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Social Media: The Genie is Out of the Bottle

“All sound and fury signifying nothing” pretty much sums up the scientific establishment’s take on Twitter, Facebook, and company at the dawning of social media. Given researchers’ reputation as a media-averse, socially restrained crowd, social media seemed the worst of all worlds.

by F. Key Kidder
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“All sound and fury signifying nothing” pretty much sums up the scientific establishment’s take on Twitter, Facebook, and company at the dawning of social media. Given researchers’ reputation as a media-averse, socially restrained crowd, social media seemed the worst of all worlds.

From their ivory research towers and scientific sanctuaries, they watched as social media technologies inundated society at large, assured that the tide would never breach their labs, much less amount to something salutary.

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Senior scientists already established in their careers were particularly dismissive. Having succeeded without social media, their admonition to up-and-coming researchers was along the lines of “I don’t need this, and neither do you.”

If the benefits were sketchy, the risks were not. Social media, an extemporaneous free-for-all where Everyman was king, embodied the very antithesis of the scientific method. Social technologies, prized for their speed and immediacy, flew in the face of deliberated scientific consensus. Researchers marshaled facts to arrive at and promulgate truths. Social media, where many users shoot from the lip, is rife with rumor and opinion and a repository for lowbrow comment.

The tipping point occurred rather recently, at a time when the scientific community was besieged by restive stakeholders, a tight money climate, and a tired public image. The elephant in the room was pinpointed. For decades, scientists had employed the deficit communications model to educate outside publics, tantamount to a forced feeding of unappetizing factoids. It was a far cry from a two-way dialogue, the kind of genuine engagement that draws outsiders into the scientific fold. Social media was at the ready, in the right place at the right time.

It is way too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Scientists now use social media for a broad array of research activities, a narrower range of business functions, and expanding exchanges with government agencies, including aspects of two paramount scientific concerns— funding and regulatory compliance. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube constitute social media’s workhorses, but scientists choose from a thundering herd of other platforms and channels.

“To put it in 140 characters or less,” intones the measured voice of the New York Times, “science and social media found each other in 2012.”

For the uninitiated, 140 characters is the maximum load for a Twitter transmission. Of the approximately 1.8 million apps in the Apple and Android marketplace, Twitter is the app of choice for many, unsurpassed for in-the-moment conversations, networking, and building communities. Twitter boosts credentials and careers— one study found that highly tweeted journal articles were 11 times more likely to be cited than articles without strong social media mentions.

A rising tide lifts all ships. Social media is fundamentally all about more conversations between more dispersed, diverse participants. As these conversations leave the lab to meander through rivulets or enter a mainstream, they encourage more active involvement of scientists and stakeholders in the greater scientific enterprise. In this context, social media’s overarching value is as a communication facilitator serving global labs and scientific colleagues—the new connective tissue.

As a research tool, social media is nothing short of “revolutionary,” says molecular biologist Jamie Vernon, a policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Channels such as Facebook, Storify, and Tumblr that allow users to share video, photo, and written content promote interpersonal “sharing and experiencing emotions” and provide “subtle cues” that build relationships and effective collaborations with distant colleagues. Vernon recalls walking a young scientist some 1,500 miles away through a polymerase chain reaction technique using YouTube and methodology links.

Blogs and discussion forums are favored for thoughtful consideration of niche topics by online communities and are also increasingly used to post manuscripts for peer review. Twitter has become an information filter for many in the scientific community, and is a means for journalists to stay abreast of developments. More scientists favor Facebook for research/interest groups, says Vernon, adding that Google+ “may be better at communicating the creation” of these specialty circles.

Digitize then monetize is the thinking of venture capital firms and individual investors, including Bill Gates, who fund mega social scientific sites that may change the research method. ResearchGate—2.8 million members strong from over 130 nations—is a professional social network where scientists connect and share their work, a cross-cultural virtual lab and library with 15,000 job listings thrown in. is a digital social networking site designed for scholars; competitors include Mendeley and Zotero. All intend to accelerate progress and enhance collaboration.

“Social media has multiple (user communities) developing at different rates,” adds Vernon. Many scientists already capitalize on its communication potencies. Another subset “pushes the concept of open science,” going online with their notebooks to receive constructive feedback, which is how Vernon envisions “science will be done in the future.” A third, smaller subset uses social media to “demonstrate a public value” of their research.”

As a business proposition, social media has promise for just about everyone, evidencing unrivaled capability as a marketing tool. For researchers, self-marketing is a giant step forward, a break with the old orthodoxy that the intellectual challenge of performing good science was reward enough. “Science is a battlefield of ideas and brands,” declares Marc Kuchner, author of Marketing for Scientists. In the Internet era, marketing is “based on genuine two-way conversations and community building,” something social media does with the best of them.

As a practical matter, getting a résumé before the right eyeballs remains the first step in the hiring process. Enter LinkedIn, the preferred résumé-posting site for serious scientists, a channel Vernon describes as “the minimum time commitment” for scientists to navigate the social media universe and “a great professional networking tool.”

