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Social media for science: The geologic perspective

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last week, I spent a pleasant hour over lunch talking to my 60-year-old aunt and her 80-something husband about "this Twitter thing" and how one defines a blog. They had heard that social media had played a role in the protests in Egypt and wanted to learn more. Good students, they nodded and asked questions as I showed them the screens and tools on my computer in a restaurant chosen mostly because it had wi-fi.

The nice thing about working with them is that there was no skepticism, just open interest. Contrast that to discussions I have had about social media with many professionals, whose attitude toward social media fall mainly into one of three categories: (1) skeptics and naysayers; (2) those who simply can’t understand it and don’t want to (or are afraid to) take the time to learn about it and/or invest in it; and (3) those with the "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" mentality.

1. Skeptics and naysayers.

In my experience, skeptics simply don’t understand social media and its potential benefits. Skeptics, by their very nature, are the least likely to jump with both feet into "new stuff," especially if it is related to something about which they are already skeptical. If someone believes that the Web is making it harder for print media to thrive, for example, then he or she is surely going to disdain the expansion of that Web into the "social" realm, worrying about what that might do to magazine, newspaper, or book sales.

The reticence of skeptics to use social media as another tool in a robust communications arsenal reminds me of kids, parents, and food. How many times over the dinner table have parents said to their recalcitrant children, their noses turned up at peas or broccoli or fish or any number of things, "How do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it?"

Social media skeptics somehow know they don’t like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the like and will tell you as a matter of fact that "no serious person ever uses it" or "it’s not real journalism" or "it’s not of strategic advantage to our organization." They may even argue that adding a social media component to their education, outreach, and marketing programs would detract from the serious nature of their company or scientific organization.

These skeptics and naysayers aren’t limited to a certain age or social standing. I was shocked last summer when my undergrad editorial intern announced to me that he thought blogs were beneath him, muttering something about "not REAL journalism," when he had yet to read a single post.

2. I simply can’t understand social media and don’t want to take the time to learn or invest in it.

This group is similar to the skeptics, but without the negative spin. The reticence here is due mainly to unfamiliarity rather than direct disdain. Selling these folks on the benefits of social media is like trying to get them to taste a very good but, well, different, kind of coffee (like kopi luwak) or a tantalizing but strange-looking piece of fruit (like, say, the carambola or a kiwi). The person will balk because it’s different, and folks are more comfortable sticking with what they know. Also, when looked at en masse, the various components of social media and the perceived amount of time needed to "spin up" an outreach campaign or develop a community can be quite daunting.

3. "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

Finally, folks will argue that you’re company or scientific society has been doing just fine without social media all these years, so why make changes? OR, the argument goes, "We need to concentrate on strengthening the things we do best rather than jumping out on a limb for something that will hardly have an effect on growing our membership, raising the bottom line, or expanding our outreach."

The thing is, social media, a product of the Web 2.0 platform, has only been around since ca. 2004 (O’Reilly, 2005). For years, companies and societies indeed may have been doing just fine with static Web sites and e-mail, but the wave of enhanced interactivity and a fully dynamic Internet is upon us, and it’s time to jump on board or watch it, and our potential audience and customers, pass us by.

This "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" mentality also begs the question: How do you know it "ain’t broke"? Whom are you asking? Are you sending blast e-mails to the same people who have already bought into the benefits of your group? Do you have a mechanism for regular feedback? Is there a way to reach people who aren’t members of your group, company, or organization?

A Little History

The world’s first e-mail was sent in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson of ARPANET, according to Richard T. Griffiths of Leiden University (2002). Of e-mail, Griffiths writes that it "was an instant success," though the "instant success" was not measured in terms of public knowledge of the medium or widespread use; rather, its success was limited to closed net of "elite" users.

What I find most interesting about Griffiths’ account of the history of e-mail is the parallel one could draw to today’s social media. He writes, "The style of e-mail communication was one reason behind the success of the new medium. We are [sic] in the 1970s, when the stuffiness and hierarchy associated with society in the 1950s had already been swept away. The ‘bluntness’ of the medium was no longer seen as threatening but, instead conveyed a feeling of intimacy and immediacy" (emphasis added).

