Should scientific institutes use social media?

I have just returned from a visit to the Scottish Marine Institute near Oban on the west coast of Scotland. Among the matters discussed was whether scientific research institutes such as the SMI should use social media to get their message across. This blog post contains my initial thoughts on the matter, and its content formed the basis of my contribution to the discussion.

A’Ghaineamh Bhàn (Ganavan), looking towards Muile (Mull) - photo by Francis Sedgemore, 25 October 2011
Science communication is increasing moving into cyberspace and away from the printed page, though the latter has its place still. Research papers are routinely distributed as PDF files, with or without permission from publishers who invariably hold the copyright, and papers are presented online in hypertext and multimedia form. This is often as part of the peer-review process (e.g., arXiv.org), with the aim being to improve the work in the light of open discussion between research collaborators and others. More informal science communication, whether it be between scientists themselves, or popular public outreach, is now largely internet-based, and scientists who fail to exploit the technology could see their work sink without trace.

I talk of “the technology”, but what we have is a multitude of related technologies with varying degrees of overlap. If we are talking about social media specifically, then we should make it clear what we mean by the term, and even if it is possible to define it in the first place.

Wikipedia defines social media as…

“…the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into an interactive dialogue.”

If communication is not an interactive dialogue, it is communication of a most primitive kind. So that definition will not do. In more geeky tones, the academic marketing gurus Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein defined social media as…

“…a group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”

Now that’s more like it. But what is this “user-generated content”? It means simply that the line between producer and consumer in publishing is blurred, and the latter may within certain limits react online to others’ content, and possibly contribute original material of their own. The problem here is that this rules out corporate blogs which operate largely as public relations channels.

Forget for the moment about abstract definitions of social media, and instead consider blogging as it is in practice. Blogs are essentially online publishing platforms built on software technologies that allow rapid turnover and archiving of content. Comment and dialogue is a typical characteristic of blogs, and if they do not allow open, critical comment, even if this is moderated for reasons of decency and legality, they are not proper blogs. Such websites are more properly called pseudo-blogs, and these are increasingly common in medialand, the corporate world and academia.

For example, I used to write (paid) for a rather well-known pseudo-blog: Comment is Free, published by the Guardian newspaper. The problem with Comment is Free – which focuses on politics, social affairs and the arts, with science coverage restricted largely to discussion of politically controversial science-related topics – is that within two years of its lauch in 2006, the site had degenerated into what Norman Geras described as “a moral and political cesspit”. This, despite a small army of moderators, editorial gatekeepers and media lawyers. There are surely lessons to be learned from this experience.

Restricting the level of user interaction on newspaper and corporate websites does not delegitimise them as blogs, per se, but it does raise questions about the definition of social media, and the nature of corporate communications in the internet age.

Mainstream media such as the Guardian have to varying degrees been successful in their exploitation of pseudo-blogging and other social media. In specialist science communication, Nature leads the way. By way of contrast, Nature‘s counterpart across the pond, Science, has in large part failed to exploit the potential of social media. Not only that, Science and its parent organisation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, continue to discriminate against scientists and science journalists who blog. Or at least they are prejudiced against those who blog in the free-expressive spirit of blogging. Unfortunately, this is a far from unique stance.

For a research institute exploring its science communication options, it is worth looking at Nature as an example of creative electronic publishing. In recent times, Nature has expanded its online activities to include multimedia presentation of research papers, together with videos and blogs, and has done so without compromising journalistic and academic integrity. In addition to standard web-based journalistic templates, Nature writers use traditional blogs and microblogs such as Twitter, and what strikes me is that they do so in a restrained manner, focusing attention on substantive content unsuited to blogging and microblogging formats. The result is visually appealing, and there is a creative balance to it.

This is not to say that research institutes should copy Nature‘s example. In my view it makes sense for institutes to adopt a more tabloid approach, and the existing layout of the SMI website has much going for it. Institutes such as the SMI speak to a wider audience than that of a research journal, and, being bricks and mortar facilities, they have local constituencies that must be addressed in addition to the science and media worlds at large.

