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Tips: Harnessing Social Networks For Information When You Write A Story

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


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Tips is a series which aims to provide young and early-career science writers with, well, tips to aid them in their budding careers. The series will attempt to link out to existing resources available online.

Anthony De Rosa, Social Media Editor at Reuters, crowdsourced a public Google document, which he now calls, the “Public Cheat Sheet: Social Media for News.” The document comprises best-practices, etiquettes and tips when using different social networks. In this blog post, I highlight some of the less obvious points from the document to showcase how young and early-career science writers may harness information for stories from social media.

We might have been born in a digital world with a smartphone out of the womb but are we making the most of what it has to offer? Journalists and writers thrive on the Internet and most early-career ones, especially, write nearly-exclusively for online publications. But the Internet isn’t just a platform to host content, it’s also a vast maze of content and micro-content waiting to be mined.

Right now, early-career science writers are mostly encouraged to use the web as a platform. They start blogs to practise their writing and journalism skills. They engage with social media to promote themselves and network with peers and more senior writers. The latter constitutes the mind-casting usage of social media. But we can go one step further: we can optimise how we use social media and make it a source of information.

With this in mind, Anthony De Rosa, the Social Media Editor of Reuters, crowdsourced a “social media public cheat sheet” for news. The ensuing document isn’t aimed at science journalists in particular but at all journalists. The document contains some best-practices, etiquettes and good tips on how to make the most of several social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Quora). Interestingly, some of the points hint as to how writers can use social media to harness info from social media. Let’s take a look.

Twitter

Twitter is an especially potent way to get information and it has been widely embraced by the journalism and science blogging communities and, as importantly, by citizens. Indeed, Twitter encompasses different types of users with different opinions (and smartphones), situated in different locations where different things are happening.

Search

With such a wide array of potential sources, it should perhaps become common practice to start off research on an article (a news piece in particular) with a Twitter search. If you’re writing about a space rocket launch at Cape Canaveral, for instance, searching [near:"28°29′N 80°34′W" within:10km] retrieves tweets posted from within a 10-km radius around Cape Canaveral (incidentally, Wikipedia is a good source for coordinates of major places). Including additional filters such as “filter:photos” and “filter:videos” to your search query will only retrieve tweets containing photos and  videos respectively. Twitter’s search is actually much more powerful than this and mastering it can get you very precise and up-to-date information from the Twitterverse as explained in this in-depth tutorial.

One search facility which Twitter is still shockingly lacking is the ability to search through users’ timelines, including one’s own. This can become especially frustrating when you try to retrieve a tweet you saw a couple of weeks ago which will fit perfectly into the story you’re writing today. Until Twitter does unveil the feature (which it has repeatedly promised is high up on its agenda), there are tools which allow you to do so with varying levels of success. Use Topsy’s advanced search and cross fingers. Or PeopleBrowsr lets you search by keyword or user and gives you the chance to dwell up to two years in the past for free.

Hashtags

Hashtags are essentially used to make search easier. Around big events (such as rocket launches and conferences), specific hashtags may be used and they essentially pinpoint tweets which relate to the event in question. Hashtags are also employed by other networks, such as Tumblr and Instagram, so make sure you tap into the different networks.

Lists

When you’re writing about the rocket launch, you may also want some commentary from experts. One of the major ways to follow relevant streams of information on Twitter is to create lists. Lists allow you to get personalised news tailored to your interests (professional and personal) without the noise. Using lists, you can regroup Twitter users who typically tweet about similar topics (such as rocket launches!) which are of interest to the “beat” you cover.

Lists can also effectively be used to follow reputable science journalists who work for a particular publication. For example, Scientific American’s contributors are regrouped in this list on Twitter. Lists can also help you with networking. Check out this Twitter list of young and early-career science writers for instance.

Juggling different lists becomes complicated or even impossible when using Twitter on the web since the interface only allows you to view one list at a time. To view multiple lists at a time, consider using Tweetdeck (now owned by Twitter), available on the web, Chrome and major operating systems.

Make sure the information is verifiable and true

After all your hard work, searching through billions of tweets and hashtags and creating exhaustive lists, what happens if you stumble upon a tweet which just makes you go “OMG,” awakening that retweet beast in you? Step one, do not immediately retweet.