Electronic mail grew in popularity through the 1990s, and, according to Bruce Garrison of the University of Miami’s School of Communication (2002), by "late 2000, there were estimates of about 119 million electronic mail boxes in the United States alone."

According to Joel Walsh (2009), "The mid-late 1990s were the playful childhood of the worldwide web" [sic]. Not many were familiar with how to build Web sites, or even, really, how to use and search them."

This is well-exemplified by a marvelous segment from the Today Show in January 1994 (now on YouTube). The piece shows Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric, and another correspondent wondering aloud "What is ‘Internet’?"

Today, we have people reacting the same way with the questions "What is Twitter?" and "What is Social Media?" Ten years from now, it seems to me, this will no longer be a subject of confusion, just like "Internet" no longer is.

As a side note: The event that brought up the Today Show discussion about "Internet" was the January 1994 Northridge Earthquake and how people used the Web in response to that disaster.

By 2000, if you didn’t have a Web site, you were behind the times. People like me, looking for more information about your organization, would look on the Web first. With corresponding changes in information dissemination (the rapid decrease in the use of the phone book and encyclopedias), people had nowhere to go if they couldn’t find your print magazine or didn’t hear about you by word of mouth. Now, people are using Websites simply as the starting point for learning about a company or organization.

The Internet and e-mail are now considered a part of everyday life for a majority of people in the developed world. In the United States, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2010), 79% of adults use the Internet, and 94% of those use it for e-mail.

Social media sites and programs have spun up considerably faster than did the World Wide Web and e-mail. The development of "Web 2.0" ("a set of principles and practices" supporting a "Web platform" by which the user controls his or her own data [T. O'Reilly, 2005]) began in 2004. O’Reilly notes that one way you can measure the difference between the Internet we had known and today’s interactive Internet is to look at the difference between Britannica Online and Wikipedia, or personal, static Web sites versus, open, interactive blogs. For further comparison, see O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 meme map.

Web 2.0, according to Tim O’Reilly and John Batelle’s 2009 article "Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On," is "all about harnessing collective intelligence."

What better way to harness collective intelligence than through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other forms of social media? Social media does not follow the same pattern of development and use as e-mail, as, by definition, social media is dependent upon people willing to engage in greater amounts of interactivity. Many people who readily use e-mail and are comfortable using and surfing the Web still have never participated in conversations on social networking environments like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Wikis, and blogs.

Now, according to a 2010 Mashable report, "New Study Shows the Mobile Web Will Rule by 2015," "Social network use has already eclipsed e-mail use. People started spending more time on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace back in 2007; in 2009, there were more users on social networks than users of e-mail."

Quick Quotes

On 23 Feb. 2011, I posed a question to my "followers" on Twitter: "If you stopped ‘doing social media’ (Twitter, FB, LinkedIn etc.) would anyone notice? Would your input be missed?" I received several replies, the most cogent of which came from University of Oklahoma geoscience Ph.D. student Jefferson Chang (@jeffersonite), "It’s not my input that I’m concerned about, but the information that I wouldn’t otherwise receive."

At the ScienceOnline2011 Conference last January, speaker Steve Silberman compared his experience with Twitter, blogs, and other social media tools to a kid running around on the beach showing everyone "all the cool things" he had found.

This 5 March tweet (message via Twitter) from Sophia B. Liu (@sophiabliu), a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a member of Project EPIC (a research effort to support and understand the information needs of the public during times of mass emergency) captured the essence of what I’m trying to say in this post: "It’s not technology like social media that is revolutionary. It’s the people using it that are making history in revolutionary ways."

Anne Jefferson, assistant professor in earth science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told Bora Zivkovic in a 2010 interview, "Blogging, tweeting, and reading blogs and twitter actually helps me stay somewhat up-to-date with the scientific literature in a much broader sense than if I were solely reading journal articles" (from Zivkovic, 2010b).

And, about blogging, author Geoff Manaugh told geoscientist Brian Romans, "It’s precisely the broad-based, multidisciplinary nature of blogging that makes the whole thing worthwhile—the idea that any field of inquiry is only one link away" (from Romans, 2011).

