Science and social media: New tools, new ways to talk?

As the panelists convened for the session on social media, it was only fitting that two NASW graduate fellows were already seated in the second row twittering away. But the question on the minds of many in the room was: Are these new tools a revolutionary way to communicate, or are they just a distraction?

 

As the panelists convened for the session on social media, it was only fitting that two NASW graduate fellows were already seated in the second row twittering away. But the question on the minds of many in the room was: Are these new tools a revolutionary way to communicate, or are they just a distraction?

Moderator Merry Bruns, a content strategist and web writing trainer at ScienceSites Communications, began the session at ScienceWriters 2008 in October in Palo Alto with such skepticism by asking "How much is a fashion statement and how much is actually useful to us?" For Bruns, the job of the science writer is to communicate science to the public, so the key question to ask is whether Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and, yes, Twitter, are going to help us achieve that.

Craig Stoltz, a former health editor at the Washington Post who now is a reviewer for Healthnewsreview.org and runs the blog Web2.Oh . . . Really?, reminisced about the old days of journalism — the late 1990s, in fact — when many readers still picked up a copy of the morning paper and read it from the first section to the last. Today, he said, the social ecology of journalism has changed. He pulled up a network diagram revealing the ways web users hop from the website of a news organization to a scientific journal and on to the "Random loudmouth," "Multimedia Raconteur" and finally to a "Viagra ad: Free samples!" "People are not finding content in vertical silos," Stoltz said, "Increasingly, the distribution comes in from the side doors: links and Rss readers. The idea that people respond to a publication and use it in a way that's similar is wrong."

He laid out three tactics in his "Beginner's guide to thriving in the new social ecology of journalism."

  1. Write in a way that is friendly for the new ecology. Use keywords in headlines and first paragraphs and "blurb with brilliance."
  2. Distribute your stuff. Use social bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us and the journalist-friendly Publish2. Post comments on blogs that link to your story. "Don't abuse this," he warned, but try to "extend the online conversation."
  3. Practice Link Journalism. This means acknowledging that people are coming in from "side doors" and may want to leave via "side doors." You don't just want to provide readers with a list of links produced by an algorithm, but help them discover insightful links that extend the story or make a different point.

Next up were Andy Fell and Susanne Rockwell of the University of California, Davis News Service. For the last two years, Fell has been running the university's Egghead blog, which brings together a variety of media produced by the press office. He primarily uses the blog to re-purpose material from news releases, incorporating and commenting on the resulting media coverage and linking them to earlier releases. He has also experimented with letting professors post guest commentaries, and occasionally throws in a little whimsy, such as a photo of an abort button at the Large Hadron Collider that advises "In case of imminent world destruction: break glass and push CMS abort button."

Rockwell is the new media editor and handles the university's Facebook profile, YouTube page, iTunes U site, and updates links to on-site and off-site blogs for faculty and other members of the university community. The Facebook site has 5,600 fans, and users view 1,000 photos a week that have been taken by the university's staff photographer. The YouTube page nets 5,000 views a month. But Rockwell said that the aim is not just maximizing page views but to go for "the long tail" and find the "small intensely interested audience that benefits you."

In spite of his adept use of social media, even Fell admitted he has not jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. "I'm too old for Twitter," he said, "It just doesn't appeal to me."

Brendan Borrell is a correspondent for The Scientist and writes for publications in including Smithsonian, Natural History and Scientific American.com. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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