seen some colleagues endure online - particularly the women: but it is here to stay. I wish my female colleagues and women in general were always treated well, and as people, but the only thing I can personally do is contribute to a positive space. I believe twitter is a strong positive for science, and it is a worthwhile investment of your time.

This short document has a few ill-considered ideas about what I like about it.

 

1) Connecting

Twitter enables you to connect with other scientists and researchers across disciplines and fields. This is becoming more and more important. We can all easily be experts in our own specialism – in fact it is expected. But whenever we talk to our family, the public, other researchers or the media they want and need to know what our work means in a wider sense. Twitter quickly enables you to build a wide network of people with related interests, and if you do not know something you can ask easily.

Trivial example? Want to know the best palaeoclimate record of an area you are interested in? Ask the paleo scientists directly on twitter and if time zones match you will get an answer pretty quickly.

You can also build relationships with colleagues from other departments, universities and countries. Imagine it as being like working in an open plan office but without the draw backs. Have colleagues in a different university? Just casually keep a conversation going through twitter. In 3 years I have built excellent relationships with many people who I professionally respect, and would love to work with - but without twitter I doubt I would have "met" them.

 

2) Many eyes make light work

If you are interested in a particular area of science and you have built a network whether to listen or to participate in, instead of one set of eyes trying to pick out things of interest and relevance to your work, you have many. You will find more research, more related media and more <stuff> that is of interest and relevance to you and your work.

 

3) You can visit conferences virtually

There are a lot of science meetings going on. In fact it is impossible to attend a tenth of the things you would like to. But with twitter and a hash tag you can listen to a conference virtually. For example, in September 2014 I was the co-organiser of a 4 day meeting at the Royal Society. Over the 4 days of the meeting with the hash tag #RSArctic14, there were ~2600 tweets, and it reached over 340k people online. The hash tag and tweets were contributed to all over the world (the metrics are easily traceable), and we can even break it down it 69% of the contributors to the hash tag were male, and 31% women. Twitter turned what could have been nationally important science meeting into an internationally relevant one.

 

4) You can crowd source individual conference talks or news events

There are tools like storify which enable you to build stories about conference talks and news events using twitter. If you use these easy tools you can build science stories about key news issues. I offer you three examples:

The first is a talk that was at the Royal Society. It has had ~600 views, and tells the story of a view of the potential for Arctic methane clathrate affecting our climate.

A storyify of a research talk.
A storify of a research talk.

The second is about melting on the Greenland ice sheet and has over 3000 views. This latter one led to me being invited on Radio 4 and news interviews as I clearly (in someone’s view!) knew what was going on.

A storify of a news story
A storify of a news story

And finally a storify of a House of commons Science and Technology committee I - and others - listened to online about the possible merger of the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre.

Storify of the possible merger of BAS and NOC
Storify of the possible merger of BAS and NOC

You can tell complex stories with twitter, and change the ephemeral nature.

 

5) On the whole twitter is a positive space

We all hear horror stories of how terrible online space can be and how negative it is, but in my experience that is a small component. If you tweet something like “I am giving an interview to XXXX” then I would bet virtually all of the responses you would get would be along the line of “you will be brilliant and enjoy it”. OK so some people may think you will be terrible – but even if they do think that, then they very rarely say it.

That means it feels a positive space and our online colleagues are in my experience very supportive. If you are a climate scientist you could get something along the lines of “are you going to talk about the co2 scam?” or the “pause”, or “global warming isn’t happening”, but those can sometimes be worthy questions, and part of a scientist’s role is talking to people who ask questions. I have to say l have had many questions that initially I thought were just people attacking me, but with a bit of thought I have learned a lot from the answers to them, and perhaps more importantly why they were asking them.

It is worth noting that if you behave horribly online, then you will get that back. If you behave politely and fairly then it is, in my experience, a good space.

 

6) You have to be prepared to stand by what you say

I have had an experience very recently when a scientist at a UK university complained to my management and just about everyone senior in science he could list through registered post that I had likely “defamed” him online. He issued me and my university with clear and specific legal threats. This was personally a bad experience as I have never encountered such bizarre legal threats before. You can find the story online if you are interested and see if you feel it warranted a pseudo legal attack, but the complaint was found to be without merit.

Now I think the reason the person attacked me and some colleagues with the threats is because we passed comments on what he was saying in public. And when we did using our professional expertise and fair comment he called “foul”. In my experience some people think that science communication is a one way broadcast action with no communication. You do see this behaviour on twitter as well.

But this is not how it works.

For example if I say “Antarctica is melting”, I should expect clever people on twitter to point out to me at a minimum that 1) Antarctic sea ice has been at a record maximum this year so what on earth do I mean, 2) to ask questions about which bits are melting? and, 3) to ask if there is an anthropogenic cause.

