How I Use Different Social Media Platforms for Science

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

12 thoughts on “How I Use Different Social Media Platforms for Science

  1. Nice write-up Jarrett! What’s your thoughts on LinkedIn? I have been getting a ton of requests lately to connect with people there, endorse skills, etc. but I got the impression that was less for academic networking (?). Cheers, Jon

    • Good question. I use it and have a profile. But I set that profile up when I was pondering leaving academia and wanted to be more visible to industry. I sorta keep tabs of it and like some of the industry R discussion boards, but, it’s not part of my regular online life, as it were. I know of others, though, who use it quite a bit more as it’s relevant to their interfacing with different organizations.

    • I tried it years ago, and never really found much added value beyond the archiving I already do with Papers (or at the time, Mendeley) + the information I get from Twitter. And then I can always go and look at a papers stats using Altmetric or Impact Story. Certainly I didn’t find anything new or different in terms of social interaction and communication that these other services don’t already provide, and to a wider audience of users. Maybe I missed something, though.

  2. Facebook is a great science outreach tool. I have a personal page for family and friends and two “public” pages associated to my account, one in English and the other in Spanish (ScienceSalsa and SalsaDeCiencia). I higly recomend it because the demographics I reach with Facebook are broader than my Twitter or Blog followers, and having a public page separates personal from professional.

    • Indeed – but the important thing to remember when setting up a something for one’s lab on Facebook is to create a Page, not a whole new account. If you create an account, and people friend it, then via that account, you can see whatever information they choose to give their friends. This can be…awkward. On the other hand, if you create a page, there is no privacy concern. h/t Miriam Goldstein on pointing this out to me.

  3. Thanks, Jarrett, this is useful! I think it is so important for people to remember the point you make – you have an online presence already, whether you are curating it or not! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve googled someone and the first hit I get is Rate My Professor which tells me how many chili peppers students give their professors. Even if my colleague is getting top chili pepper ratings, it’s probably not the online persona that they want to have.

  4. What are your thoughts on Instagram? There are several people who have started posting pictures of their research or just cool little findings. How easy is it to integrate Instagram into G+. I’ve been using it for Facebook and my Twitter accounts for some time now, but I have yet to make the move into the G+ arena.

    Also these are great pointers for those already established in the academic realm; however, what about those who are still students and want to move into their profession. What is the best way to shape someone else’s online impression of his or herself?

    • I think it’s a great thing for rapid photo sharing of one’s work. And it connects so easily to Twitter and Facebook (see my comments about both above) that I think of it as a supplement to the two. Not sure about G+ integration, as I haven’t tried that.

      As for students (thinking grad student – which is when I began my venture into social media), my advice would be to get out into the fray. Become part of the conversation. Particularly as your grad career moves along, you’ll find yourself with more and more to say, and more professional capital behind it.

      As you begin, think about who you are before you post. How do you want to be perceived? I view the whole exercise as little different than going to a meeting. At meetings we interact with our colleagues all the time, and definitely have a ‘professional self,’ as it were. Online it’s no different. I try and comport myself the same in both spheres, really.

  5. Jarrett, this is good stuff. So good, I plan to borrow some of it (with proper attribution, of course). I am trying to make the case to my management that a personal research blog, not an official gov one, is a good idea… Your thoughts here will help make that case!

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