Among the far-reaching scientific consequences of the U.S. government shutdown has been the disabling of NASA’s Twitter feeds, including those of the agency’s astronauts and the Mars Curiosity rover. While social networking might be more popularly associated with desperate attention seekers and pictures of cats, many researchers and journalists have turned to Twitter and other services to spread the word about the amazing world of science.
One such group of researchers administers the feed @RealScientists, a rotational account that features a different scientist or science communicator each week. Conceived by Bernard Kealey and currently run by @theotherdrsmith, @ScienceSarah, and @upulie, the feed promotes the concept that Twitter offers one of the best ways of “communicating directly with the end-users of your research — the people who paid for it, one way or another.” The account’s constantly changing curators have exposed followers to fields as diverse as medical entomology, biogeography, and marine biology.
Marisa Wikramanayake (@mwikramanayake), a science journalist and editor from Fremantle, Australia, is the current curator of @RealScientists. She graciously agreed to be interviewed about the Twitter feed and the role social media plays in science communication.
Sword of Science: What exactly does @realscientists do?
Marisa Wikramanayake: Real Scientists tries to educate and inform people about what it is actually like to be a scientist and carry out research in different areas of science. There are a lot of stereotypes, from lab coats to Einstein hair and mad scientist genius, and a lot of scientists are pretty cool people, but they are nowhere near those stereotypes. And there is a sense that people don’t really know what is involved in scientific research. The account aims to correct that, and of course allow the rest of the science community a peek behind their coworker’s lab door.
SoS: What are the most effective ways you’ve seen social media used to promote science?
MW: I do think Real Scientists is effective in what it does. I also think that there are quite a few good YouTube series as well; SciShow and CrashCourse are two of them. People run really cool science-related photo competitions online on Facebook, and Instagram and Flickr have open groups for people to add their science-related photos. I know some scientists who are fantastic at using Twitter, and there is one huge community (128,000+ strong) on Google Plus disseminating news about events and science in an easily digestible form within the community.
SoS: Do the various social media platforms differ in terms of science promotion?
MW: Well, yes and no. Each social media platform is built to do one or two things well, and it mostly has to do with 1) creating content and 2) sharing it. If you create content on one then you can share it on others or attempt to cross post it, so it depends. If you create a video on Youtube, the link can be posted anywhere.
You can use different kinds of promotion if you know what your goal in doing so is and you know where to find your target audience, but it would involve using channels differently. You would use YouTube, Instagram, and Vine as means of creating content that can then be shared around later. You would follow media on Twitter if you were interested in promoting research, sharing content, and answering questions. Networking would be best done on Twitter, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, and Google Plus. Deciding on your primary goal is key.
SoS: How will traditional science journalism and social media coexist moving forward?
MW: Traditional science journalism was text and a photo in a paper or online, and with social media you can get science journalism where one piece works across different platforms. You can have text online with video and photos, then add timelines from apps like Storify and Timeline JS and graphs and tables. You can have podcasts, and then you can share it all on platforms like Twitter. That’s how I see it working — a convergence of usual journalism practice with the ability to try all sorts of things with the social media platforms available. I also think it will lead us to do more feature pieces analyzing the science, discussing the history of a field or process, or talking about the larger issues around science.
SoS: What are the best social media accounts for readers with a general interest in science to follow?
MW: I mentioned quite a few of them before. SciShow is great if you want more than the basics that CrashCourse teaches you, in terms of YouTube series, and there are easily more if you search for them. The Science on G+ community is 128,000+ strong, and therefore very useful. @RealScientists on Twitter (of course) is a fantastic means of seeing what really does take place. There are Reddit communities and Facebook groups and Twitter hashtag chats — #agrichat is one of them and #scicomm another. There are groups that recommend science books on apps and platforms like Goodreads. It seems that everywhere you look, there is another place to learn something.