The secret life of social media: New rules for science writers

Just dipping a toe in the rapidly changing social media stream is often intimidating. Newbies wonder, "Will the information flow drag me under? Are there trolls lurking ahead? Why should I even bother?"  

Just dipping a toe in the rapidly changing social media stream is often intimidating. Newbies wonder, "Will the information flow drag me under? Are there trolls lurking ahead? Why should I even bother?" To help writers understand how social media works, and why they should use these tools, panelist Davis Harris provided a breakdown of social networking sites during a session on social media at ScienceWriters 2009. "As science writers, our trade is information," said Harris, founding editor in chief of Symmetry magazine. "Information is increasingly flowing in new ways. We all need to know how these mechanisms work if we are to take advantage of them." Sites such as Digg, Slashdot, reddit and StumbleUpon can help everyone from freelancers to PIOs build relationships with people who get stories noticed, Harris explained. However, he added, even though the sites are meant to crowd-source good stories, it doesn't always work that way. Here is Harris's navigation guide to social networking, include his recommendations for success. * Digg is like a gang. It has a strong hierarchy, and the dominance of an idea depends on who it comes from. If you want success here, be in with the leaders and don't cross them. In practical terms, this means identifying who posts science and health stories among Digg's 100 or so leaders. "You've got to find the right people and get them to submit the story for you," Harris said. * Slashdot is like organized crime. A small, tight group controls the flow of information, and outsiders are treated with suspicion. The key here is to post good stuff and get positive attention from the site's administrators, who can help a story land on the front page. * Reddit is like an ADHD direct democracy. Any story can get to the top, but it will fade quickly if it doesn't capture people's attention. For success, post a detailed headline that will appeal to a reader's interest, and post often. * StumbleUpon is like a book club. The ideas don't have to be fresh, and popularity is more closely linked to the quality of the content. Harris added that Facebook and Twitter send about 15 percent of the magazine's hits (150,000 to 200,000 monthly). His slides are available online at Alexis Madrigal, who covers science and energy for, suggested that writers spend time learning the norms of each community they join. "If we take that behavior more seriously, we'll be more successful," he said. "I think it's respectful to learn the way the community works." Madrigal acknowledged that the initial time investment can seem daunting, but the rewards include meeting new sources and learning about the general public's excitement for science stories. "Once you've invested some time it will start to pay itself back," he said. His slides are available online at Robin Lloyd, an online editor at Scientific American, said she joined Twitter after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory broke the news about Phoenix Mars Lander discovering water via a tweet. "At that point there was a sea change; everyone got an account," she said. Her Twitter name is robinlloyd99. Lloyd now relies on Twitter to help her decide whether a story merits posting on Scientific American's site, both by following other reporters and scientists and asking the community for opinions on upcoming topics. "For social media, it's who you are connected to are connected to that's important," she noted. "I have smart friends, acquaintances and colleagues who are acquainted to people in stories that are important to me." Becky Oskin was an NASW Freelance Travel Fellow at ScienceWriters 2009. She is based in Davis, Calif. and an early adopter (and discarder) of social networking tools. She writes about science and health for a number of clients including New Scientist, Navigenics and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

October 21, 2009

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