Using Twitter to communicate research – a worth while tool or a waste of time?

In preparation for a talk I am giving on using Twitter to promote research I thought it would be a nice idea to get some initial thoughts down in a blog post.

Twitter is an interesting form of social media. It has a user base of 302 million monthly active users with over 500 million tweets sent a day. Its much more transparent compared to other social media platforms such as Facebook which has algorithms that filters everything you see in your feed. Instead you get every tweet from those you follow in your Twitter feed.

Twitter sounds like a great opportunity to communicate your research with the general public and social media is being for a range of reasons by academics. A paper by Noorden published in Nature conducted a survey of academics to see why they engaged with social media. The results of Twitter use was particularly interesting highlighting the use of Twitter to engage with discussions and share their own work.

This does highlight one benefit of Twitter for research. You can directly engage with discussions and keep up to date with topics of interest. This is particularly interesting if your area of expertise is an area of debate. Personally I find it useful for keeping up with some of the things the Internet is being blamed for, from corrupting youth to making food ‘all taste the same’, and it is useful to keeping up with the current popular discourses surrounding climate change (I recently set up a twitter bot to follow climate change tweets).

Thanks to the real time coverage of events you can keep up to date faster than traditional media. Its common to see online newspapers such as the Guardian having live coverage of events as they unfold with tweets being included along with press statements. You can also watch emerging trending Twitter hashtags to find out about current topics users are discussing. This of course can result in people tweeting about completely pointless topics such as the colour of a dress. Always important to remember that Internet communities can get into drama surrounding the weirdest topics (I have personally spent way too much time on 4chan during my PhD and have seen some bizarre Internet drama).

Another opportunity is the ability to share your work with the wider world. Instead of keeping your work in academic in academic journals that will only ever be read by a relatively low number of people you can publish blogs, make videos, share journal articles (or final drafts of manuscripts if the journal has a pay wall). This is a great way to engage a much larger audience at least in theory.

Parody of the Nature article graph by PhD comics http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1737

However, this presumption needs to be challenged. Due to the wealth of information on every topic imaginable, with some really weird pockets of the Internet, users have been shown to reduce diversity to the range of information that they receive and engage. This is a solution information overload and users instead access information on topics that directly interest them. Rather than engage with topics such as climate change users instead engage with topics that they enjoy such as video gaming online communities for example.

This actually poses a serious challenge for science communication. How do you communicate science in an entertaining and engaging way that those without initial interest will look at? Instead of communicating with the general public when you tweet about your research you are generally only reaching those already interested in the subject. This can be useful for networking with researchers in your field.

For example I have benefited quite a lot from connections with other researchers studying the Internet. As I am based in an interdisciplinary institute I work along side of mostly scientists which has been wonderful for giving me insight into the scientific process and the importance of communicating science to the public, but it has also been an isolating experience. When I can happily discuss Creepypasta (horror stories shared on the Internet) or Internet memes I do get odd looks, but thanks to Twitter I have connected with others doing research into this rather weird area.

That said the line between research and procrastination can become very blurred. This is something I have reflected on before in my own work, but I think it is worth noting that the Internet has a lot of potential content to distract and undermine my writing process. I have even tried using extensions to block the main websites I use to procrastinate on. Even then I find news ways to get distracted. Even writing this blog I have been flicking between songs by Aviators on Youtube. While the time you spend on social media may seem interesting or worthwhile, there is the risk that time is being wasted that could be better spent.

Don’t worry I get the irony of looking for a distraction meme while writing this blog post and it was totally worth the 10 minutes of scrolling through meme images.

Another issue with Twitter as a place to share is online debates are generally not worth having. It is difficult to tell people who really want to discuss an issue from trolls. Online debating can soak up a lot of time and the person you are discussing a topic with may simply want to get a rise out of you. My general policy with trolls on Twitter is to block them. Considering most trolls I deal with are climate sceptics, even if they were genuine rather than simply trolls, I have a zero tolerance policy towards them (don’t want to give them any platform).

The Internet is an interesting tool for researchers and there is some great benefits from embracing social media, but there are also risks. It is easy to presume how we use the Internet is how everyone else uses the Internet as the Internet is a very personalised experience. I believe there is risks with researchers getting sucked into social media too much and losing valuable time that would be better spent elsewhere, but there are also significant benefits particularly connecting with those also working in your field.

Could memes be an effective way to communicate climate change?

Memes are an interesting aspect of Internet culture. The term meme originates from Richard Dawkins in his book ‘the selfish gene’ who argued that memes were culture that is transmitted ‘brain to brain’. This was heavily contested for two key reasons. Firstly, there are issues with defining what a meme is. Secondly, we do not study culture by focusing on a single ideas, but instead culture is studied on a broader scale as ideas do not exist in isolation.

However, the term meme has been appropriated for use to describe the viral sharing of information. As a result a meme can be either a video or image that has had viral success. A popular series of memes are cat based. Below is two cat memes. The first is a variation of the ‘If I fits I sit’ meme that emerged in 2011. The second is a video meme called ‘Nyan Cat’ also from 2011 which has had at the time of writing 119,811,155 views on Youtube.

if its not for sits

These examples highlight an important issue with whether it is possible for memes to spread information about environmental issues. Internet culture is very fast moving and a key aspect of the success of an meme is a requirement that the meme is general enough to be used in a variety of ways or mutated to be used with other memes. This means novelty is an important aspect in the spread of memes. Another core aspect is that memes are often spread for entertainment or because the meme  represents a personal belief or identity.

The sharing of memes for entertainment and identity can be seen in the Brony subculture. This is the mostly male adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that emerged over 4 years ago originally on a website called 4chan. Pony memes became so popular on 4chan (reaching over 6000 posts per day) that they introduced new rules which led to the deletion and banning of pony memes. This was eventually reversed by 4chan with the creation of a pony board /MLP/.

However, pony memes have proved to have high survivability within Internet culture. At the time of writing the Knowyourmeme.com website has an image gallery of over 207 thousand pony images (far larger than any other meme image gallery on the website). This is due to the memes being created for both entertainment and also it is mutated to be used with other memes. For example the creation of pony versions of popular memes like ‘Its dangerous to go alone take this’

Due to memes being shared for entertainment it does call into question the ability for memes to be used to communicate serious issues such as climate change. While there are environmental memes shared they don’t often leave the environmental networks to be seen by a wider audience. There has been two examples I have seen that has managed to get a wider audience and both have been examples of culture jamming. Culture jamming is when you take a corporate or governmental message and subvert it.

The first example is from Greenpeace. This video was used to get people to sign up to a petition to pressure Lego to end a partnership deal with Shell. This was highly successful. The emotionally powerful video uses a depressing version of the upbeat song ‘Everything is awesome’ from the highly successful Lego movie. The success was due to the subversion of a popular song from the successful movie. This video has been viewed over 7 million times.

The second example this time aims to increase awareness of the use of palm oil in Doritos. This video is designed as a parody of adverts with a nice sharp twist ending. This has been viewed over 2 million times. However, the impact of this video is questionable. The video is funny and as a result could have been shared for the entertainment value rather than the serious environmental message that it aims to give to the viewer.

In conclusion, while there are occasional environmental memes that achieve wide viral success it is questionable the impact they have on the user. In particular, the palm oil example may simply be a success due to the entertaining nature of the video. Even then compared to other viral videos such as ‘Nyan cat’ the viewer count is relatively tiny.

The ability of memes to spread environmental information will be explored in more depth in my through a series of focus groups as part of my PhD. I plan to produce a journal article on this subject, but I will make a blog post about my findings when I have completed transcription and analysis eventually. However, the ability for memes to be an effective way to communicate climate change does seem to be very questionable.

Reflecting from the half way point – the PhD journey so far

Coming up to the half way point into my PhD so I thought it was a good time to write a reflective post about the journey so far. Writing this before my upgrade tomorrow. The upgrade is essentially a defense of your thesis so far with academics who have not supervised or even have any expertise in your field of study. Most UK PhD programs have this at either 12 months or 18 months. I produced the good quality drafts of the sections of my thesis that they wanted and I should be adequately able to defend my work so far. It should be interesting to receive feedback from other academics in the politics department.

Still a rather stressful experience, but I have some wonderful meme examples to hand if any of the academics ask anything about memes. Just the thought of explaining memes to senior academics does make me laugh. On reflection its funny how I got to this point.I have heard it said that PhD are never a straight forward process and looking back my PhD has changed so much since the beginning.

How has my research focus changed? 

When I applied for PhD funding I proposed researching into the impact of triggering events in newspaper coverage of climate change (I wrote my masters thesis focusing on one triggering event). A trigger event is just an event that causes large amounts of news coverage of climate change. For example you would expect coverage to increase for a Climate Change conference. Newspaper framing of climate change was originally what I started my PhD researching, but the PhD is not a straight forward journey.

Within the first few weeks my work shifted focus to public understanding of climate change and what impact information formats (newspapers, Television, and the Internet) had on a persons understanding. A major reason for this was that newspapers are pretty much the main focus of the vast majority of academics examining climate change communication. The Internet became a much more interesting area of study.

Image from: http://weknowmemes.com/2012/10/let-me-introduce-you-to-the-internet/ (How am I only finding this image now? I will be using this at the start of all my future talks on my research!)

Image from: http://weknowmemes.com/2012/10/let-me-introduce-you-to-the-internet/ (How am I only finding this image now? I will be using this at the start of all my future talks on my research!)

Within the first couple of months of my research the focus changed to just the Internet and the exploring the consequences that this has had to public understanding. As a result quite early on a lot of the starting literature I read was no longer within my area of interest. I still have a folder full of media framing articles from the first couple of months. However, I did fall into my area of research quite early on and it is still communication of climate change. Just a very different environment from Newspapers and engaging in a range of differing theories.

Even with the focus pinned down its still a bumpy road: 

With this focus my research slowly took shape. The focus meant that I engaged with a range of research from a variety of subjects. For example I found that researchers working in medical research had done interesting work into online communities thanks to the emergence of online patient support groups. I also engage with a lot of work in psychology research on the impact on the Internet. My first year was predominately reading and writing literature reviews. At the start I had a mind map of key areas of interest, but during the writing process its amazing how something that seemed important enough to read 10 articles on became one sentence in a literature review.

Through this long process of forming my literature reviews I did find key areas of interest such as memes, online communities, online political activism. This then informed my research design. My mixed method approach meant that I used focus groups to provide contextual information on how people engage with climate change information online. This analysis has meant that my research design for my experiments has changed again just after submitting everything for the required upgrade document, as my presumptions where challenged by my focus group findings.

I have greatly enjoyed my PhD so far. I have been lucky to have lots of opportunities to teach alongside my PhD, but that has meant balancing teaching responsibilities while also carrying out my research and taking breaks from my work to avoid burnout. Its not been a smooth ride, but I am happy where this has taken me and the research area is particularly interesting. Even if I sound totally mental to those around me when I talk about creepypasta (horror stories shared on the Internet) or popular Internet memes.

The final 18 months: 

Hopefully, the last 18 months will go smoothly. I still have a lot of work to do with the running of experiments in October. As well as having to worry about finding a post doc position/applying for grant funding and working on the draft academic articles for journal publication.

With a bit of luck the upgrade process will be a painless experience. One thing is for sure I am enjoying my PhD and it has been a wonderful experience.

Am I procrastinating or is it research?

Image from Knowyourmeme.com

Researching the impact of the Internet on the communication of climate change for my PhD has been an interesting experience. In one sense my activity online broadly can be considered research and the line between ‘work’ and procrastination does not really exist to me anymore. You never know when that hour I spent looking at an emerging meme may be used to inform a section of my thesis, a talk, or even end up an example in a publication. I do wonder how other researchers in my building see my research at times. I must look like I rarely work.  It does not help that when I give talks about my research I like to choose wonderful and weird examples from Internet culture.

So why do I research the impact of the Internet on the communication of climate change rather than just researching newspaper coverage?

The significance of the Internet? 

The Internet is significant in our daily lives and is still a relatively recent development. The virtual environment which we inhabit is significantly different from the natural world. It has changed how we engage with media from being passive to active in the creation and sharing of online content. While at the same time the Internet has absorbed every form of media and created new ways to engage and communicate. There has been large scale adoption of the Internet, but only relatively recently with the number of Internet users in the UK rapidly increasing from only 7.39 per 100 people in 1997 to 87.02 per 100 people by 2012.

Number of Internet users per 100 people: 

Data set from http://databank.worldbank.org/data/views/reports/tableview.aspx Global average is calculated by averaging the 214 countries within the data set

Data set from http://databank.worldbank.org/data/views/reports/tableview.aspx
Global average is calculated by averaging the 214 countries within the data set

The way we use the Internet has also changed from originally being an imitation of paper to the development of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 was a new phase of website design based around user interaction and user generated content, with this we saw the emergence of social media.The growing use of social media sites can be seen with examples such as Facebook which has grown from 145 million monthly users in 2008 to 1.35 billion monthly active users in September, 2014. This was rapidly adopted in particular by young people, but there has been a wide adoption of social media across society.

Example of US adoption of social media by age groups:

These changes to society are particularly interesting as anyone can produce content, but users have freedom of choice on what they view and interact with. Along with the rise of the Internet we have seen a decline in the daily circulation of UK newspapers. Despite this major societal change the vast majority of published research into climate change communication focuses on newspapers and in particular they focus on broadsheet newspapers. As a result we know little on the impact of the Internet on public engagement with climate change or how it has shaped public understanding.

So while my research may appear strange at first glance there are large gaps in the communication of climate change literature. The Internet is a significant part of our lives and how we interact with information. That said there is still times I cannot tell the difference between when I am procrastinating and doing actual research.

An Introduction: exploring the impact of the Internet upon public understanding of science

Starting this blog: 

I am a politics PhD student at the University of Exeter based at the Environment and Sustainability Institute on Penryn Campus. I have been intending to start a blog for a while now to communicate my research with a wider audience. Also to discuss some interesting examples that emerged from Internet culture that have emerged through my research. My research focuses on public understanding of science and the impact of the Internet. In particular, my work focuses on public understanding of climate change and the impact of junk information from climate sceptics.

Some of the areas that my research covers can be seen in a talk I gave at a postgraduate research conference on Penryn campus on the challenge of Internet research. The video is low quality as it was taken by a fellow PhD student with their phone. This talk was given to an audience of PhD students from a range of subject areas with the majority being from the bio sciences. So the talk was designed to be accessible and entertaining with some wonderfully weird examples from Internet culture.

Focus of this blog:

This blog will focus primarily on sharing my research and exploring interesting things that emerge from Internet culture. There will also be the occasional post on my experiences as a PhD student and teaching in the department, but the primary focus will be on Internet culture and its impact upon public understanding of science.

My main research focus on the Internet has resulted in my developing interest on memes, user generated content, and online communities. Memes are essentially anything online which has viral spread including images and videos with most people being familiar with cat memes. An example of a cat meme can be seen with Grumpy Cat (see below). Grumpy cat is a great example of this as this meme has achieved success outside the Internet with books published and even a film ‘Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever’.

Grumpy Cat meme example

Memes could potentially be shared to spread information on serious political issues, but the majority of the popular memes are spread mainly for entertainment. Memes can often be in jokes within online communities.

Another key interest I have developed is on the subject of online communities as the Internet has enabled people to set up groups surrounding any interest. This has led to health support groups being formed for patients to support each other while on the other hand communities have emerged surrounding video games. My particular interests in online communities focus on video gaming communities, such as World of Warcraft, and the Brony subculture.

The term Brony refers to an adult fan of the show My Little Pony. The majority of these fans are men. This unexpected fan base originally emerged on the website 4chan around 4 and half years ago with the reboot of the show. 4chan is best known by the majority of the public with the sharing of naked celebrity images and harassment campaigns, but the website is core to Internet culture with many memes emerging from this anonymous chaotic environment.  The Brony subculture has produced a huge quantity of user generated content from original music, mods for video games, original video games, fanfictions, animations… The Brony subculture has also produced a huge quantity of memes (see examples below). These online communities are particularly interesting to my work as the way people choose to use the Internet and social media is important to understand.

The Internet has produced a wide range of seemingly random content and online communities. This blog will as a result explores user generated content, interesting memes, and discuss online communities for the majority of posts. I will also post findings from my PhD research on the impact of the Internet upon public understanding of climate change.