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Ruben Verborgh

Social media as spotlight on your research

Twitter and Facebook can play a major part in evangelizing scientific work.

As researchers, communication is arguably the most important aspect of our job, but unfortunately not always the most visible. Sometimes, our work is so specific that it seems impossible to share it as a story with the outside world. Surprisingly, day-to-day social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be highly effective to give your work the attention it deserves. To achieve this, researchers must become conscious social media users who engage in every social network with a purposeand a plan.

Discussing your research on social networks will prove rewarding for you and your readers.

A recent study teaches us Facebook users have 229 friends on average. If we consider friends of friends, the median Facebooker has an outreach of 31.170 people. Well, I don’t know about your publications, but I can assure you that my papers do not reach such an audience yet ;-) So the question arises: can we harness the power of social media to communicate about our research? I’m convinced we can, and we should keep three goals in mind:

  1. Get your research known by more people.
  2. Get to know the people that read your research.
  3. Get people curious to know more.

Of course, those are three goals to a purpose: enabling you to do better research through collaborations with others. Let’s discuss the two most popular online social networks and see how we can tame them.

Twitter spreads the word

Twitter has quite a few restrictions, so it’s challenging to find the possibilities within its boundaries. One limit is the maximum message length of 140 char­ac­ters, another is that discussion threads within Twitter are hard to follow. The benefit of Twitter is that it comes without obligation: followers are not reciprocal, so you can follow who you want, and you don’t have to follow everybody who reads your stream. Further­more, you can engage in conversations with anybody, and they can start discussions with you. This contrasts with most other social networks, which require some kind of relation between people before they can interact with each other.

However, researchers are proficient in finding excuses not to actively use Twitter:

  • Nobody in my research fields uses it.
  • But I don’t have anything to say!
  • I don’t have time for that.

First of all, have you really tried searching Twitter? If you did, you’d see that virtually every topic is covered. The connection between butterfly wings and sea snails? Check. The latest trends in space law? Check. In fact, every niche has its Tweeters because of the long tail effect. And if you’re researching something really rare and unique, well, congrat­ulations—you get to be a pioneer as a first online news source on your topic!

Speaking of which, please don’t always be highly specific. No matter how small the surface of your research is, it’s always embedded in a bigger context. Are you studying butterfly wing movement? Your followers are interested in biotechnology, too. Do you examine the legal impact of satellite crashes? Everybody likes a rocket launch YouTube video now and then. There’s plenty of fun things to say if you vary.

Finally, Twitter saves me more time than it costs. Writing 140-character messages is hardly an investment, but finding the material for them is. And that’s where the power of Twitter kicks in: other people tweet too. They save you lots of searching and lead you to fascinating articles you’d never find yourself.

Facebook connects the people

Facebook is mostly known as the social network where you put online all your personal information to share with your friends. In several ways, this feels like the 21st century man’s misguided attempt to reach the Warholian 15 minutes of fame. If you use Facebook in a personal and private way, it is hard to imagine this network can actually help your research. So the solution is simple: don’t. Let me explain.

My Facebook profile is my professional profile—and no, I do not have another one and never will. (Update: I have deleted my Facebook profile as of 2019, since it no longer provided the professional value described here.) I refuse to give a company details on my private life, yet I want to profit from the social networking powers Facebook has to offer. Therefore, here is what you’ll not find on my profile:

  • pictures I only want close friends to see
  • status updates on my personal feelings
  • views on personal matters such as politics and religion

I find this highly logical. As a pragmatic, I assume that everything I put online will be visible to everybody, even though I have privacy settings that say otherwise. But here’s the twist. While conventional wisdom would say “don’t put stuff online you don’t want the whole world to see,” my Facebook mantra is:

Do put stuff online you want the whole world to see.

So the photos you’ll see on my Facebook profile feature me presenting my work at international conferences (to show that I’m good in what I do). But I’ll also put in the occasional photo of me having a break with friends and family (to show that I also have a rich social life). And in fact, I do want the whole world to see this. This includes my fellow researchers, future collaborators, perhaps even future employers. If I could, I would mail every single one of them personally my status updates because all these photos and texts are specifically placed there to highlight my best side. That’s right, my profile is conceptually a resume, albeit with far more content.

Consequently, I’m not afraid of friending anyone (as some people rightly are), ranging from colleagues and family to persons I only met once. I have nothing to hide, because my true personal memories will never be online anywhere. So what I do on Facebook is build an image of me with only the good and pretty stuff. As in a quote from one of my all-time favourite movies: In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times. And let’s be honest, that’s what everybody on Facebook does, only few do it on a professional basis :-)

Remember that people are not their Facebook profile, and neither are you: our Facebook profile is an image of the role model we briefly pretend to be (but are glad we’re not). If you use Facebook in any other way, I think you’re doing it wrong.

Have a plan for every social network you use

Summarizing, my social media plan is to have a plan. For every social network I use, I keep in mind what I want to achieve with it, and I don’t let myself be misguided by conventions. It’s not because other people put questionable photos of themselves online that you have to. If you’re a researcher, you can use Twitter and Facebook professionally if you set the right goals for yourself.

You’ve seen my list of goals is at the top of this blog post, and I believe they can be a good starting point for many researchers. How you reach your goals is a personal choice, but here’s my plan:

  • On Twitter, I share content about Web technologies, Semantic Web, and sometimes IT or even technology in general. People who are interested in these topics, might be tempted to follow me.
  • I also tweet from time to time about my research status and publications, so my followers learn about my work and can discuss about it or share pointers.
  • When other people tweet relevant stuff, I retweet or comment on it, so interactive discussions start.
  • My Twitter feed is coupled to my Facebook profile. This gives people who don’t use Twitter the chance to follow along, but also allows for better discussions, as Facebook displays comments in threads by default.
  • Only on Facebook, I share content about me personally, such as photos and sometimes a video or song I like, because I want to adopt a more personal style there. Nevertheless, I consider all content I post public.

Since I adopted this social networking style, I have had many lively interactions with co-researchers with whom contact would otherwise have been much more limited. For example, you don’t e-mail people often just to keep them up to date. With Facebook and Twitter, the contact is more open-ended and therefore much more appreciated by others. For me as a researcher, Facebook and Twitter are invaluable.

So, tell me, what’s your social networking style?

Ruben Verborgh

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