How much science in a tweet?

One of the most frequent questions I often get when talking about social media is “How can one explain science in less than 140 characters?” and one of the nastiest comments I get when showing how social media is growing is “That is a lot of noise”. I am pretty sure that if you are science communicators with a thing for new media you’ve stumbled across this feedback from your workmates as well. So what do we reply?

My gut feeling up so far was that social media is not the place to “explain” science, but the place to tease, arouse interest and call for action, directing people to other sources where they could find extensive information like a website or blog. I was however worried about our capacity to still read long articles. In a world where communication takes the form of tweets, statuses, check-ins, text messages and short YouTube videos are we still capable of an attention span longer than 3 minutes? My fear was that we are not. But I had no proofs for either scenario.

This weekend however, I was browsing the January edition of Wired when my eyes stopped at a subtitle saying “How tweets and status updates have increased our hunger for in-depth analysis“. Clive Thompson argues that “the torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation”. How could that be?

Today, we find out about hot news right on the spot. When something of interest happens, Twitter fires up. We no longer need to wait for the newspapers or other traditional media to cover it. This basically means that news spreads instantly. Information and knowledge however take their time, even more than in the past. Clive claims that he gets in-depth analysis today more from bloggers than from traditional media. He also argues that because social media thrives on news, bloggers no longer post such last minute updates on their blogs, but on micro-blogs like Twitter and prefer to have much extensive articles on their blogs. Another argument he brings to the table is the success of services such as Instapaper, which allow you to save articles for reading later, when one has more time and attention. This means people browse the news on Twitter, but save the in-depth articles to read in no rush. Finally he also says that media outlets like weeklies that used to combine hot information with just a little bit of analysis are going down because they don’t offer news on time or information thoroughly enough.

Going back to communicating science over social media, I feel a bit more relieved and convinced that we can and we should write extensive articles explaining our science on our websites or blogs. And I feel a bit more confident in claiming that we should alert people about them via social media. Those who want to know the latest scientific result will pay attention only to the tweet, those who want to understand more will save the article for later.

For take-away

  • social media is not a place to explain science, but a place to communicate results and arouse interest for more information
  • people want to find out now and understand fully later
  • for these two reasons, social media has the potential of boosting your website/blog traffic
  • most interesting blogs belong to experts in one area that share their knowledge, rather than hot news so be sure to write valuable posts rather than press release material
One Response to “How much science in a tweet?”
  1. My Twitter name is @AnthHard and I tweet anniversaries for science teachers every morning at 8.40am. The idea is that imaginative teachers will be able to fit them in to lessons, tutor assemblies or mention it to pupils during the day. It adheres to Oana’s principle that most people who use Twitter want to ‘find out now and understand fully later’.

    I’ve tried to stick to subject matter that will be relevant to GCSE pupils. Most of the anniversaries are chemistry based, but there are a few biology and physics ones. So for example today I tweeted “On March 22nd 1868 Robert Millikan (of Millikan’s Oil Drop Experiment fame) was born. He got Nobel Prize for Physics in 1923.”

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