At the 2018 conference of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, I was part of a lunchtime workshop, “The How and Why of Tweeting Science” – along with 5 friends. Here I’ll share my slides and commentary. I hope the other presenters will do the same, and I’ll link to them here as they become available.
I’ve been active on Twitter for about 4 years, but I’m very far from an expert, so my contribution to #CSEETweetShop was more to raise questions than to answer them. What does it mean to “tweet to the science community”? Here I’ll share some thoughts about Twitter audience, content, and voice. These are, of course, my own (roughly formed) opinions, not some kind of wisdom on stone tablets, so take them with the requisite grain of salt!
Just as we do with blogging, we can draw a distinction between two audiences we might intend to reach via Twitter. We might use Twitter for outreach, to talk to the general public – we could call this “science-communication tweeting”. Or we could use Twitter for “inreach”, to talk to other scientists – which is what I’d call “science-community tweeting”. But: for a couple of reasons, this distinction is not as clear as you might thing. Or at least, your intent to reach one audience or the other may not match the outcome.
There are some data on the topic of scientists’ Twitter audiences. The data in the slide above come from a recent paper by Isabelle Coté and Emily Darling. They’re for a sample of 110 faculty members in ecology and evolution, for whom audiences are broken down by their relationship (if any) to science. The key result: most ecology and evolution faculty on Twitter have audiences dominated by other scientists (light blue), with the general public (dark blue) a significant but more modest chunk. There’s variation, some of which may well relate to the tweeters’ intended audiences – but we can draw two fairly clear conclusions:
- Nearly all of us tweet mostly to the science community; but
- Almost none of us tweets only to the science community (or for that matter only to the general public).
The same paper analyzes follower composition as a function of audience size, and these data suggest that one’s audience is likely to change it builds. Notice how the dark-blue “general public” line lags behind, then catches, the light-blue “other scientists” line*. Earlier in your Twitter career, it’s likely that your audience will be even more strongly dominated by the science community – whether or not that’s what you intend.
In short: you probably can’t pick the audience you’re talking to; but you can pick the audience you’re talking for. Given that, how might you use Twitter to talk for the science community?
Science twitter defies easy characterization. You’ll find just about anything you can imagine there, and plenty you probably couldn’t have imagined too. But in my presentation I offered a few examples of common themes on science-community Twitter.
Most obviously: we use Twitter to talk about research. We might use Twitter to announce the publication of our own papers (as I do here), or we might use Twitter to talk about someone else’s paper (as Francesco Santini does here). Over at Dynamic Ecology, readers were recently surveyed on what filtering mechanisms people use to find papers to read. 60% of respondents indicated that they read papers found via Twitter. There’s also evidence (discussed in Alex Smith’s contribution to the workshop) that tweeting papers succeeds in making them more broadly read and more highly cited.
Of course, if you tweet a links to papers, you can also tweet links to other kinds of online resources. I showed a tweet linking to one of my blog posts (about choosing a journal to submit your paper) – but even during our workshop, we used scheduled tweeting** with the hashtag #CSEETweetShop to offer links to the resources on our slides (Coté and Darling’s paper, displayed tweets, and so on).
Science-community Twitter also features lots of discussion of what I might call the “culture of science” – how we do all the many things we do, as scientists. In the example on the slide: how should a prospective grad student choose a supervisor? But you’ll find discussion of granting strategies, writing tips, publication strategies, teaching methods – you name it. We use Twitter to ask for, and to offer, advice – which is great, because things of this sort can be very mysterious to an early-career scientist. At least, they to early-career me!
We can also use science-community Twitter to draw attention to problems in science, or to call out people or organizations behaving badly. Here’s a great recent example of doing this effectively: the tweet that recently got RateMyProfessor.com to ditch their awful “chili pepper” hotness rating. Of course, it wasn’t just this tweet that killed the chili pepper: it was people retweeting, and liking, and replying, and amplifying in other media brought uncomfortable attention to RateMyProfessor. This doesn’t always work… but it often does. (Good riddance to the chili pepper.)
Science-community Twitter can also be a support network. In the example I used, someone expressed worry about their career, and someone took a moment to be kind and supportive. This might sound trivial. It isn’t. Science is hard. People who care, and show they care, and offer help, make it easier.
Finally: science-community Twitter can be fun. There’s nothing wrong with fun – but no, that’s too weak. Fun is important. If Erica McAlister’s taxidermied octopus tweet can bring a smile to someone between difficult meetings, that’s a real improvement in all of our lives.
Now, any time you’re in the business of communication, you should be shaping what you say to fit the needs of your audience (one important message, by the way, of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing). That’s definitely true on Twitter. Here are two tweets about the recommendations of the Naylor Report, a recent major review of Canada’s fundamental science funding and infrastructure. One is aimed at the science community; the other is aimed at the general public.
These two tweets make similar points, but they’re very different. Tweets intended to reach science-community vs. general-public audiences will differ in vocabulary, provision of context, the angle taken on the subject. One can even think about whether a subject itself is appropriate – for instance, tweets about the dumbness of Reviewer 2 are kind of fun in the science community, but make little sense for (or to) the general public.