The Facts

I’m only going to cover Twitter and blogs here; the social media "landscape" is amazingly broad considering the few years it has had to develop. See "The CMO’s Guide to The Social Landscape" for a rating of 10 social media platforms. Their list does not include older systems like FriendFeed, MySpace, and RSS aggregators (like Google Reader), or newer ones like Quora; I think a complete, exhaustive listing would be difficult to put together as the "landscape" continues to grow and change.

Twitter

First, what is Twitter? The blog "Deep Sea News" defines it as a microblogging tool and explains how it is used and why scientists should make it a tool in their interdisciplinary communication arsenal.

Contrary to what those unfamiliar with social media might think, Twitter is not a fly-by-night organization. According to Wikipedia, Twitter was launched as a short message service (SMS) in July 2006. According to its own Web site (updated 14 Sept. 2010), Twitter has 175 million registered users; 95 million tweets are written per day; and they have over 300 employees.

That said, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, only 8% of U.S. adults who use the Internet use Twitter (Evans, 2010). Yet, according to the same study (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2010), "Seventy-three percent of teens and 83% of Millennials [sic; people 18-33 years old] use social network sites, significantly more than older generations, especially adults over 55" (avg. 54.6%).

In this context, it’s easy to see that that 8% is guaranteed to grow as more early and mid-career professionals start using smart phones and as even more young people engage in social media.

The Geological Society of America (GSA) uses Twitter as a communications and outreach tool to relay articles written about research presented in GSA’s journals and about GSA’s programs. GSA also uses Twitter to build better relationships with its partner societies and other organizations by "retweeting" their posts. Finally, using Twitter, GSA helps circulate and increase buzz about geoscience, especially by the use of hashtags (terms on Twitter preceded by the # symbol are search-engine tracked).

Blogs

New York Magazine has a great timeline of the history of blogging (written in 2006 by Clive Thompson).

For information on geoscience bloggers, see Michael Welland’s 2010 Geoscientist post, "The geoblosphere." And why should scientists blog? "Science in the Triangle" (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina) blogger Lisa M. Dellwo has that answer.

If that’s not enough, I also recommend this 24 Jan. 2011 Science Weekly (Guardian.uk) article, which offers "an extended look at the world of blogging and its role in modern science." The associated podcast, "How blogs are changing science," was made on location at the 13–15 Jan. 2011 ScienceOnline2011 conference at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, USA.

The Geological Society of America has a budding guest blog, Speaking of Geoscience. The bigger mover and shaker in the geoscience arena is the American Geophysical Union, with 10 blogs on its platform. Other science blogs are hosted by Wired Science (including the geoscience-based blogs Laelaps and Clastic Detritus), Discover (including the highly popular and award-winning Not Exactly Rocket Science blog), Scientific American, KQED Quest, and also see the Nature News blog, The Great Beyond.

Individual geoscience blogs, using platforms like WordPress and Blogger, or even on a specially built platform (see Highly Allochthonous), abound. Geoscience graduate students blog (for example, Extremophiles and Georneys), geoscience departments blog (one of the best I’ve seen is Wooster Geologists), professors blog (again, see Highly Allochthonous, plus Eruptions, Geotripper, and The Landslide Blog), and finally, so do professional geologists (see the fantastic History of Geology blog, which should be on every geoscientist’s reading list, and Looking for Detachment, written by a minerals exploration geologist). The Far West Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers has a blog. One last category: even state geologists blog! At least, I have found one who blogs: Lee Allison of Arizona Geology.

Scientists blog from around the globe, including the UK, Portugal, Italy, Romania, Germany, Indonesia, and India. This all has the makings for great interdisciplinary, international collaborations.

As you can surely see, social media are being used by scientists, scientific institutions and societies, government entities, and more. Here’s a quick listing of just who’s on Twitter:

· American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG): on Twitter as @AAPG

· The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): four accounts on Twitter, including @AAAS_News

· American Geological Institute (AGI ): on Twitter as @AGI

· American Geophysical Union (AGU): on Twitter as @theAGU

· The British Geological Survey (BGS): on Twitter as BGSwebEd

· The Guardian (UK): on Twitter as @guardianscience

· Ecological Society of America (ESA): on Twitter as ESA_org

· European Geosciences Union (EGU): uses Twitter to promote its meetings; its current Twitter account is @EGU2011

