In this day and age it’s almost impossible to get away from social media. With developments in smartphone technology and the market for social media platforms on the rise it’s now easier than ever to stay connected on the web. Almost everyone is using social media of some form, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram, there’s no hiding from it. This brings up the question of how useful social media can be in terms of enhancing and encouraging interest in science. In this article I want to examine some of the motivation behind using social media and also introduce some ideas as to how it can be used for public outreach in science.
Many scientists already use social media on a personal level but it is rarer to see it being used in a scientific way or to engage with the public. Reasons for this can be that taking the time out of research, lecturing and general admin to actively use social media is sometimes difficult. However, should we make time to actively engage in social media and is it worth it?
Social media clearly has huge potential to improve engagement with the public about science. Social media is used in huge numbers every day with the average time spent using social media being around 1.5 hours per day by those who use it in the UK (research from We Are Social study of digital and social media use around the world). With this level of usage, it makes sense that we should strive for more scientific content being shared via social media. A quick survey I ran showed that roughly 72% of people (26 out of a sample of 36) would indeed be open to learning more about science through social media. This is obviously a small sample and a larger survey would be needed to solidify the claims. Another point to come out of the survey was that those people who hadn’t studied science beyond A-levels were exposed to science on social media far less than those who had studied beyond A-Levels. This shows that we can do more to extend the reach of science on social media to those who don’t study the subject. Using social media also reaches out to a much younger audience with the most social media users being in the age range 20-29 and the next most popular age range being those under 20. Some of the younger generation will go on to become the scientists of the future and so what better way to improve their opinions on science than something that they use every day.
Although it may not feel like social media, YouTube has firmly established itself as a social media platform with the ability for any user to upload content, comment on posts, like and share others content and also send private messages. In my opinion YouTube is currently the best way forward to engage with the public and there are some hugely popular YouTube channels which are designed to do exactly that. Some examples include Vsauce, Veritasium, AsapSCIENCE and MinutePhysics which all have millions of subscribers, the most being Vsauce with 11.1 million subscribers. This shows the vast size of audience that can be reached purely from a single social media site. An example of a YouTube channel on a smaller scale is that of Sixty Symbols, a physics based channel from the University of Nottingham. With 600,000 subscribers it doesn’t reach out to as many viewers, however it still packs a punch and influences many prospective students. I personally know of students who specifically chose to attend the University of Nottingham to study physics because of the videos made by some of the physics lecturers for Sixty Symbols.
Videos are a very useful tool to engage with the public about science and there is an argument to say that it should be exploited more often and in different ways. Video tours of labs at universities and other research institutes would give members of the public an insight into the working environment of some scientists. Furthermore, a popular video from YouTube stars is “A Day in the Life” whereby they vlog (document via video) a particular day to share what their daily life consists of. If scientists were to do this then it would give the public a view into the world of science that they probably won’t have seen before.
Along with YouTube, Facebook is the most popular social media site and can be used in a various different ways. Your own personal account should be just that, personal. Being able to communicate with your family and friends in a private way is essential. However, Facebook pages can be created which have less of a private feel and could be used to improve outreach and to share scientific knowledge with all those that like the page. On Facebook posts can be up to 63,206 characters long which is more than long enough for almost any message you wish to get across. This could include updates on current research, updates on a particular university module or even just interesting articles about science. Facebook also enables users to live stream videos onto their Facebook page from their devices. This feature could have many uses such as live streaming conferences, guest lectures, scientific announcements (such as the announcement about gravitational waves earlier this year) and also interviews with scientists about their research. NASA already live stream rocket launches and views from the International Space Station but there’s definitely more that can be done.
Twitter is another social media site but it limits posts to 140 characters meaning it is only useful for short conversations, sharing simple facts and opinions about science or sharing links to articles elsewhere. Twitter is already being used productively by astronauts on the International Space Station who regularly share updates on their current experiments and also share photos of the spectacular views that they have. Another useful tool in Twitter is that of hashtags. Hashtags allows users to search the site for a particular topic of conversation, for example #InsertConferenceNameHere would allow people to see any tweets about that particular conference, enabling them to keep up with the event even without being there.
Another social media site that can be used is Instagram whose sole purpose is to share images and short video clips (<60 seconds). As they say, “a picture paints a thousand words” and this can definitely be the case in some scientific areas. They can be a very effective way of portraying a simple message and can help to excite people about science. Astronomical images such as nebulae, galaxies and other objects in the night sky can often be very beautiful and for me personally these types of images always send my mind racing about some of the wonders of the universe.
There are however some downsides to social media. Given that the whole idea of social media is that anyone can see the content that is shared, it is inevitable that criticism and misuse from any member of the particular site can occur. However, this is the case for all areas of life, not just on the web, whether it’s sport, politics or entertainment and we shouldn’t hide away from sharing science with the public because of just a few individuals. Furthermore, care should be taken over what exactly is posted and shared. Especially with the likes of twitter where only 140 characters is allowed, it can sometimes be difficult to get the message across that you were intending. There is also the length of time it takes to establish yourself on any social media site. It doesn’t happen overnight and to reach the levels of audiences that, for example, Vsauce has, takes many years.
Nevertheless, these challenges shouldn’t discourage the use of social media. There is a view that scientists can sometimes be poor communicators and are antisocial. While these negative stereotypes are decreasing, they still exist and social media is a chance to change them. With social media being so versatile there are many more ways in which it can be used to help engage with the public other than those I have suggested and it should be looked at in a very serious way to improve outreach. There are no other methods that can reach out to such vast audiences on such short timescales. Given that social media is so popular these days, surely it’s time that science took advantage of this resource to engage with the public even more than ever before.