Fri 1 Jun 2012
Twitter: It sounds vaguely silly. Maybe that’s why many scientists don’t bother to communicate via tweets. After all, how much can be conveyed in 140 characters or less?
Well, a lot. As I somewhat belatedly found out, Twitter has become the global water cooler for finding and exchanging scientific news and communication. It’s where each journal article, research news story, blog post of scientific interest gets condensed into a tweet (basically, a headline and live link) and passed around on the Internet, 24-7. If your tweet about your latest PLoS ONE article attracts interest (and it will), people will comment on it and retweet it, sending it far and wide on their own network of Twitter contacts. Twitter is a big, wide pipeline of up-to-the-minute, global dialogues on just about every topic, from nanotechnology to astrophysics. You choose which conversations you want to hear—and in which ones you want to want to be heard.
For scientists who are at all interested in outreach communication beyond their peers, Twitter is the place to be. It’s where science writers, science funders, entrepreneurs, educators, employers are listening. Yet many scientists balk at using social media sites, as biologist and science writer Christie Wilcox points out in an essay in the current issue of the Biological Bulletin. Wilcox argues that scientists must start dialoguing about their work on social media such as Twitter and Facebook not only for their own benefit, but if we are to make headway in defending science against persistent (and serious) political and religious attacks, and in addressing widespread scientific illiteracy.
In a thoughtful Nature blog post yesterday, biologist Jeanne Garb agrees that scientists “need to become better communicators,” but she adds, “please be realistic… most scientists are already overburdened with just keeping their laboratories and careers afloat.” How are they to find time to speak up on social media?
Garb thinks the solution is institutional communications teams that not only promote the “big” research news, but also help their scientists conduct an “ongoing conversation about the science happening on a daily basis.” (That would be on Twitter.) This conversation is necessary, she writes, to “help science and scientists to become more transparent and less intimidating,” which in turn garners more interest in science and helps promote science literacy. And that has “positive effects on legislative policy and funding, and that’s a good thing.”
The MBL Communications Office (@MBLScience on Twitter) regularly tweets about MBL science and events, so the team is in place. But so much happens on campus that we never hear about, or that we can’t be there to observe. Cool equipment arrives in a course. A research connection falls into place between two scientists. A small discovery makes a big difference in a student’s understanding. That daily dialogue about scientific life— that’s what we need to get better at. And while we are making inroads, it’s truly best when it comes straight from the scientists themselves.
So, we encourage you, give Twitter a whirl. Twitter is easy to learn, it’s informative, and it’s also fun. Here’s a good primer on learning to tweet. If you’d prefer, MBL Communications can give you a quick, hands-on lesson (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’d be happy to help you get going on Twitter, and of course, we will retweet you @MBLScience.
If every scientist on campus tweets even a few times a month, that’s enough to generate steady dialogue on MBL science! And that is what we all want to hear.