· The Geological Society of America (GSA): on Twitter as @geosociety

· The Geological Society (London) (GSL): on Twitter as @geolsoc

· Geoscientist Magazine (the magazine of the Geological Society of London): on Twitter as @geoscientistmag

· The Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR): on Twitter as @INSTAAR

· The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR): on Twitter as @AtmosNews

· The National Ground Water Foundation: on Twitter as @groundwaterfdn

· Nature: on Twitter as @NatureNews

· Nature Geoscience: on Twitter as @NatureGeosci

· The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): on Twitter as @usnoaagov

· New Scientist: on Twitter as @newscientist

· NOTIGEO (The World Geoscience Network; based out of Linares, México): on Twitter as @notigeo

· Public Library of Science: on Twitter as @PLoS

· Scientific American: on Twitter as @SciAm, as @SciAm_live (for live-tweeting events) and as @SciAmBlogs

· Smithsonian Institution: on Twitter as @smithsonian

· Soil Science Society of America (SSSA): tweets together with the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) and the Crop Science Society of America (the "Tri-Societies") as @ASA_CSSA_SSSA and on its own as @SSSA_soils

· The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has multiple twitter accounts (as in, too many to list here). I recommend you wait until you have a good deal of time on your hands before you try to comprehend the enormity of the USGS presence on social media platforms.

· The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: on Twitter as @whitehouseostp

Going Back to the "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" Argument:

No matter how cliché it sounds, it’s still true: teenagers and young adults are the future of any scientific organization. Younger generations aren’t going to look for your company or Society in print —they’re going to go directly to your Web site and then maybe your Facebook page, and, if interested, they will follow you on Twitter. If you’re not there, neither will they be—and you’ve lost them at a critical point of contact.

Someday soon, it will have to be acknowledged by the leadership of scientific societies and organizations that involvement in social media is directly related to being a leader in advancing science, enhancing professional growth of scientists and instructors, and promoting the science in both service and stewardship. Such goals will not be met if social media is ignored, undervalued, and deprecated.

Social media also drives people to learn more about your scientific organization and to consider joining, purchasing, attending, or applying for employment. This will be more valuable in the future, as the younger generation becomes more engaged and early and mid-career professionals recognize the value of social media as well (esp. blogs and LinkedIn, though Twitter can’t be ignored as many consider it a "micro-blogging" tool). No longer can scientific organizations depend on Web sites, blast e-mails, and newsletters to grow membership and participation; it’s time to think out of the box.

And What About the "I simply can’t understand social media and don’t want to take the time to learn or invest in it" Argument?

Chances are there is someone in your organization who has a real interest in social media and the knowledge and skills by which to teach others about this growing communications and marketing tool. That said, I must emphasize that importance of QUALITY presence in social media. See Sysomos for an abundance of information on social media and the qualities of a successful community manager.

More Reasons to Engage

1. Social media can be used to reach new readers and to build and diversify membership.

As an example: The Geological Society of America is represented on Facebook by two different pages: a fan group (developed by a couple of enthusiastic GSA members) and an official fan page (developed and maintained by GSA). As of 14 Mar. 2011, the group has 1,740 members; the official page has over 5,928 fans. On Twitter, GSA (as @geosociety) has 1,635 followers, and many of those followers actively "retweet" information posted by @geosociety, while more engage with @geosociety in mentions and "follow Friday" recommendations (each Friday, people and organizations on Twitter recommend to others top Twitter accounts to follow).

2. Social media has an exponential impact.

One of the greatest things about social media is its exponential effect. Yes, your tweet may only have an audience of, say 1,700, but if one person retweets what you’ve written (called an RT), sending it out to everyone who follows them, that adds another audience of maybe 200 or more and then that may go on by word of mouth to others. It isn’t the drop in the water that’s important —it’s the ripples that drop makes. And that kind of thing isn’t easily stripped down and boxed into an ROI meter. However, an active user of social media can informally track return on investment (ROI) by watching tweets and retweets. As well, monitoring Twitter helps you discover mentions and analysis of your science. ROI might not be immediately seen in dollar amounts, but rather accrues like interest into a big payoff over time.