So you need to think about what you are saying as you are leaving digital footprints. Expect to be asked what you could perceive as critical questions. But in fact that is good – because it demonstrates people are interested in what you say, and you can sharpen both your ideas, and how you communicate them.

 

7) Introvert / extravert?

I would say I am an introvert. I could go as far as saying I am not a very sociable person. In my experience twitter is the perfect way for an introvert to connect with people. It is basically trivial, you have such short messages – so you cannot give much away, and you get to choose when to interact. It is, in my view, the perfect social space for anti-social people.

 

8) Contribute to web space and give something back

Have you ever used Google or Wikipedia to find out something work related? Of course! So give something back and be a net contributor the space. So you find something such as a journal article you are interested in, then tweet it with some context for your followers (I personally prefer “listeners” rather than "followers" because the latter implies a dynamic which does not exist). If you, and some of your network do that then there will be a lot of useful links and information for the lay person and colleagues in your subject area. You should also contribute to a Wikipedia article. Then at least you will know it is right!

All these things give you the status of someone who people may think actually knows something. (But remember my point 6 above).

Journalists and the public will ask you questions and you will get requests to be interviewed.

Overall my top tip is make it your mission to add something of value, whether it’s a link to an article you like with comment, or something you have just written. Make the space something you enjoy.

 

9) You can have fun

Twitter can be funny. You can come across many things that make you laugh, and you can always find things you are interested in but are off your radar. In addition you can interact with people you never would or indeed could.

I have had tweets of mine read out on Radio 5 about what logs are used for in mathematics, I have talked to women’s hour about statistics(!), And as another example: saw a television program last night on Pompey hosted by Professor Mary Beard and you have a burning question about it? Ask her on twitter. In my experience it’s very likely you will get an answer both from the Prof, and from others. Just yesterday I had a great interaction with the makers of the Wonders of the Monsoon about how they made their series. The producers and film makers were wonderfully generous and only too delighted to share their expertise. Most people are. We don't want to work in silence do we?

 

Summary

You should be able to tell, by and by, I like twitter. Happy to talk science if your interested - particularly if it's something polar. You should get online and contribute, enjoy and exploit the space too.

 

Resources

From the American Geophysical Union we have Building an Effective Social Media Strategy for Science Programs by Wendy Bohon et al and published in EOS.

From Holly Bik and Miriam Goldstein we have An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists published in PLOS Biology

From Darling et al we have The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication published in the Peerj.

From Letierce et al Understanding how Twitter is used to spread scientific messages.

From the LSE and Mollett et al Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities.

And finally from Vitae Innovate a Handbook of social media for researchers and supervisors.

If you get this far please feel free to post additional useful resources in the comments. Thanks.

 

ADDED 31OCTOBER 2014

I asked about additional resources.

So from Prof John Butterworth (author of this magnificent book Smashing Physics) we have a really excellent 10 minute video

 

From Prof Simon Leather we have a great article via Barnaby Smith: Why I Joined the Twitterati: Blogs, Tweets & Talks – Making Entomology Visible.

 

And from Alex Brown a great article Twitter is the conference pub.

10 thoughts on “Why I twitter

  1. I've been on Twitter since late 2008 and have found it invaluable on so many levels. I also think that it's important to remember that you need to be selective about who to follow; so much grief seems to come of people getting up in arms about accounts tweeting stuff that is so counter to their own views.
    I've been lucky and made real friends, and can rely on Twitter to provide food for thought every day.

    Reply
  2. Konrad Höffner

    I am a PhD student and what's holding me back from creating a Twitter account is that it is so coarse grained. I see you created an account using your real name but the problem I see is that different people are interested in different things: Maybe some only want to see work-related things, others are only interested in non-work things, others only care about a specific project I'm working on and I don't want to pester people with messages that don't interest them. Now I could create a new Twitter account for each project or topic but that is too complicated and still does not map everything I want. Ideally, I want hierarchical sub-accounts, like "Me" into "Private-Me" and "Work-Me" and "Work-Me" again into "Project A" and "Project B". Then people could just subscribe to "Work-Me" or "Project A" or "Everything from Work-Me except Project B". What are your thoughts on this, should I emulate this with a really fine-grained tag-structure, is Twitter not for me or should I just ignore it and post everything without thinking too much about it?

    Reply
    1. Mark Brandon

      Post author

      I think the thing you are looking for Konrad is the twitter list function.

      You can create exactly the sort of sub-accounts I think you are talking about, and both create your lists, and subscribe to others. If you use tweetdeck, then its very easy to view what is happening on each lists too.

      I think you should go ahead and try. Be anonymous at first if you like, and see if it can work and help you.

