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.

#Gamergate – the gaming community, feminism, and online hate campaigns

In this blog I’m going to focus on the hate campaign against women working in video games that emerged back in August, 2014 with the #Gamergate hashtag. This example is particularly interesting as a unfortunate consequence of online communities and the awful hate campaigns that the Internet can be used to carry out.

Online communities and hate campaigns: 

One of the great things that the Internet has brought us is online communities. The restrictions of time and distance are removed allowing users to connect with others all over the world with the same interests as themselves. Whether it is online communities for the LGBT community, fans of a television show, or people who share an interest in a video game there is an online community out there for your interests. Even better they can empower groups for example in healthcare the Internet has enabled patients to become empowered with support groups sharing information, emotional support and giving a place to discuss health issues.

Personally, I am in regular contact with friends in the US I made playing Minecraft around 4 years ago. The Internet has had a significant impact on our social lives with online friendships and being able to talk about interests that interest you but no one else you interact with in your day to day life. Online communities can be a wonderful thing in our lives, but there are also negative consequences.

One of the issues with the Internet is the quantity of information and choice available to users, which results in users limiting the amount of media stimuli they are subjected to. This is through personalisation of their Internet usage with users selecting the information that they see and spending their time only on areas of their interest. This is something we all do.

However, a consequence of this can be the reinforcement of extremist views. If someone who already held sexist views can connect with others who hold the same values and these online communities act as echo chambers reinforcing these beliefs. An example can be seen in the online groups of the MRM [Men’s Rights Movement].

Unfortunately, within the online communities surround video gaming there are some embedded with racist, misogynistic, and homophobic beliefs that have become the dominant discourse in these communities. Not all video gaming communities suffer from these issues, but the consequences of online communities that hold these values is that they will attack and attempt to silence criticism.

An example could be seen with the hate campaign targeted at Anita Sarkeesian. This hate campaign emerged as a response to a Kickstarter campaign started by Anita Sarkeesian which asked for $6,000 to fund a video series examining female representations in video games.

The attack against Anita Sarkessian was both direct messages and vandalism of her online pages including. This included rape and death threats which she still continues to receive. There have been threats made at public events where she was a speaker. There were images were posted of her being raped by video game characters and there was even a flash game which allowed players to “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” by clicking a picture of her until it turned into a bloody pulp.

‘Game’ created by Ben Spurr. New Statesman had a good article on the abuse Anita Sarkeesian received online. http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/internet/2012/07/what-online-harassment-looks

Despite the threats and attacks Anita Sarkessian was successful with her Kickstarter campaign receiving much more money than she originally asked. Rather than silencing criticism the harassment highlighted the issues in video gaming culture and produced a huge amount of publicity for her project. At the same time highlighted the issue of sexism within the gamer culture.

Gamergate:

A couple of years after the harassment campaign against Anita Sarkessian in August of 2014 there was the emergence of Gamergate. Gamergate started with a harassment campaign against a video game developer called Zoe Quinn. This began with Zoe Quinn’s ex boyfriend posting a long (nearly 10,000 words in length) blog post which accused her of having a relationship with a video games journalist.

Now a long rambling ranting blog post by an ex boyfriend became viral. The hashtag #gamergate emerged on Twitter and received huge amounts of attention. Gamergate made an attempt to appear to be about ‘ethics in video game journalism’. However, a harassment campaign began with the spamming of negative reviews on her game ‘Depression Quest’ on Steam.

Zoe Quinn's game 'Depression Quest' was spammed with negative

Zoe Quinn’s game ‘Depression Quest’ was spammed with negative reviews

There were death and rape threats made and a pattern of harassment that took place very similar to what Anita Sarkessian went through.

Those who stood up for Zoe Quinn on social media also received harassment and video game websites that took a stand against Gamergate had letter writing campaigns targeting their advertisers to try to damage the income these websites depended upon. Another developer who was the victim of harassment was Brianna Wu who became a target when she criticised Gamergate on Twitter. Death and rape threats and her address was shared online – link to a twitter post showing some of the harassment but be warned its deeply disturbing.

Gamergate received international news coverage due to the online harassment of women in the video game industry and the attempt to cover members true intentions with a discourse of ‘ethics in video game journalism’ has failed. Instead Gamergate will simply be remember as another Internet harassment campaign.

In conclusion: 

The harassment campaign against Anita Sarkessian and the Gamergate harassment campaign highlight the darker side of online communities and also the embedded sexism within some of the online video gaming community. In both occasions those participating within the online harassment have simply highlighted the sexism embedded in some of the video game online communities.  It is deeply disturbing the scale and long term nature these online hate campaigns can achieve.

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.