OK, so, you’re a scientist interested in jumping into the world of online social networking for interacting with colleagues, fun and
profit bringing science to the world at large. Fantastic!
So, you log on, and are suddenly confronted by a dizzying array of sites you could use to communicate. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+, Myspace (yes, it’s back), Blogspot, WordPress, FriendFeed, Tumblr, …. I could go on for a while. And then you may also have concerns about mixing personal and private.
So, which should you use? And why? Before going on, read Bik and Goldstein. Just, trust me. In particular, their Box 1, Box 2, and Fig 2. That paper is gold.
For me, I’ll be honest, I only use three of the above – and each for a distinct purpose. Other social media mavens out there might have different takes, or find that different platforms have better milage for them – and I’d love to hear what you’re using and why! But, this is my take on the platforms I use and how I handle things like privacy and the kind of things I’ll say in each.
0) A Personal Webpage – This one seems obvious, but I find so many instances of people *not* having at least a professional web presence as a slice of hypertext on someone else’s webpage (e.g., advisor, organization you work for, etc.) that it bears repeating. This is the face you present to the world, and often the first hit on a search for you. Make it count!
If you’re not HTML savvy and don’t know where to start, services like Weebly and WordPress not only provide tools to build a site, but reams of wonderful templates. They’ve also got some fancier options for a small fee. Or host your own on a site service like Hostmonster as I do. Such sites often have tools for easily installing content rich professional websites (often using things like WordPress) with just a few clicks.
1) Twitter – To me, this is the ur-site for social media and science. It’s quick, easy, has a ton of tools (HootSuite, TweetDeck, etc.) to make the information firehose that it contains easy to sort (hashtags and lists are fabulous), and provides a great way to dip into the stream of scientific conversation very easily. It’s also fully public. What you say there will tell a lot of people about who you are. It really is your choice who you want to be. So, it is where my professional scientific persona lives, as it were. Which is pretty much just me, but with some guardrails on, as it were. The brevity of posts is also a huge benefit, as it’s a low barrier to entry, and low barrier to interaction. And there are a ton of Ecologists, Evolutionary, and Marine Biologists on it.
2) Blogs – This is where one can go long-form and really lay out some thoughts or a meaty juicy piece of what they’re doing. There’s no set form, structure, or rules, really. Basically, I view my blog as an intellectual sandbox. And it’s excellent practice for writing. Heck, I’ve even knitted together significant pieces of papers from blog posts. Basically, I view blogs as the place for good, well thought out, detailed, interaction and communication to take place. It’s where you can show all of who you are and how you think. It’s where you can try and connect with audiences – public and scientific – using the broadest most informative brush. It’s not a substitute for the peer reviewed literature, but rather a place where the scientific ebb and flow of ideas can find a home when we’re not all at a meeting or somesuch.
3) Google+ – I’m still not sure about this one. I LOVE hangouts, and am going to be trying some experiments with them in the future. They’ve basically replaced Skype for me, and I’ve found that G+’s groups and communities are terribly convenient for organizing and posting to groups of folk working on a project. But as a primary source of social media presence….you can post longer things than you can on Twitter? I think the multi-media capabilities and hangouts are key for what G+ has to offer, and, so, that’s what I use it for!
4) Facebook – you notice that I haven’t mentioned Facebook up to this point? Curious, no? Maybe it’s because of historical reasons (remembering a long line of social media sites – Friendster, Orkut, Myspace, etc.), maybe it’s because of the higher degree of immediate interaction, maybe its because my mom is on it (hi, mom!) – I’m not totally sure why, but I, at least, use Facebook for personal purposes only. I mean, I pipe my Twitter feed into it, and enjoy the conversation that occurs off of it. But I generally only add folk who I have met personally or have a personal connection of somesort. Basically, folk I’m willing to let in to see who I am a little less guardedly – my not-so-professional online persona, if you will (there are a lot of cat photos, I admit). This is not true of all fields. For example, my wife is in theater, and theater is all about being social. Thus, Facebook becomes a professional space.
This is not to say that Facebook cannot evolve into a professional space. Actually, my favorite use of it lately has been the number of fellow scientists with whom I have a professional relationship sharing some of their inside thoughts regarding their own careers, their daily struggles, and a good bit of camaraderie and commiserations.
Oh, last, a word of caution to those of you not yet aquatinted with this fact – everything you say on the internet is forever able to be associated with you. It will come up when you least expect it. What you say online shapes how folk perceive you. Even things that you think are completely 100% private…not always so much (particularly if Facebook randomly changes its privacy settings). This is not to say that people are not forgiving of context – they are or should be delightfully so – but, you know, think before you hit post.
In fact, all of this brings me to a point I make a lot in public, and, I should perhaps post here so that I can have it in digital print: If you are not curating your online identity, someone or something else is doing it for you. By someone I don’t mean some specific person (usually), but, rather, a combination of the crowd and information sifting algorithms. So, want to leave a good impression? Be known as a person interested in topic X? Only you have that power. And with great power…
So, feel free to use the above as a general guide, or discover that, in internet terms, I’m a fuddy-duddy and there are better ways of using social network tools that are at your disposal. Or, heck, I’m sure there are tools waiting out there somewhere on the horizon that can enhance the scientific conversation even more!
Updated 10/2013 with some links to sites to help you build professional websites