Twitter and #scicomm: the good egg?

Science communication is a form of outreach, presenting scientific topics to non-experts… but, can we count on this role in the world of the Twittersphere? Let’s talk about #scicomm

The rise of social media and the shift towards sharing has led to a completely new world of communication… and one that should be exploited. On Twitter, the 140 character limit, whilst irritating for those of us that are characteristically more verbose (yes, every one of my school reports damned me to being a waffler), means you have to make an impact with short sharp, often quirky, couple of sentences to entice people in. (Good practice for publication titles if there ever was one?)

Twitter seems to have this way of feeling connected to others; you’re sharing perspectives with people across the globe. Whilst scientists of all ages are taking to tweeting, there is a huge mass market of young, fresh, excitable people that thrive (and probably quite honestly live) on a social media platform… and isn’t a key part of science communication to inspire younger generations? At 24, I enjoy being able to engage with anyone from marine biology lecturers in Florida to BBC wildlife photographers in the Antarctic. I do not think that I would have this chance as easily without this tool – Twitter removes the gatekeepers and opens up the vast realms of science.

Even during this last  week, I’ve seen the most amazing fieldwork opportunity from @admistscience whilst @sciencegurlz, within the last hour, tweeted about how she didn’t think she’d be doing half of the research she would if it wasn’t for twitter. Amongst a long list of ‘What Twitter Can Be Used For’ examples (this is exactly how not to do a short snappy title), it can foster interdisciplinary collaborations, allow you to ask a wealth of trusted experts for advice and answers, introduce you to articles and papers you would never have thought to stumble upon, see breaking science news as it happens, be used as an educational tool for teaching, display science in different mediums that may be easier to comprehend and quite honestly my favourite reason: it allows scientists to show an element of humour and diversity in a sometimes quite serious arena.

I’ve posted about the science hashtag trends that tend to appear before. Since then, it’s only snowballed. Following one of these trends will give you more insight into the variety of science out there than you can imagine, completely with often fantastic fieldwork photos from every corner of the world and humorous (and harmless) trashtalk between researchers (see @AnneWHilborn vs. baboon-gate here).

A selection here:
#wildbum

I blogged about this at the time, check out my #wildbum awards. This quite curious hasthtag was born and proved that scientists are not just a bunch of oddballs that enjoy staring down microscopes and throwing chemicals into beakers to see what explodes. They like to spend their time starting twitter bum-puns.

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#tech4wildlife

This showcased the ingenious technological devices and implements we use to understand the world we live in. Quite frankly obsessed with animal movement technologies, this was my favourite, african wild-dogs.

#sexyautotrophs

To be honest, I was mighty proud of my contribution. Doing it for team algae…

#fieldworkfail

As one of the first trends I saw developing, this one opened my eyes to all sorts of catastrophes and sticky situations you can expect from scientists. I thought being smacked round the face by a massive all-muscle broodstock salmon was bad enough, or headbutting a jellyfish on entry to the watwer…well, try some of these for perspective:

  • When a harmless wilderwee turns into being stalked by a jaguar @AngelaBayonaV
  • One rather disorientated equid (complete with photo) @CarrieCizauskas
  • A hedgehog gets it’s own-back for the makeover – @estheraceae
  • One I really do not envy, sinking boat and crocodiles – @AgataStaniewicz
  • Swallowing your evidence (I dare you not to laugh outloud) – @tattoosandbones
#HERpers

This trend was another fun-filled-feminist tag, despite sounding a little like an unwanted disease, showing the stunning variety of nature’s own herpetology department in the hands of women. One of the best trends I’ve seen, it went on for days, with more and more women demonstrating their little scaly friends. In fact, social media has enabled an increasingly open dialogue of sexism in science.

 

Twitter was ablaze with #shirtstorm hashtags when a male scientist at ESA wore a Hawaiian-esque shirt full of bikini-clad women to the Rosetta landing day in 2014, then the Tim Hunt trouble with girls fiasco arrived provoked the #distractinglysexy, and more recently Geoffrey Marcy was found to have sexually harassed female underlings for over a decade. These media frenzies can be sudden and unpredictable, and seems to whip up a sense of solidarity for women, there seems to be people that have your back. Particularly for younger researchers  who don’t know the best way to respond to sexism or sexual harrashment, twitter can be an outlet, or a method of finding help.

Twitter can help build a sense of community among scientists, but like any good thing however, it must be treated with respect, especially with an audience about 320million tweeters. Unfortunately, I have seen sometimes the dark side of Twitter. Whilst there are these wonderful daily displays of comradery, such as the ongoing #womeninstem theme that tends to draw me in, there are also cases where a rare sinister mob mentality emerges. Whilst what causes this hashtag activism is not easily determined – the catalyst seems to me to be a strong emotional reaction. Take #cecilthelion for a mild example, whilst hunters kill many lions each year in Zimbabwe, this one animals death led to 1.2million tweets led by celebrities in outrage. True, he was a special rare black mane lion, one of the last one of the kind, and he was wearing a tracking device around his neck, but he was also a well-known, charismatic, flagship megafauna famed for it’s strength and hierachy in the animal kingdom – and this is in part attributed to why the story went so viral. You would struggle to find a more emotion-led response than that to a hunter killing this magnificent creature… with a rifle.

Nevertheless in the world of science, the wrong hashtag bandwagon to jump aboard can have grave consequences. Without going into too much detail, a PLOSONE paper about the mechanics of the hand was retracted, for including phrases about “the mystery of the creator’s design”. One atheist asserted it was creationism in a scientific journal, twitter exploded at the revelation, and subsequently the paper was withdrawn. All over an innocent translation error, which was actually meant to reference the mystery of “nature’s design”? (If you want a more full account, check out @dr24hours post here). I’m not going to even begin to try and tackle the other can of worms that atheism and science must be as one, but rather that this example showed a wildly gang-like side of twitter that must be avoided. It was a simple translation mistake.

A faux-pas with not so serious consequences was my Dad, who accidentally signed himself up to 8 weeks in Japan instead of the desired two, due to an mistake in translation. As a lecturer who doesn’t eat seafood at all in a country like Japan, safe to say he was craving a bacon sandwich upon his (longer than expected) return.

Anyhow my point in all of this being, science communication will not function without support, respect and cooperation. A double edged sword when handled carefully it is a powerful way of engaging people.

I feel that a crucial underlying principle of science is to share theories, nurture concepts and cultivate ideas. Furthermore, we need to engage younger tweeters to be interested in the weird, the wonderful and the aspects of science they may not normally be in contact with – as a marine biologist; I never thought I’d be so damn obsessed with how cloud forests are faring in climate change. Thus, despite some caveats, the science Twittersphere is critical for #sciencecommunication and is an incredibly powerful tool for encouraging multi-discipline conversations, and is a way of public education and widespread outreach in an era of the ever-expanding online world.

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