As the new marketing mix shifts toward a more consumer-oriented focus where communications is key, life science and pharmaceutical firms have seized on social media for sales and marketing outreach that builds brand awareness and engages prospects, and for customer support that monitors and responds to mentions. Besides its utility as a human resource tool, social media is also used to gather business intelligence on competing brands, monitor changing perceptions, and conduct public relations, such as responding to negatives and falsehoods. Social media, says one observer,“restores the balance and power between buyer and seller” by giving customers recourse to weigh in.

While non-digital sales and marketing expenditures flatten and decline, social media is stepping up. A survey of the users in the biotech sector identified primary challenges that most can identify with—generating and capturing prospects, engaging thought leaders, and achieving ROI.

A reluctance to institute an aggressive social media program can stem from fears of unintended consequences. By creating a dialogue with an audience, the sponsoring entity opens itself up to receiving reports of adverse events of interest to federal agencies, disclosing proprietary information, or transmitting inconsistent messages. Smart labs proceed with caution, says research communication consultant Dennis Meredith.

In the rush to capitalize on social media, organizations that post in haste repeat the mistakes of the dot. com frenzy. “Every lab should have an explicit, formal social media policy,” he says. “My fear is that PIs and senior lab members who haven’t grown up with social media like their younger colleagues are unaware of all the risks.” Meredith urges labs to designate a social media strategist, “not a cheerleader, but someone who understands the lab mission and how these channels can be used for internal and external communications.”

Vendors strive to make inroads into labs via mobile marketing. In a recent membership study by The Science Advisory Board, roughly 25 percent of industrial and academic scientists were “highly interested” in digital applications that accessed supplier promotions like coupons, although a greater percentage expressed no interest. More than one-third was “somewhat interested.” The study found that North American and European scientists are less enamored of social media than their counterparts in other regions of the world, where users spend about one hour a day using mobile apps, compared to about 44 minutes in the U.S.

In an earlier study, The Science Advisory Board found that a majority of scientists admit that social media does influence their purchasing decisions, but remain less likely to employ it during the purchasing process.

The public sector is jumping in too. In dispensing grant money, the National Science Foundation requires scientists to demonstrate “broader impacts” by engaging the public to experience the value of their research, an obligation social media frequently helps fulfill. According to a white paper from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), 70 percent of federal agencies use social technologies for public outreach purposes, further validating the fact that social media channels are transitioning toward conducting social business. But best practices remain a work in progress, says NARA. As America’s archival agency with the oversight of government documents and records, NARA anticipates “a great deal of change in the social media landscape…as technologies converge” even as agencies already clamor for guidance.

The use of social channels “may create federal records that must be captured and managed in compliance with federal records management laws, policies,and regulations,” declares NARA, which hedges on platform-specific guidance.

Federal agencies have plenty to say about critical global challenges. Although scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could certainly inform a debate, many are constrained from jumping into social media “by agency policies and a culture of timidity,” says Michael Halpern, program manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists/Center for Science and Democracy.

For every step backward—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) decided to cancel its Twitter account—Halpern applauds agencies that boldly embrace social media. “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) used zombies to highlight the importance of disaster preparedness in a viral novella,” Halpern says. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) uses social media to recruit clinical study participants. “It’s easy to find scientists with significant Twitter followers,” but challenging to locate government scientists who “list their agency affiliation and tweet freely,” he adds.

The NIH received the highest grade in the CDC’s report card on agency social media policies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and OSHA scored lowest. Other agencies—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NSF, CDC and the FDA—have no policy and “ignore the world of social media at their own risk,” says Halpern.

In September, the FDA announced that it had retained IB5k, a firm specializing in social media solutions, to provide “comprehensive coverage” of the agency’s digital offerings. The FDA aspires to “communicate more effectively and provide timely content,” and hopes that this informed scrutiny of its social media practices eventually will improve its traction on Twitter and Facebook. With 71,000 Facebook “likes” and 35,000 Twitter followers, the FDA stands in the shadow of NASA’s nearly 5 million Twitter followers.

The biggest rap on social media—that it encourages unproductive socializing at the expense of research,especially in academia, where the stigma is strongest— doesn’t fly with Vernon, who maintains that “distraction is more of a personality trait, not inherent to social media.” Gretchen Goldman, a public policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is hard-pressed to find negatives. Social media activity during Hurricane Sandy provided scientists with timely updates, even if it “possibly promoted people putting themselves in harm’s way to get the best photo.”

As is typically the case with booming technologies, usage has outstripped efforts to manage and measure social media platforms in play. Some commentators decry the absence of hard data; alarmed scientists are proceeding without it. Dietram Scheufele, the John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, helped spearhead the campaign to upend the discredited deficit communications model. Social media “is a whole new world,” he says, “and we know very little about it empirically.”