Why Use Social Media as a Scientist?
Call it exchanging information, collaborating, or making connections; whatever your terminology, networking is an important part of life as a scientist. A lot of networking opportunities today are online, through social media websites. Having an online presence on these sites can help you to facilitate discussions with your colleagues, assist you in staying abreast of the latest research, and can be used by search committees to learn about a job applicant.
Social media can also help you do science outreach. Doing online outreach lets you connect with people across the globe, people you’d never otherwise get the chance to communicate with.
Choosing a Social Media Platform
What kind of social media will work best for you? All social media platforms aren’t created equal: each has its own strengths and limitations, and the key to being successful at maintaining an online presence, whether for outreach or for networking, is to find the platform that fits your needs. Take a moment and think about:
- Who do you want to talk to? Who do you want your audience to be?
- What kind of activities do you want to be engaged in? Writing? Finding and sharing links? Collaborating with scientists? Outreach with nonscientists?
- How much time do you want to spend on social media?
You don’t have to start accounts on every social media site: start out by picking one, like Twitter or blogging, and get comfortable with that before trying to build your social media presence.
The table below breaks down some of the most common social media platforms, giving you an idea of which you might like to take a closer look at:
|Platform||Description||Your Goal||Time Commitment||Pros||Cons|
|Social networking site for 140-character messages (a.k.a. tweets). On twitter, you can “follow” the tweets of your friends, colleagues, and even those of strangers and celebrities.||To send messages or publicize content in 140 characters or less. To stay up to date with the news, discussions, and issues in your field and join in fast, pithy conversations.||Medium; Aim to tweet almost every day to keep your account active. Serious twitter users will tweet multiple times a day.||An easy way to connect with diverse people in your field; the ability share info and follow news in real time.||Fast pace can be overwhelming. Tweets can get ‘lost’ in the crowd.|
|Social networking site that allows you to post photos, videos, links, and messages to your profile. Pages can be created by lab or research groups and followed by anyone.||To share relevant links and information that your audience is interested in.||Low; Post links or original content a few times a week.||Familiar platform for most people; a large (theoretical) audience. A Facebook page for a lab group can let you reach people without using your personal account.||Takes a lot of work to reach people outside of your facebook “friends,” so reaching a wider audience can be difficult.|
|Blogging (WordPress, Blogspot, Tumblr)||Process of writing and posting content on a dedicated website. Think of it like public journaling on a certain theme (Such as: marine science, the nitrogen cycle, being a PI, etc.)||To share your thoughts throughout the creation of in-depth, original content. Tumblr is different in that it is primarily image-focused.||High; Posts can take anywhere from 30 minutes to many hours depending on the topic. Posting at least 1-2 times a week is important for maintaining an audience, but prolific bloggers post most days.||Can reach a wide audience; works synergistically when promoted through other social media; lasting impact as posts are available online indefinitely.||Large time investment, especially initially when setting up the initial website.|
|Social networking site focused on sharing images and short videos.||To share original images of life in the lab, field, or classroom.||Low; Ideally, post a few times a week.||Visuals can interest a wide audience; Can be used synergistically with other social media (twitter, facebook, etc.)||May be difficult to regularly update with new photos; Little opportunity for in-depth interactions with your audience.|
|Video-sharing websites where users can upload original videos and watch videos that others have created.||To create and share videos about your research, your lab/field work, or about science in general.||High; While people don’t expect you to be posting videos all the time, creating high-quality videos takes work.||Potential to reach a wide audience that isn’t otherwise interested in science; once created, will be viewed for years to come.||High initial time investment, the need for equipment and editing software.|
|Social networking and news website where users submit content, links, and engage in online discussions.||To provide scientific expertise and discuss science issues with scientists and nonscientists alike.||Low-Medium; Commenting takes little time commitment, setting up an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) takes more but is a one-time thing.||Can reach a large audience; community is relatively informal and consistent engagement isn’t necessary to have an audience.||In gigantic comment threads, your voice might get buried underneath other comments.|
Once you start using social media, remember that you don’t have to immediately become a social media superstar. Joining existing conversations and commenting on other people’s content is a great way to get started and slowly build your own audience/follower list. Also, don’t forget to cross-promote: if you write a blog post or post photos of your field excursion, link to that on other social media such as Twitter or Facebook.
An option for PI’s or groups of students who don’t individually have the time to get serious about social media outreach is to collaborate. You can work together by creating group accounts (see deepseanews.com or @KARK_group on twitter for examples). It’s much easier to maintain a blog or a twitter account when you have multiple people contributing content and updates, and you can use your individual strengths to build a strong social media presence. One person might be a great photographer, another might love using Twitter, and a third might enjoy writing blog posts, for example.
Another option is to contact your institution’s Communication Office, or its equivalent—they may be able to work with you to publicize your research through their social media channels, or even facilitate contact with journalists. Guest blogging, where you write a post for an already-established blog, is also an option.
How to approach social media outreach? The same way you approach any kind of outreach: know your audience and know how to best connect with them. Beyond that, there are some platform-specific guidelines you can follow to be successful.
Social Media How-To’s
- Tweet often! To maintain an active twitter account, try to tweet every day.
- Use hashtags (#), comment on other people’s tweets, and respond to comments.
- You can live tweet events, such as workshops, seminars, and conferences, by tweeting what’s going on using relevant hashtags (such as #ASLO2016 for an ASLO conference).
- Use the website Bitly to shorten links.
- Use the Tweetdeck or Hootsuite apps to manage multiple twitter accounts, schedule tweets, and easily search through tweets.
- Setting up a Facebook Page for your lab or organization is a great way to reach people without needing to post things from your personal profile.
- Make sure your posts and links are appropriate for your audience. If your Facebook friends are mostly nonscientists, links to journal articles are probably not going to interest many people.
- Be sure to respond to comments people make on your posts. Start a conversation!
Blogging successfully requires more thought than some other social media platforms, but it’s permanence and reach can make it more rewarding as well. These links provide a great introduction to the world of science blogging:
- Figure out who you want your audience to be, and write with them (and their interests, education level, etc.) in mind.
- Decide on a theme for your blog and (mostly) stick to it. The theme can be as general as “aquatic sciences” or as narrow as “freshwater algae,” but a theme gives your blog coherence and helps build your audience.
- Make sure your blog site is visually appealing. Even if you have great content, if your website looks cluttered and distracting, people are likely to click away without reading your awesome posts. Generally, minimalism and simplicity should be your bywords.
- Promote your blog on other social media sites, like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can make social media accounts for your blog, which works especially well if the blog is a group effort.
- Decide on a theme. What kinds of pictures will you share?
- Use hashtags to help guide people to your photos, and post often.
Creating Videos (Youtube & Vimeo)
- Get some equipment. Your phone’s camera can work in a pinch, but for really high-quality videos, see if your institution has a media center where you can rent audio-visual equipment. For the field, GoPros are a great option.
- Keep your shots simple, and try to either use a tripod or keep your camera placed on a level surface.
- Avoid backlighting by keeping your light source in front of or to the side of your subject.
- If you’re shooting something in the lab or field, narrate what’s going on. Use simple, clear terms, and avoid jargon.
- If you’re going to use your Reddit account professionally, make sure all your comments and posts using that account are professional.
- Decide the role you want to take on Reddit. Blogger and grad student Randy Olson did a series of interviews with scientists who use Reddit in different outreach capacities, which you can check out here: