Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

Is social media a tool to shape the future of science? 

Ryan Jones

Images like the Facebook thumbs up and the Twitter bird are everywhere, online and offline. There is now a practically seamless join between social media and the rest of the internet through things like ‘share’ buttons, and therefore any device from which  we access the internet . In this article, I want to discuss the following questions: do social media have a relevant impact on science, and should we be encouraging this relationship?

The ‘edutainment’ revolution

In its mere nine years of existence, YouTube has created a mind-bendingly large catalogue of user-generated video content, available for view on an expanding number of platforms. It’s now easier than ever for us to share everything – our ideas, experiences, and even our unfocused ramblings – with the internet. Members of the scientific community have contributed to this platform in a variety of ways. For me, the most important way in which YouTube aids the scientific process is in the distribution of knowledge, whether new or existing. The vast majority of content is free, so for the first time in history people have the opportunity to learn about science whenever they want, wherever they want. Video content is available at pretty much any level, from the concise, digestible explanations of Minute Physics (www.youtube.com/user/minutephysics), to the introductory courses offered by the Khan Academy (www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy), and right up to the entire university level lecture series that are published by MIT through their OpenCourseWare initiative (www.youtube.com/user/mit).

What I find really appealing about this new genre of ‘edutainment’ is how accessible it is. YouTube has permeated our society enough to have the ability to reach so many people, importantly those who would otherwise be left without access to a good science education. A good education is important to the scientific process – how can we continue science if we can’t inspire the next generation to get involved? If YouTube inspires even only a small number of otherwise uninterested people to become scientists, I think that is a success.

I could rave on about the successes of YouTube for a long time, but it does have its flaws. One disadvantage of this method of information transfer is that there is very little control as to how far it travels. In the case of YouTube, building up a large number of subscribers can provide guarantee of viewership, but building up this base in the first place is by no means an exact science. It’s hard to get noticed in such an expansive platform, especially now large companies have established an online presence, with recognisability and brand loyalty on their side. It’s definitely easier to get your content shared around social media circles if people are already viewing your content via other means, and for this reason I think that social media could contribute to the idea that brand image is more important than content.

Another problem is that in a learning environment, misinformation and information don’t necessarily travel at the same speed. Consider the following example: some exciting new discovery in science is talked about in a YouTube video. For whatever reason, the video gains a lot of traction. Later, it transpires that the discovery is a hoax. There is no real guarantee that this new information will reach the same number of people, or even the same people. All we can do really is put the news out there and hope for the best. This is not something which is characteristic of social media, but rather of media in general. If we wish to try using YouTube as a method of communication, clearly we have to also deal with the consequences of doing so.

The Importance of Presence

Like many other industries, science is also developing its presence on social media sites. Stephen Hawking created a Facebook page last month. ATLAS has its own Twitter Account. This presence means that keeping up with science can now be as natural a process as keeping up with other people on social media. What does that mean for science?

Social media has created a means of direct contact between researchers and the public. In general, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are more informal and personal than other media, and by putting themselves out there, I believe that researchers are breaking down any perceived social barriers between themselves and the general public. As well as generating a huge amount of exposure for science, use of these sites creates a largely open forum. Communication like this was not impossible before social media, but it has never been more casual, convenient and widespread. By existing in the same social media sphere as everyone else, researchers have opened their doors to pretty much anybody who wants to express their concerns, ask questions, or just have a conversation. Obviously, this has constructive and destructive consequences, as anyone who has invested enough of their time in internet debates will know!

Maybe this type of interaction could be beneficial to the scientists too. Social media produces a feedback like no other, in terms of its sheer volume and diversity. It is arguably one of the most genuine and unfiltered platforms, and I think scientists should embrace this. Millions of people use social websites every day anyway, so why not take advantage of this and get feedback on your thoughts and ideas, and hear directly what the public thinks is important, rather than relying on facts and statistics?

Thanks to social media, the gap between science and the public  has never been thinner. I hope that this is a trend which will continue, in order to develop a society which is more scientifically informed. A mutually beneficial relationship is formed, as the public can become better informed about science through direct interaction with the people doing the research, and researchers can easily take on board the ideas and concerns of the public. This interaction should lead to a scientifically informed society, and an informed society is one which in general makes better decisions about its future, after all.

Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

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