It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why Should Scientists Tweet

It was inevitable that I would be a Twitterphile.

Other than bored adolescents and adolescents-at-heart, the main users of Twitter, and the ones who actually gain something from it, are technophiles, software nerds, journalists, and activists. There is so much of interest to me there that my head spins.

But of scientists, not so much. I follow a few scientists, some of whom I have briefly met, and a couple of others from far overseas. They say very clever things. I retweet them on occasion. I wish there were more. Most of them are science bloggers, but that sort of figures.

Here is an article that attempts to explain the attraction of Twitter to scientists, but I think it doesn't entirely succeed.

Twitter finally solves the problem of asking the net a difficult question. Google serves well enough for easy ones; "What is the capital of Armenia?" "What was the name of the movie where Cary Grant's crazy aunts kill people out of kindness?" And there's a class of question for which Wolfram Alpha might be useful, too: "What's the specific gravity of ammonium nitrate at room temperature?" But there are some questions which are almost impossible for most people and very easy for a few.

Take this one: "what's the relaxation time constant for ocean acidification due to a CO2 perturbation?" This is a question for which the number of motivated querents is while modest, nonzero, and the number of people who know the answer is also small but nonzero. The answer is probably implicit, and possibly explicit, somewhere in the "literature"; however, there are enough ways to ask it that a Google search is not likely to succeed.

If biogeochemists participated in Twitter, though, I could just ask the question with a suitable "hash tag", e.g. "#biogeochem". Now, I don't actually expect that to work, because David Archer is not the type to be playing around on Twitter. (I did try, for what it's worth.)

But the #stats and #python hash tags have worked for me on various obscure questions. In a sense Twitter serves as all your usente groups rolled into one. So in addition to being a news and entertainment source, it can provide a means for asking the world questions, and for developing working relationships with investigators who have complementary skills. It seems to me a perfect venue for scientists, who often have many questions looking for answers and many answers waiting for questioners.

The crucial idea of Twitter is that it is a public datastream. While your view is highly filtered by default, (practically) everything anyone tweets is searchable, and most of it wants to be found.

Another point is that it is symbiotic with blogging. You announce your blog posts on Twitter, and hope others point them out in their own comment streams as well. And you can (as I have done recently) organize your blog so as to facilitate tweeting specific articles.

I especially encourage Twitter use among my readers. It doesn't do me much good if you follow me on Twitter without becoming a participant, but if you do participate, I encourage you to link to articles on my blog. This is a far more effective way to help relatively obscure blogs gain traction than Digg or Stumble or the like, where you need to appeal to everybody. On Twitter, a self-selected subset of the general population will do.

So, whatever your intuition says, Twitter can be extremely useful in enhancing communication. The way in which it scales is strange and clever. It takes some time to get used to the whole thing but it's really worth it for me. I think any individual scientist could benefit from Twitter already, and the more so the more its advantages are understood.



Yes, it was a real question. And it yielded a real answer.


Marion Delgado said...

I use twitter a lot, but i hadn't thought to link to people's blog articles. thanks for the suggestion.

Simon D said...

A very reasonable argument. I sense the opposition is less about whether it is useful, than how it threatens to further fragment time. Most of us struggle with finding uninterrupted blocks of time to write and work on research, and twitter is or at least represents another potential distraction [regardless of whether is is a useful distraction]

Danielle L said...

You convinced me! I recently started up a blog about oceans and climate ( but hadn't thought to use Twitter. Now I'm on, connected to like-minded people and great resources like NOAA and NASA and send out my own science news tweets.


Steve said...

I enjoyed your article. I couldn't help wondering, however, if a scientific version of StackOverflow wouldn't be better because it allows for commentary, voting, reputation, etc.

birdbrainscan said...

I thought it would help to have some browser plug-ins / add-ons to make it really easy to tweet about a web page I'm viewing. So far I've found:

* Yoono for Firefox (also links to Facebook, LinkedIn, many other social networking sites) I'm just trying this out now and it looks quite feature-rich.

* Chromed Bird for Google Chrome (only for developer builds) I have not tried this one out yet.

If anyone has other recommendations for this, please post them.