      Good luck, Mark

      Reply
    2. Konrad, You're thinking and worrying about what others might think of your tweets before you've even created an account! Don't worry about them. Simply create one account and tweet about all of the things you've mentioned. If people are interested in any one or all of those projects, they will follow you. It is up to *them* to skim over (or weed through) the tweets they have no interest in, not you.

      If they follow you, they are choosing to receive all of your tweets (personal ones as well as professional tweets). It's up to them to decide what they read in your feeds. They know, up front, you tweet about all projects so they know what to expect. If they decide your tweets aren't for them, they'll simply unfollow and no need to take it personally.

      Create one account, talk about anything you want and let people choose for themselves whether or not they're interested in what you have to say and the projects you're working on.

      The only reason I see for creating two accounts would be if you are working for a major company/business and want to tweet about personal projects and/or opinions that are not a match with that company's stand in the world. In fact, some companies probably require that you state "All opinions expressed here are my own, not NASA's." (for example). And then keep the professional/business Twitter account for just news about the company's work/projects that are approved by them.

      Also, as far as the Twitter Lists go, those lists are lists YOU create to group the people YOU follow so you don't get overwhelmed with Twitter feeds. Personally, I have 13 lists. One is My Main Peeps (people I want to follow daily - about 160), others include Astronomy/Space, The Writer's World, etc. Then, if I want to see what's happening in a certain group, I can refer to that list and read all of the tweets from all those particular people. Does that make sense?

      Hope this helps! I love Twitter.

      I love Mark's post and he is correct. Come to Twitter with a positive mindset and be open to the quality (not the quantity) of people out there for YOU to follow. I've 'met', chatted & interacted with astronauts, Mars rover drivers, literary agents, physicists, Dwolla's founder, Ben Milne, HR people (I used to be in recruiting), authors, TV producer/writer, an actress, and a professional game developer! People I never would have had the opportunity to meet, let alone have a short conversation with in real life (& I've traveled quite a bit). I don't expect answers to my tweets to them but I get them! And when I do, it's thrilling! It reminds me how far technology has come that we're able to reach out nationally and internationally to those of interest to us and converse. I truly appreciate the connections and relationships I've built online via Twitter.

      Reply
  3. Sheldon

    So I agree with everything Mark says about Tw. I think the reason people can be put off is the deluge of Twitter nonsense picked up on by the press & broadcast media - Kim Kardashian's arse, etc. So to approach Tw constructively, one needs to recognise that it is (in file storage terms) "flat". You find the stuff you want by looking, and there's a huge amount of good stuff out there, for work, leisure, and cats doing funny.

    Reply
  4. I broadly agree with Mark's post, but my personal experience is maybe slightly less positive. Probably partly because I've chosen a slightly odd way to engage. Anonymity probably doesn't help. Getting frustrated by those who seem to promote scientifically incorrect ideas probably doesn't help either. People don't really like being told they're wrong and I went through a phase of not being particularly subtle when I pointed this out. It's possible that if I had chosen to not be anonymous and had chosen to be more conciliatory, things would have gone better.

    So, I have had some rather unpleasant and fruitless exchanges with people, the problems with which are probably exacerbated by the 140 character limit (of course, they - typically - haven't gone any better when there are more characters). I now broadly avoid such exchanges and mainly use Twitter to see what other people are saying, find interesting links and having pleasant exchanges with people who I respect and like.

    Reply
    1. Sheldon

      ATTP's comment is interesting. Frustration at scientific error must be a common response to the nonsense that's "out there", and I thought I'd add the observation (in the context of Mark's post) that I learnt something useful from a recent Tw spat involving Mark, me and one or two others. As a jobbing physicist with regional - rather than global - interests, I have tended to pick up on global climate literature when I need to comment on the state of understanding in that sense. As a result, it's hard to avoid noticing the group of people known as "denialists". Until the spat, I had failed to appreciate that there is really a mirror community who could reasonably be called "alarmists". On the one hand, they are on the side of the environment, and so ought to be allies. On the other hand, their attitude to scientific understanding could be called … er … loose. In the broad political context of my research, it is worth knowing that there are two flavours of opposition to facts. It even gives me a (small) twinge of sympathy for the denialists, at least those non-specialists who only get their information from broadcast or social media ...

      Reply
  5. Nina

    Great article! Yes, two thumbs up for "Listeners" rather than "Followers". Each time, I'd see an org/account of interest, I want to "listen", and weigh what is said, etc. Would perhaps avoid the various stumbling over ourselves to clarify that re-tweets are not endorsements. But then, again, maybe not. Nothing replaces getting to know each other, what we mean and how our view evolve.

    Reply
  6. Pingback:

  7. Pingback:

Leave a Reply