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

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.

Am I procrastinating or is it research?

Image from

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 Global average is calculated by averaging the 214 countries within the data set

Data set from
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.