Nov 3, 2009
Laura Bonetta wrote an excellent article for the science journal Cell recently in which she quoted various science types who use Twitter on the subject of whether or not scientists should be tweeting. It’s a topic I’ve discussed more generally regarding scientists’ use of social media and online networking communities.
Anyway, she asked my opinion on a few matters regarding twitter and quoted me at some length. But, as is the way with such articles, which I’ve experienced from all three angles now, as interviewer, interviewee, and editor, she trimmed off the fat and rind from my responses, so I asked her if she’d be happy for me to reproduce them in their unedited entirety and she was, so here they are:
As far as I can tell you are the most widely followed science-based Twitter there is. Is that right?
I’ve no way of confirming that, but of the scientwists I follow, I don’t think many of them have 5000 or more followers. With the exception of @ProfBrianCox (8000+) and @RichardWiseman (12000+), and a few others. I’m small fry, though, compared to some of the much more successful Twitter users in other niches and I don’t just mean celebrities.
What do you think makes your Twitter entries so popular?
One reason is probably my proactive approach to building up a following with whom I engage on a daily basis via Twitter and in some cases on other online networks. If you tweet and then just sit back and expect users to beat a path to your door it doesn’t work. You have to be “out there” talking to people, being useful for potential followers, drumming up interest and then continually offering something back in return. Being friendly and avoiding expletives may help too ;-)
From what I have read your tweets are all about science or science policy. Do you ever Twitter about personal things?
It’s important to have a niche, I’ve been a science writer for more than 20 years, I guess talking about science is a big part of my life. Occasionally, I’ll tweet a photo via TwitPic I’ve taken or a song I’ve recorded via SoundCloud…but in general my followers know me for the science stuff.
Few scientists Twitter and most of them are postdocs or grad students? Why are few scientists into Twitter?
Well, I created a list of scientwists that now has more than 600 members, and there are lots of science Twibes now, including my scientist Twibe (500+ members). But, those are still small numbers compared to the numbers of scientists who could join. But, I don’t think it’s just Twitter that they are not into. I’ve spoken to lots of people who either just don’t “get it” (online social networking) or if they do get it, they see it as a waste of time.
There are, however, lots of niche online services aimed directly at scientists, even these are, in general, struggling to reach critical mass. That said, LinkedIn and Twitter themselves were not overnight successes. I just wrote about this very issue of generation F scientists on my blog.
Do you think it would be valuable for more scientists to Twitter?
I think there is a lot to gain from being connected in this way. Again, there has to be a way to build a mutually beneficial following that has some purpose. Certainly, there is little point in scientists joining simply to tweet about their coffee breaks, walking holidays, or showering schedule. However, if they wish to share their successes and failures in the lab, swap useful information and tips, or seek advice, then Twitter could be a useful way to do that.
Is the 140-character limit a good or bad thing for disseminating scientific information?
It’s a double-edged sword. The majority of my tweets are pointers to other resources, so there’s a headline, an enticement in other words, and a link to the resource. You don’t need more than 140-characters for that; and it still leaves room for someone to retweet it. However, you cannot have a decent, full-blown, high-level discussion via text message and Twitter is just the same. A lot of scientists recognise that and use FriendFeed as an “uber-twitter” instead.
Do you think Twitter could have an important role in science?
Well, it already does in a limited way. Certainly, I have heard about some scientific discoveries first on Twitter. It also occasionally throws up a truly unique viewpoint on a discovery or theory that can be stimulating for my writing and presumably could do the same for scientists reading those tweets too. The apparent spontaneity and brevity helps, but you have to keep up with a lot of streams to find the nuggets.
What is its value to you?
Fame and fortune! No, seriously, I just find it fun to use and it provides another way to let people know about what I’ve written and so get them reading my words. What more could a science writer ask? Also, as a writer, it’s yet another outlet through which I can express myself as and when the urge arises.
You also have a blog. How do you choose what’s a blog or Twitter-type entry? How do the two media differ?
I’m not sure I know what you mean. I blog about scientific discoveries, policy etc, and also point to my published work on other sites, I try to be unique in what I blog about, so there would be no choice between blogging or tweeting something. I don’t write blog entries with Twitter in mind, I write them with the reader in mind, and I rarely change the way I write a headline to suit Twitter, if I do it’s only to shorten it by a word or two.
The headlines from my blog are automatically fed to my Twitter account using the WordTwit plugin for WordPress. I hope they will act as a springboard for readers to jump to the blog. I also use a plugin called ChatCatcher, which pulls in comments people make about a post on Twitter and FriendFeed and ties them to the post in question.
How do you choose whom to follow?
Now, that’s a whole new can of worms to open. I no longer actively seek out new people to follow, although if I comes across someone interesting elsewhere I will usually follow them on Twitter. However, when someone new follows me, I do try to check out their bio, their website and their most recent tweets. If those things are of interest, then I’ll follow back.
I created a tongue-in-cheek Twitter decision flowchart that is actually semi-serious to reveal my thought processes and seems to gel with a lot of readers. Mostly, it’s about filtering out spammers, cranks, and selfish marketers.