But: remember the Coté and Darling data. Are you sure you know who your Twitter audience is? I think of myself as primarily tweeting to other scientists. But my uncle follows me***. And so does a science-fiction writer in Texas, and a gardener in Wales, and so on. No matter what our intended audience, we’re mostly tweeting to multiple audiences; and so you should really assume that what you tweet is both inreach and outreach. This, I think, is a good thing: it makes the practice of science open and visible to the public. Science shouldn’t be something mysterious, done in secret in the ivory tower – it can be there for anyone to watch.
Every communicator has a “voice”, and whether you shape one deliberately or not, you’ll have an identifiable voice on science-community Twitter. What I mean by that is that people who follow you will integrate across your tweets, observe what you tweet about and the language and tone you use, and come away with an impression of your attitude, of your personality, of what’s important to you. What should your voice be?
I don’t know the answer to that, of course. There are a lot of different voices out there (and that’s probably a good thing). But I’ve thought a bit about my own voice. Twitter can be a place for tearing things down – and sometimes, that needs doing. But the very best of science-community Twitter, to me, is building people up. And I want my “voice” to be about building up. So I tweet positive things more often than negative ones, try to recognize accomplishments more than I voice complaints. Sometimes, that means I don’t join in the shaming of something that deserves to be thoroughly shamed. I don’t know if this is right.
I also engage rather rarely with angry people and trolls. I almost never subtweet (refer disapprovingly to someone else without directly replying or quoting them). I never “dunk” (quote-tweet snarkily or disapprovingly, like this anonymized tweet on the slide above). I particularly dislike dunking. I feel like if the tweet in question is really obnoxious, then I’d just be giving it more attention while posturing about my own virtue – neither half of which makes me happy. And if I only disagree with the tweet, or misunderstand it, then I feel like I’ll just look mean. I don’t want to look (or be) mean.
My thoughts on voice may not be right for you. (Among other important caveats I’d point to the boxed footnote on the slide above.) But I hope my Twitter “voice” is on balance a positive one. I like interacting with others who are the same. Sometimes on science-community Twitter the chorus of people being “excited” and “honoured” about everything can seem a bit stilted and awkward – but it’s stilted and awkward in a good way. Science is hard. I’m not sure it’s ever wrong to be kind.
Part of voice is personality, and that brings me to an issue on which I’ve completely reversed my position. When I started on Twitter, I resolved that I was there for science, and I’d just tweet science. No tweets about the mystery I’m reading, the hike I’m taking, or the new dish I made for supper. I now think that was a big mistake. Sticking strictly to science sacrifices an opportunity. If you let your humanity show (on Twitter or anywhere else), you can tell people that science isn’t a closed-off secret thing; and scientists aren’t some kind of arcane priesthood, cold and emotionless in our lab coats. We’re just people – people you might see and talk to on the beach, or at the grocery store, or on the golf course. That’s a healthy message, because we need people to identify with science and scientists so they understand how science is built right into society. It’s also a way to help recruit and retain people in science. I’m now a big fan of initiatives like #ScientistsWhoSelfie or #ThisIsWhatAScientistLooksLike. I still don’t tweet my supper… but I let more of my life show.
Am I overthinking the whole Twitter voice thing? Maybe. But social media play an interesting role in our community, and I think a little thought about that is useful. Social media have to some extent broadened the set of people who are listened to. It’s not just senior PIs now who have audiences – and that’s definitely a healthy thing.
Whether you have a big audience or a small one, anyone who tweets can be a leader, using Twitter to be a force for good. As your audience builds, though, you might find yourself thinking more about this. A large audience is power of a sort, and any kind of power brings with it responsibility. So as my own audience has built, I’ve found myself thinking about whether I’m using that power responsibly. Am I amplifying the right people? Am I supporting positive social change? Am I punching up, not down, if I’m punching at all? How could I do all this better? I’m not all convinced I’ve mastered this, myself, so in the workshop I offered two examples of people I think have: Morgan Jackson and Jacquelyn Gill. They’re only two examples, of course, and you’ll probably be able to think of your own.
Does all this talk about voice and responsibility leave you feeling stressed? Is being on Twitter a huge obligation, one you have to work tirelessly at getting right? I don’t think you should panic. You don’t have to be perfect all the time. Nobody is.
Everyone says something dumb on Twitter eventually. Yes, some people on Twitter are very fast to jump on a mistake, and they can jump on it quickly and hard. If you’re the one you jump on, it’s not fun. But you can, of course, ignore the jumpers-on. (After, of course, fixing the mistake.)
Thinking about what happens if you tweet something dumb should suggest a converse bit of thinking. What if you see someone else tweet something dumb? My suggestion is this: if they do it once, give them the benefit of the doubt; it’s probably just a mistake. If they do it twice, give them the benefit of the doubt again; being a little bit dense is human. Now, if they do it three times, perhaps you can assume malice. But you can make your science-community Twitter experience what you want it to be, by unfollowing or muting the purveyor of malice. There are plenty of other great folks out there to follow and interact with.
So: science-community Twitter can be rewarding; it can be a force for good; and it can reach interesting audiences. Once upon a time I was very dismissive about the value of Twitter. I was wrong.
© Stephen Heard July 31, 2018
*^The other defined groups include media (green), applied organizations (light brown), science-outreach organizations and professionals (dark brown), and decision-makers such as politicians (lilac). All of these appear only later, as audience builds.
**^Using Tweetdeck, which is very kludgy, so if you know of a better tool for scheduling tweets, please please pretty please tell us in the Replies.
***^Well, technically, he follows my blog, not my Twitter feed, but the point is the same. (Hi, Uncle Jim!)