If research institutes are seriously considering social media in addition to traditional web publishing, then they would do well to integrate into their website blogs written by research active members of staff, with editorial guidance provided by specialist science communicators. The blogs should feature prominently, and not be hidden behind several layers, as is common with institutional science websites. Research is at the core of what these organisations do.

The rationale for including blogs is that science is a social and creative process, and as scientists we should show the public how we work. Personalities are important when it comes to getting people enthused about and engaged with science and engineering. When it comes to mainstream media, the general public engages with personalities more readily than it does with abstract ideas. Research institutes should therefore encourage their staff to communicate beyond their peer group. Some researchers may worry about diversion of resources away from research and teaching, but blogs are by their very nature off-the-top-of-the-head stuff. As long as the resulting stream-of-consciousness texts are editorially filtered by communications specialists, and preferably lightly so, the time spent will be minimal.

In addition to blogs, institutes could be thinking about embedding short videos into their websites. These would outline current research activities in a manner comprehensible by mere mortals, and feature the individuals doing the science, allowing their personalities to shine through. Howevever, making videos is technically more demanding than words and still picture blogs, and institutes would be advised to retain the services of professional documentary filmmakers for this purpose.

With an increasingly mobile internet, ‘traditional’ blogging is now seen by many as old hat, to the extent that “social media” are synonymous with semi-closed communities such as FaceBook, and microblogging platforms such as Twitter. Here I cannot avoid displaying personal prejudice, though it is I would hope a considered opinion based on years of experience with online publishing.

FaceBook is evil. It is a closed, corporate-controlled virtual world that sucks people in, expropriates their online identities, and is a black hole for time. Now I know that the SMI has a FaceBook page, but am pleased to see that it does nothing with the page. Long may that continue. Actually, the SMI should update the page occasionally, and use it as a pointer to stuff published elsewhere. FaceBook may have squillions of members across the globe, and every day sees many more sign up in a Faustian deal with this corporate behemoth. But there is evidence that FaceBook’s star is waning, and it is losing members as they claim back their lives from this virtual open prison.

What about Twitter? Again, this social networking site is extremely popular, but so what? Its signal-to-noise ratio is virtually nil, and one could argue that this mobile-friendly format is contributing to the death of real communication. Twitter is in my opinion of use for little more than following the minutiae of Stephen Fry’s fascinating life (paraphrased by Private Eye magazine as: “I’m going to have a cup of tea now. Bless!”), and professing undying love for Professor Sir Brian Cox (PBUH).

That said, the Twitter fad is current, and thus to a certain extent unavoidable. At least it may be unavoidable for those working in a corporate communications environment. Which would include the SMI. Research institutes should exploit Twitter as a free advertising channel, posting links to substantive, self-published content, but I question whether it is an efficient use of limited resources in science public outreach to rely on niche social networking media which cater to a fairly narrow and often gadget-addled demographic. Time is precious, and one should make the best use of it.

Twitter is a fad, and, like any such fancy, some users, scientists and science communicators included, will manage to extract from it at least a little real value. Take BBC journalists, who I gather are ordered by management dictat to tweet, and engage with the viewers and listeners using this particular mode of pseudo-communication. Journalists and other communications workers will exploit Twitter while it lasts. Good for them, but for myself, I strongly object to engagement with Twitter being regarded as normative behaviour.

As for my recommendation to the SMI and similar bodies, it is that they continue to develop their institutional websites; personalise the sites with blogs by research scientists writing in the first person; adopt a light editorial touch that facilitates the creative process; explore the use of videos; strengthen contacts with journalists in international, national and local mainstream media; and exploit microblogging platforms such as Twitter for their advertising potential.

All of the above can be summarised as follows…

Focus on the content, and not the medium!