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Why Scientists Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Blogging and Social Media

May 4, 2013
The University of Toronto in moody HDR. Photo: Francis B

The University of Toronto in moody HDR. Photo: Francis B

Yesterday, I along with my good internet friends Miriam Goldstein and Marie-Claire Shanahan gave a presentation at the brand new University of Toronto Science Leadership Program about the opportunities for science communication offered by online tools such as blogs and social media. It was a great chance to meet an amazing group of Canadian scientists, all of whom were extremely interested in learning to better communicate their passions for science and for the scientific process.

For our small part of the afternoon, Miriam, Marie-Claire and I gave a presentation on communicating online. Miriam talked about her recent research, published in PloS Biology: An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists. Marie-Claire about her own experiences using social media, and the opportunities it has afforded her. For my part, I wanted to try a different tack. I wanted to try to fight some of the common barriers that I think people put on themselves that stop them from engaging online.

The attendees to the program were amazing; many bright young researchers and extremely accomplished Canada Research Chairs, and all (thankfully) seemed interested in what we had to say. Aside from a perhaps nauseating amount time spent talking about twitter, the attendees also got training on public speaking, on talking to the media, and heard some behind-the-scenes tales from inside the Canadian press from people like Jim Handman, the senior producer of Quirks and Quarks, and Ivan Semeniuk, the science reporter for the Globe and Mail.

The program was organized by Ray Jayawardhana, an accomplished astrophysicist, author, and the Senior Advisor on Science Engagement to the President at U of T. It’s a position that Ray admits was sort of ad hoc but has allowed him to put on a number of science outreach events directed at the public, from advertisements in transit cars and public talks at local city libraries to “science at the movies” nights with people such as Lawrence Krauss on hand to answer questions.

So, below I’ve put my slides and script for my talk, with a ▬ symbol indicating where slide transitions happen, if anyone should be interested to look.

Hi everyone. So Miriam talked about reasons why you might want to use social media and blogging. Some of the goals you might have. Things they can help you achieve.

I want to step back a bit. I want to talk about practicalities. I don’t mean practicalities of doing it. If you want to talk about technical details we can do that later. In the questions soon, or some other time.

I’m Colin Schultz, you can find me here.

I’m a science journalist. I mainly write for Smithsonian Magazine and the American Geophysical Union but I also blog… sometimes.

What I want to talk about is the practicalities of actually getting started with social media and blogging. There is a huge barrier to getting started. Not a technical barrier, that’s easy. A psychological barrier.

I think a lot of people are hesitant to start, and I think there are three main reasons why:

Time. Expertise. And they’re worried that they’re going to “do it wrong.”

That last one, that you might be “doing it wrong,” is, I think, the most powerful. The communicators and bloggers who are held up as “the best” might not be doing what you want to do. They might have different goals. And that’s okay. As Miriam said, blogging and social media are tools to be used.

There are very successful blogs that have widely varying goals. I want to show some examples.

This is, arguably, one of the most successful science blogs in existence. It’s run by Elise Andrew. It is a Facebook group: I Fucking Love Science. It has 4.9 million fans. If you use Facebook, you’ve probably seen this.

This blog is pure love of science. It doesn’t really try to teach. It’s not trying to affect policy. It doesn’t try to right misinformation except in the most passive way. But it reminds people that science is cool. And people love it.

This is Joe Hanson‘s tumblr blog It’s Okay to Be Smart. It does a lot of the same things that I Fucking Love Science does. Joe shows people cool things. But Joe just got his PhD a few months ago, and teaching is really important to him. So he doesn’t just show cool things, he tries to explain them.

Joe shows that science is cool, but he’s also trying to teach.

One more step along this ladder.
This is Rhett Alain. He runs the blog Dot Physics, hosted by the magazine Wired. Rhett uses physics to solve popular questions: How many people could work on the Death Star? How much does the USS Enterprise weigh.

How high could The Incredible Hulk jump?

Rhett moves away from the cool things category and into the realm of more classical educational outreach.

His focus is still the general public. But the science is getting heavier. He is very much here to teach.

Dave Petley runs The Landslide Blog, hosted by the American Geophysical Union. Like Rhett, the science is heavier. But, unlike Rhett, he doesn’t use fun or goofy angles to get into the science. This is a blog that a graduate student would read.

Education and outreach doesn’t have to mean “for the general public.” People in undergraduate or graduate degrees, or even highschool, might want this kind of blog if they want more than a superficial discussion of something they really care about.

Then there’s Astrobetter, run by Kelle Cruz. Kelle isn’t doing outreach at all, not in the classical sense. Kelle runs a blog that is specifically directed to other scientists: graduate students or working researchers. The general public probably wouldn’t care about Astrobetter at all, but that’s okay, because that’s not Kelle’s goal.

So there are all sorts of blogs, nearly every one of them run by an academic. They all have different goals. If you have a goal that doesn’t fit with what other people think you should be doing, don’t let that be a barrier.

The other major barrier people run in to is expertise. They think they’re not qualified to write about these things.

And first, for a lot of people, that’s nothing more than imposter syndrome. And, for a lot of people, that’s never going to go away, no matter how qualified you are.

But again, bloggers cover a huge range of expertise. What you have to say is valuable. The important thing is to stick to what you know.

So this is Market Design. It’s written by Alvin Roth. Alvin stands as being, as far as I know, the only person with a Nobel prize who runs a blog. Alvin, along with Lloyd Shapley, won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences last year, and this was Alvin’s blog post that day.

Then, on the total opposite end, this is Extreme Biology. This is a class blog run by high school students. Or it, was until Stacy Baker, the teacher who ran the class, got a new job.

Then there’s everything in between. Undergraduate students. Graduate students. Early career researchers. Running a site is a great way to find collaborators, talk to students, or build a name for yourself in your field. If I’m not mistaken I think Marie-Claire will have more to say about that.

So, really, you’ve all got more than enough expertise to do this. The only word of caution is to not overreach, because people will find you, and they will let you know that you are wrong. (Even if you’re not). But, you’ve all gone through PhDs, so you’ve probably had the desire to overreach beaten out of you already.

The last main barrier people say holds them back is time. Social media takes time. You have to update it every day, right? Well, no. People aren’t going to unfollow you on twitter if you don’t say anything. They’re not going to unsubscribe from your blog if you don’t post for a while. Unless you’re trying to survive off the money you might be able to make by putting ads on your website this isn’t even a real problem.

But setting up a blog, as easy as it’s become, does take time. Luckily, there are ways around this, ways to dip your toe in and try it. Many people who run blogs will let you write a guest post.

Scientific American has formalized this to some extent. They have a Guest Blog. If you have a one-off idea, or you want to try to your hand, they may let you write your story for their site. They’ll advertise it, and share it around and give you their platform. And then you get to be in Scientific American, which is pretty cool.

Then, I just want to jump back to Alvin Roth’s blog for a second. See that. Right there. Four hundred and two posts in 2012. And the guy just won a Nobel Prize. No offense to anyone, but if he can do that, you can write a post once a month if you want to.

So that’s it. Those are the three main barriers that I often hear about keeping people from blogging. A lack of time. A self-perceived lack of expertise. Or the fear that you might “do it wrong.” But again. Blogging and social media are just tools. All of these exist on a spectrum, and all of them are valuable.

Again, if you have anything specific things you want to talk about we’ll have plenty of time after. Or, I am here.

Thank you.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2013 3:27 pm

    Thanks for the great writeup, Colin! I finally uploaded my slides from the presentation.


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