A means not an end - building a social media presence as a junior scientist

Jeff Leek

Editor’s note - This is a chapter from my book How to be a modern scientist where I talk about some of the tools and techniques that scientists have available to them now that they didn’t before. 50% of all royalties from the book go to support Data Carpentry to promote data science education.

Social media - what should I do and why?

Social media can serve a variety of roles for modern scientists. Here I am going to focus on the role of social media for working scientists whose primary focus is not on scientific communication. Something that is often missed by people who are just getting started with social media is that there are two separate components to developing a successful social media presence.

The first is to develop a following and connections to people in your community. This is achieved through being either a content curator, a content generator, or being funny/interesting in some other way. This often has nothing to do with your scientific output.

The second component is using your social media presence to magnify the audience for your scientific work. You can only do this if you have successfully developed a network and community in the first step. Then, when you post about your own scientific papers they will be shared.

To most effectively achieve all of these goals you need to identify relevant communities and develop a network of individuals who follow you and will help to share your ideas and work.

Set up social media accounts and follow relevant people/journals

One of the largest academic communities has developed around Twitter, but some scientists are also using Facebook for professional purposes. If you set up a Twitter account, you should then find as many colleagues in your area of expertise that you can find and also any journals that are in your area.

Use your social media account to promote the work of other people

If you just use your social media account to post links to any papers that you publish, it will be hard to develop much of a following. It is also hard to develop a following by constantly posting long form original content such as blog posts. Alternatively you can gain a large number of followers by being (a) funny, (b) interesting, or (c) being a content curator. This latter approach can be particularly useful for people new to social media. Just follow people and journals you find interesting and share anything that you think is important/creative/exciting.

Share any work that you develop

Any code, publications, data, or blog posts you create you can share from your social media account. This can help raise your profile as people notice your good work. But if you only post your own work it is rarely possible to develop a large following unless you are already famous for another reason.

Social media - what tools should I use?

There are a large number of social media platforms that are available to scientists. Creatively using any new social media platform if it has a large number of users can be a way to quickly jump into the consciousness of more people. That being said the two largest communities of scientists have organized around two of the largest social media platforms.

There are also a large and growing number of academic-specific social networks. For the most part these social networks are not widely used by practicing scientists and so don’t represent the best use of your time.

You might also consider short videos on Vine, longer videos on Youtube, more image intensive social media on Tumblr or Instagram if you have content that regularly fits those outlets. But they tend to have smaller communities of scientists with less opportunity for back and forth.

Social media - further tips and issues

You do not need to develop original content

Social media can be a time suck, particularly if you are spending a lot of time engaging in conversations on your platform of choice. Generating long form content in particular can take up a lot of time. But you don’t need to do that to generate a decent following. Finding the right community and then sharing work within that community and adding brief commentary and ideas can often help you develop a large following which can then be useful for other reasons.

Add your own commentary

Once you are comfortable using the social media platform of your choice you can start to engage with other people in conversation or add comments when you share other people’s work. This will increase the interest in your social media account and help you develop followers. This can be as simple as one-liners copied straight from the text of papers or posts that you think are most important.

Make online friends - then meet them offline

One of the biggest advantages of scientific social media is that it levels the playing ground. Don’t be afraid to engage with members of your scientific community at all levels, from members of the National Academy (if they are online!) all the way down to junior graduate students. Getting to know a diversity of people can really help you during scientific meetings and visits. If you spend time cultivating online friendships, you’ll often meet a “familiar handle” at any conference or meeting you go to.

Include images when you can

If you see a plot from a paper you think is particularly compelling, copy it and attach it when you post/tweet when you link to the paper. On social media, images are often better received than plain text.

Be careful of hot button issues (unless you really care)

One thing to keep in mind on social media is the amplification of opinions. There are a large number of issues that are of extreme interest and generate really strong opinions on multiple sides. Some of these issues are common societal issues (e.g., racism, feminism, economic inequality) and some are specific to science (e.g., open access publishing, open source development). If you are starting a social media account to engage in these topics then you should definitely do that. If you are using your account primarily for scientific purposes you should consider carefully the consequences of wading into these discussions. The debates run very hot on social media and you may post what you consider to be a relatively tangential or light message on one of these topics and find yourself the center of a lot of attention (positive and negative).