Interviews by Daniela Hernandez (@danielaphd)
Scientists are communicators who tell stories about nature based on observable and reproducible evidence. The most successful scientists are able to adjust how they tell these stories depending on their audience, and they’re able to convey why their findings are important. As social media becomes increasingly pervasive, more scientists are taking note. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and the like, represent new ways to tell these stories. They also allow researchers to stay abreast of new information, whether it’s the findings of colleagues, funding opportunities, conference deadlines or talks, etc.
Twitter in particular represents a controversial entity among scientists, primarily due to the brevity of the posts. We’ve found that many investigators don’t understand the value it provides, or even how to use it. We therefore talked with some scientists who use Twitter to investigate how and why they use the site. This is the first of three installments. Check back each week for the remaining interviews.
Andrew David Thaler (Postdoctoral Fellow, Duke University Marine Lab)
Andrew David Thaler — or @sfriedscientist as he’s known on Twitter — studies population and conservation genetics of the deep sea. He’s one of a growing list of scientists who are active on social media. Thaler uses social media to alert people about the issues he is passionate about, among them deep-sea hydrothermal vent endemic invertebrates and backyard farming. He knows the merits of social media well, and is quick to say that tools like Twitter and Facebook work because they make communicating easier.
“Any tool that’s going to make conversation easier people are going to use,” he told Quartzy. He has some tips for people just starting out on social networks, along with insights about how Twitter is helping make scientists more accessible to the public. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Q: How do you use Twitter and social media to keep up with science?
ADT: I follow the scientists that I like to talk to and see what they’re publishing. It’s all conversationally driven, so it’s about following the right people. I use Twitter just to update everyone following me on whatever is going on in my life and what events I’m doing and stuff like that.
Q: How often do you tweet?
ADT: Daily. An average of 5-20 tweets a day.
Q: Do you have any advice for people just starting out?
ADT: You have to invest some time. Find a few bigger names on Twitter and see who they follow, see who they retweet. Your network tends to grow naturally from there. There’s no easy “do this” and then Twitter will be great. It’s a process.
Q: Who do you follow?
ADT: At this point, most of the people I follow are my friends and colleagues – people I’ve met in person either through the big ScienceOnline conference that happens every year or people I already know. It’s the same as having a conversation you have with anyone you know from work.
Q: Do you discuss experiments or to troubleshoot protocols?
ADT: Yes, of course. If there is an issue I’m having in the lab, and there’s someone I follow on Twitter that has the [pertinent] skillset, I’ll ask them. It’s not really different from asking someone I know down the hall or someone I know through email. It’s sending them a message.
Q: Is there an advantage of doing it through Twitter versus sending an email?
ADT: It’s easier to reach people sometimes. These are just networks. Twitter is not some magical thing that’s better or worse than having a conversation. Some of my friends are more active on Twitter and more easy to get a hold of there. Some are more active through Facebook or email or some of the other social networks. You just use the tool that’s best for reaching a certain person.
Q: Do you use it to reach out to potential students or staff?
ADT: No. I don’t do any advertising on Twitter. I use regular advertising boards for that.
Q: Do you use social media to connect with colleagues at conferences?
ADT: It depends on the conference. There has to be a critical mass of Twitter users at a conference for it to be useful, but it’s really good for coordinating large groups of people. If a conference is using a hashtag, you can collect everyone who’s paying attention to that hashtag and say hey, we’re going down to this restaurant if anyone wants to join us. It’s a good way of coordinating actions of large groups of people without sending out thousands and thousands of text messages.
Q: Do you think social media is changing the way the public views scientists?
ADT: I think it’s making scientists more accessible. Twitter seems to be a less formal medium so people are more willing to shoot a message to a scientist they know on Twitter and ask them questions they normally wouldn’t if they had to contact them by phone, email or letter. I talk a lot about deep-sea conservation on Twitter and interact with lots of people who aren’t scientists through that. Because it’s an issue that lots of people haven’t heard of, I’m usually the first point of contact for questions about that issue.
Q: Do you have Twitter Q&A’s for your followers to ask you questions?
ADT: Not really. I don’t like the structured Twitter Q&A’s. I’d just rather talk to people when they have questions.
Q: What’s the most interesting piece of science-related content you’ve shared on social?
ADT: I really like expedition-style tweeting. So Twitter is really good if you’re out in the field. This February I was out on a research cruise in the Caymans, and we were continuously posting content from that cruise –pictures of the deep sea and updates about the research. We started posting pictures of garbage that we were finding in the sea floor at 5,000 meters. We got a lot of people following us from that. People were really surprised that in these places where no one had ever been before there was already trash there.
Q: What kind of responses did you get?
ADT: People who directly follow me had seen the stuff I post, so they weren’t as surprised, but it got retweeted a lot and spread around and we got contacted by a lot of journalists. It got picked up by a lot of major news outlets so that was a case where the stuff we were doing kind of bled over to the mainstream media, which was nice to see.
Q: Do you think that’s easier because of social?
ADT: It’s hard to tell. We reach out to journalists through social media and regular networks too. I don’t know if it’s easier or if it’s harder because there’s more information being dumped at them.
Q: How do you use your blog network to let other people?
ADT: I don’t blog about my own research. I’m more interested in getting people aware of basic issues of the deep sea. My research is a little too specialized at the moment so my blog doesn’t really feature my research too much.
Q: Apart deep-sea issues, what other stuff do you share?
ADT: I do a lot of backyard farming. I talk to people about how to set up backyard farms and how to manage small livestock.
Q: What kind of tips do you give them?
ADT: Sometimes just very basic stuff like how to build a chicken coop, how to set up a fence, how to raise chicken from eggs, how to take care of goats. We do small scale gardening too, but our yard isn’t that big.
Q: How do you set up a chicken coop?
ADT: Well, there’s an instructions set on my blog! There are directions and CAD files on how to build it. There’s not a simple process, but if you’ve got a circular saw and a good drill, and a nice free weekend, it’s not too hard to put together.
Q: Anything else you want to add?
ADT: Tools like Facebook, Twitter and all the different social media, they’re just new tools for communicating. What happens on them is really not different from how we talk to people in regular life too. People seem to think it’s that Twitter is an internet tool that makes it cool, and really it’s because it facilitates good conversation. [That’s] why these things are useful and why people like them and use them. I think the technology is secondary to that.