3. Customer Service.

If someone tweets or posts on Facebook a question or a problem regarding my organization, I can quickly respond to it with a very personal approach. Sometimes this can be much more immediate and personal than even an e-mail or phone call. For more information about the customer service benefits of social media, I recommend you read the Sysomos blog by Mark Evans. I’ve included several references and links at the end of this blog post.

4. Engagement in social media provides your scientific society with the opportunity to be a thought leader. For example, here are just a few geoscience topics that your organization can the lead on:

· Landslides, earthquakes, and other geologic hazards

· The need for support for geoscience education at the community college level

· Volcanic eruptions

· Google Earth and Gigapanning

· How to talk to the media

· How to respond to reviewer comments

· Crowd-sourcing in times of crisis (see Project Epic)

REFERENCES & RESOURCES

I have included links to some of these resources in the text of this post. However, much more can be said, and these blogs and articles say them much better than I can.

AAPG, 2011, Joining the conversation: Why not blog?, American Association of Petroleum Geologist, 2 Feb. 2011: http://blog.aapg.org/web/?p=417 (last accessed 11 Mar. 2011).

APCO Worldwide and The Huffington Post, 2011, Social EQ: http://socialeq.apcoworldwide.com/ (last accessed 14 Mar. 2011).

CMO.com, 2011, The CMO’s Guide to The Social Landscape, CMO.com, 10 Mar. 2011: http://www.cmo.com/social-media/2011-cmos-guide-social-landscape (last accessed 14 Mar. 2011).

Dawson, Cian, 2010, A #Gov2.0 take on the Question of Science Blogging, 6 Oct. 2010: http://cbdawson.com/blog/2010/10/gov2-0-and-science-blogging/ (last accessed 8 Feb. 2011).

Dawson, Cian, 2010, Blogging Government Scientists, 8 Dec. 2010: http://cbdawson.com/blog/2010/12/gov-scientists-blogging/ (last accessed 8 Feb. 2011).

Dellwo, Lisa M., 2011, Why scientists should blog, Science in the Triangle, 25 Jan. 2011: http://scienceinthetriangle.org/2011/01/why-scientists-should-blog/ (last accessed 13 Mar. 2011).

EGU, 2010, Geoscience and social media research at EGU GA (1), European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2010, 5 May 2010: http://egu2010.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/geosciences-and-social-media-research-at-egu-ga-2010-1/ (last accessed 12 Mar. 2011).

Evans, Mark, 2010, RSS feeds: What’s More Important: Twitter Followers or RSS Subscribers?, Sysomos Inc., 14 Sept. 2010: http://blog.sysomos.com/2010/09/14/whats-more-important-twitter-followers-or-rss-subscribers/ (last accessed 12 Feb. 2011).

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About the Author: Kea Giles (fka Kristen Asmus) is managing editor of communications at The Geological Society of America (GSA), which includes managing the Society’s science and news magazine, GSA Today; its e-news magazine, GSA Connection; and its social media interactions. She earned a master’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Colorado at Boulder; her master’s thesis, a 55-minute documentary titled “Facing Trauma” ran on independent cable stations in the early 1990s. She taught English and journalism as an adjunct instructor at Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colorado, for five years. For nine years prior to that, Giles worked for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department. Her personal blog, Dragonfly Wars, is in its second year. She tweets for GSA as @geosociety and for herself as @Colo_kea.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. Colo_kea 6:58 pm 03/17/2011

    Cian Dawson has some great info on Government scientists who blog: http://cbdawson.com/blog/2010/12/gov-scientists-blogging/

    Link to this
  2. 2. Colo_kea 11:09 am 03/21/2011

    Here’s another great resource: Twitter for Scientists on SigmaBioBlogs: http://www.sigmabioblogs.com/science-online-2/twitter-for-scientists/

    Link to this
  3. 3. Colo_kea 11:11 am 03/21/2011

    And something more to think about: Why scientists won’t use Twitter by Nachiket Vartak of The Daily Nash-on blog: http://nachiket.wordpress.com/2009/02/15/why-scientists-wont-use-twitter/

    Link to this
  4. 4. Colo_kea 1:33 pm 05/7/2011

    Just found a great new article, "Why Twitter can be the next big thing in scientific collaboration," by Sander Jasma: http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/2011/05/02/why-twitter-can-be-the-next-big-thing-in-scientific-collaboration/

    Link to this

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