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.

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.