A New Science Communication Imperative: Challenge Yourself on Twitter

Challenge Yourself  As many of you know, being a scientist or science communicator on Twitter can be a valuable, exciting and learning experience. From having conversations with colleagues, to spreading exciting new research findings, to catching up on the latest science news, being active on Twitter can add much to our work and personal lives as science communicators.

But at one point or another, many of us have criticized Twitter (or at least some networks of science communicators and/or science journalists on Twitter) for being an “echo” chamber, a closed-off network where the spread of information is mostly among like-minded people who probably already know the information anyway.

But why does this happen? Is it the fault of the technology? The people in the network? The limited nature of spreading information?

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Consider how a virus might spread from a small remote village. If most people in the village at any particular time know each other very well, they probably live there or close by. They will quickly spread the virus to one another, and the virus will potentially make several rounds to each household. But it may be quite some time before the virus makes its way out of the village, to spread to other towns and cities.

Now imagine that this small village is a hub for travelers, perhaps an incoming port on a coast, a first stop to larger towns and cities inland. Many regular travelers as well as strangers come in and out of this town. Now the spread of the virus will look quite different. Now, the virus quite easily – and very quickly – spreads to larger and larger towns and cities inland, carried by travelers who regularly interact with the people in our small village on their way inland.

Now I know the spread of a virus has an inherently negative connotation, but let’s imagine that this is a good virus, a virus that gives us the power of scientific knowledge. In other words, our virus isn’t a virus at all, it’s a spreading scientific fact, a piece of information that we want to spread. As Samuel Arbesman describes in The Half-Life of Facts (a book I’m currently enjoying), information spreads through social rather than physical spaces and networks: “This is the rule when it comes to how facts spread: social networks spread information” (p. 73).

But a social network alone is not sufficient for the type of scientific information spread we’d ideally like to see, where people who might otherwise never hear this information get it through the social network such Twitter. That is science communication at its best. But this is what many forget to consider in their enthusiasm to use Twitter as a “great and wonderful Oz” of science communication. The technology itself doesn’t spread the information – the ties between the people do.

It wasn’t the very good friends in our small village who spread the virus – the scientific fact – far and wide. It was the travelers, the “regular strangers,” who both traveled between villages but had at least some contact with the residents in each village or town. This is how it is in the spread of information. There is a special type of social tie that spreads information far and wide, according to Arbesman – the medium-strength social tie. Not the strong tie (your good buddy on Twitter) or even necessarily the weak tie (the Twitter user who follows you but never reads your posts), but the medium tie (the new Twitter user who follows you, sometimes reads your posts and trusts you just enough to spread your content to his or her own social network).

“The people you trust a little bit but aren’t your closest friends, your work friends, or something a bit more than strangers but less than a good buddy: These people provide the ties that are the most important in allowing something to spread far and wide.” – The Half-Life of Facts, p. 78

What does this mean for scientists and science communicators on Twitter? I think it means that we should, on an ongoing basis, challenge ourselves to reach out to new people. Not only our good Twitter buddies whom we talk to every day, who retweet us on a regular basis, but Twitter followers whom we haven’t necessarily engaged with before. I think this can be an especially hard task for those well-read science communicators or scientists who have well-established networks on Twitter. Do they mostly Tweet and Re-tweet inside “closed circles” of good friends and trusted sources, or do they regularly challenge themselves to break out, to reach out to and re-tweet the Twitter travelers passing in and out of their social networks? Because this can be the difference, perhaps, of an echo chamber and a vastly spreading network of science communication and science news.

When I first joined Twitter, I seemed to have a hard time “breaking in” to some of the science communication online communities that I enjoy today. I would ask general questions or even direct queries to certain well-known Twitter users and and not get near the response that I get today. Why? Could it be that some of us respond preferentially to our “friends” and trusted contacts on Twitter? This would, it seem, be human nature. But I think, to get most out of Twitter as a means of spreading scientific fact far and wide, we have to break these “comfort zone” interaction habits.

So I present to you a new challenge for the week. This week, as you are exploring new science reads, tweeting about your research or having discussions about science communication, reach out to at least one new Twitter user who isn’t a close tie inside your circle of “science nerds.” Search for a new science blog (preferably an obscure one, not from a “prestigious” network) on a scientific topic you might not typically read, and re-tweet the link (of course, as long as you think it is quality information) to your followers. Start a discussion with a random Twitter follower or new user about a scientific topic. Search and follow a new scientist in an area of science you don’t typically read. This is the “challenge yourself” imperative. Because you more you challenge yourself and other scientists and science communicators on Twitter to break out of “closed off” Twitter clusters, the more scientific information can travel far and wide.

Do you think this will work? #SciTwiChallenge