Let’s stick to the “you’re covering a rocket launch” story. Out of nowhere, some tweets suggesting that the rocket launch has been postponed (or some catastrophe has happened) start to circulate. Be careful about sources on Twitter and don’t just assume that the information is true. Try to identify the source or independent sources of the suggestion and try to find out if you can trust it/them. If you have a significant following, you can also crowdsource this part by asking your followers if the suggestion is indeed true.

Facebook

Facebook is different beast from Twitter. This means that you can harness different types of information from the social network. While you can use Twitter to gather information, you can use Facebook to know more about your audience, identify potential stories (which you can also do on Twitter, mind you) and to a certain extent, get personalised news.

Equivalent to following people on Twitter, you can subscribe to interesting people on Facebook and see (some of) their public updates on your home feed. You can also like relevant pages where you can comment and engage with other likers. And you can subscribe to various interest lists as well as other user-curated lists.

Facebook allows you to engage with your friends and subscribers in different ways, although the extent of engagement you experience may only be consequent if you have a good mass of friends and/or subscribers. Running polls may give you valuable information about your audience (what topics they prefer) or opinions about certain news stories.

There are a huge number of groups on Facebook and chances are that you will find a few that match your “beat.” Identify these groups and engage with the people who hang out there. These groups are a great fodder to know what’s of interest to your potential audience. Tap into the conversations and discussions and if things get particularly heated around a subject, it’s a good bet that there’s a story to be written about the subject.

Tumblr

Viral LOLcat. (Original image by Rosana Prada on Flickr.)

Tumblr is relatively new to the social media game. One of its major selling points is its platform’s propensity to get content to go viral. While blogs are isolated in the blogosphere, Tumblr blogs are all meshed on top of a platform which rapidly allows for inter-sharing, commenting, etc. This means that any one of your Tumblr posts can be more easily rebloged to millions of other Tumblr users frictionlessly.

It makes sense to tap into the network not only to use it as a promotional tool but to see what Tumblrs are sharing. As previously mentioned, Tumblr makes use of hashtags so you can check them out.

Also Tumblr makes for a great source of LOLcat pictures and memes so if you want to illustrate your blog posts with such illustrations, that’s your temple. Last but not least, lots of Tumblr blogs are really fun and make for good breaks.

Pinterest

Traffic to Pinterest and referral traffic from Pinterest exploded a relatively short time after its beta launch. This put Pinterest in the limelight although many people are not entirely sure how to provide content tailored to Pinterest’s users. Pinterest essentially provides a platform to collate (pin) images from around the Internet in one place. How does this relate to traffic? The pinned images link back to the original page from which it was initially pinned.

As a writer, you can use Pinterest as a portfolio of sorts by pinning a particularly stunning image from your blog post or article. How to actually use it as part of your writing process, I’m not entirely sure. Any ideas welcome in the comments below.

Quora

I will admit that I don’t regularly visit Quora. But I really should because every time I do, I stumble upon some really great answers to some nifty questions. Quora is basically a question-and-answer website which promotes in-depth and diversity of responses. This makes Quora a great source of information.

It might however be a little tricky to identify Quora users who are experts in the fields that you cover so if you’re new to the site, just navigate your way around and start following people that Quora suggests. Slowly, as you get the hang of the website and it’s not-so-good search engine, you’ll figure out who the real experts are and the rest will be history.

De Rosa’s “public cheat sheet” contains much more information and some top tips for engaging with others in those networks so do take a look. It also has a section which lists some potentially helpful, purely Internet-based tools. Think Storify, which lets you curate micro-content (with a focus on tweets) from social media. There are links to Storyful too, a service which verifies tweets and users.

Unfortunately, crowdsourcing on the document is now closed, meaning that the document is no longer editable. There are some links which have already become dead-ends and there are some sections which are in need of beefing up (Pinterest has one entry while Quora has two). If you have any contributions though you can probably reach out to De Rosa on Twitter.

Khalil A. Cassimally About the Author: Khalil A. Cassimally is the Community Coordinator of The Conversation UK. He's also a science blogger. He hails from a tropical island and is a happy geek. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @notscientific.

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

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