I read this article Science on Twitter: Preaching to the Choir or Singing from the Rooftops? with interest. 

The article explores whether Twitter provides a platform that allows scientists to simply promote their findings to other scientists within the ivory tower (what the paper calls 'inreach', or echo chamber, where views and opinions are reinforced and amplified and we can be led to believe that everyone thinks the same as us), or are tweeting scientists truly exploiting social media to potentially reach new audiences (described in the paper as 'outreach', or engagement), as illustrated in the figure below.

Happily, the results of the study discussed in the article provide clear evidence that social media can be used as a first step to disseminate scientific messages well beyond the ivory tower.  

I was delighted to see the article identify the myriad benefits of social media:

  • The ability to keep up-to-date with the latest papers and literature
  • Promote their own papers and literature, and therefore boost their personal influence/profile
  • Build and bridge networks
  • Distributed leadership - anyone can have influence and impact (it transcends traditional hierarchies)  
  • The ability to participate in conferences if they cannot attend in person (thanks to people present live tweeting, or live feeds)

The article discusses the importance of following not just fellow scientists, but also a diverse range of individuals. This is part of creating a spectrum of allies - diversity of opinion from whom you can gain different viewpoints, experience, and receive constructive challenge - and avoiding an echo chamber.

Research cited in the article suggests that "audience heterogeneity [diversity] rises over time as the number of followers increases. Having more followers does not only mean a more diverse audience, but a vastly expanded reach." Reach is a metric that tells you the number of accounts that have seen your tweet. 

It's important that reach is not confused with another social media metric called impressions, which counts only the amount of times a tweet will have appeared on someone's timeline; the account doesn't have to engage with it to count.

And if you want to be singing from the rooftops rather than singing to the choir it's engagement that counts.

Tracking your engagement on Twitter is simple: this post explains more, including guidance on how to find out your own Twitter engagement rate.

Key to good engagement on Twitter, and therefore a good return on social media influence (as well as making Twitter not just the first step away from the ivory tower, but a fundamental part of a strategy, shouting loud and proud from the rooftops) is:

  • Following a wide range of accounts
  • Engaging, having conversations, inviting feedback on papers (this could be an effective way for scientists to gauge audience understanding of their tweets as pondered upon in the paper as well as promoting learning)
  • Being a generous partner - sharing other people's work, answering questions, live tweeting from conferences, making connections between people, for example
  • Using appropriate hashtags in your tweets - this helps you find tweets you may be interested in, and other people find your tweets. You can also measure influence using hashtags for example using Symplur or Tweetbinder.
  • Tweeting with purpose (see Telling a Story on Social Media: Think "So What, and Who Cares?)
  • Curating Twitter lists - this post explains more what they are and how to set them up (seek input from the wider Twitter community to ensure diversity).

The various available social media platforms are an excellent complement to traditional face-to-face engagement and meetings. Social media offers so many benefits for connecting, learning, sharing, personal/professional opportunities, spreading and scaling innovations and ideas - not only for scientists but for all professionals and I am heartened to see this work seriously contemplating its potential.

Further reading

 10 Tips for Social Media Success