It started with poetry.
Gadi Ben-Yehuda’s first foray onto the web was an online poetry journal—in 1994. Now, as social media director for AAAS, Ben-Yehuda oversees a squad of about two dozen social media managers who keep up with the 65+ accounts AAAS uses to spread its message worldwide. The flagship journal Science has nearly 900,000 followers on Twitter and more than 3.3 million on Facebook. The association and its programs maintain pages on sites as varied as LinkedIn, Pinterest, and China’s Weibo, drawing responses that range from the hyper-technical to the fanciful.
With the AAAS Annual Meeting coming up in February, Ben-Yehuda and his team will be busy ensuring that discoveries and discussions will be at the fingertips of anyone with a screen. He talked to MemberCentral recently about the role of social media at the annual meeting and how your tweets, posts, and pins can extend the mission.
Q: How are you planning on putting the AAAS social media accounts to work during the annual meeting?
Ben-Yehuda: There are two sides of the meeting. One side is just the pure logistics: When are the buses leaving? Where is one session or another session? What time does the expo hall open? For that, we have a very specific account, @AAASMeetings. The other side of it is what’s being discussed at the meeting, the substance of the meeting. For that we have [the main AAAS feed].
There’s so much information that goes out during the AAAS annual meeting and people want to share it. Reporters want to share it. Other scientists want to share it. Last year, close to 40,000 mentions of the #AAASmtg hashtag went out in the four days of the meeting. I think we had 12,000 unique individuals using that hashtag. And within AAAS, each program and department has its areas of interest.
So we use social media not only to help people who aren’t at the meeting to learn about what’s going on at the meeting, and for people who are at the meeting to share. There’s a Yiddish expression that translates in English as, “You can’t dance at two weddings with only one tush.” You can’t attend two lectures with only one head. But through social media, a person who’s in one session can bring other people into that session and afterward, that person can kind of vicariously attend a different session by reading someone else’s feed. So that’s my highest hope for social media – that it will really help the people who are there have a deeper, richer experience, and it will help people who are not there see the breadth and depth of the information that was shared at the meeting.
Q: How are AAAS members active on social media? What kinds of posts and what content do they respond to?
Ben-Yehuda: People are definitely seeing and responding quite a bit. Some posts have more resonance than others. For example, we put up a post about how scientists put dogs in an MRI, and I am convinced that everybody who’s a member of AAAS who owns a dog reacted to that post. We got literally tens of thousands of reactions to that post—far, far, far outperforming every post we’ve ever done. Every kind of reaction that Facebook offers, we got them.
… People [on social media] are also generally interested in space and astronomy. That’s going to be wildly popular. One [post] from Science Advances was about a new light atlas showing where light pollution made it very difficult to see the night sky. It’s kind of about astronomy, but it’s really more about how we’re living, and people found that very noteworthy. The research on Planet X in Science was one of our most popular posts in 2016 as well.
Q: Maybe the defining thing about social media is it’s a two-way street. So what have you learned from users?
Ben-Yehuda: A lot of our workplace and career information is very popular. A piece on how to read a scientific paper really took off. We did a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) about workplace bullying. We did another about work-life balance. We did a third about doing science while black. All of these got very powerful responses from people.
I think a lot of people have this idea of scientists as being not full people. They think of them as being data gatherers and very rational and very linear in their thoughts and probably hyper-obsessed with whatever field they’re in. They see scientists in the way they see artists: Yes, they’re smart, but kind of crazy. I think if you spent some time looking at our feeds, I think you’ll see scientists in a lot of ways are just like everybody else. They have workplace interpersonal relationships they need to navigate, and they want help with it. They have kids they need to drop off from child care, and nobody has enough time. And they do have concerns that are kind of specific to science. There’s the same drive to publish and be first out of the gate with your research, and sometimes it’s more difficult to do than others. You need to get funding, so people will sometimes talk about that. I guess kind of see them in their full humanity over the course of a year’s worth of comments.
Q: Some of the issues AAAS deals with, like climate change, spark heated debate online. What kind of guidance do you give members when it comes to critical feedback, or just plain trolling?
Ben-Yehuda: There’s a difference between trolling and feedback. As far as trolling goes, I would say ignore it. If someone’s trying to provoke you, don’t rise to it. There’s nothing to be gained. It’s an internet maxim: Don’t feed the trolls.
Critical feedback is an entirely different thing, and I work very closely with our web team. We have a whole little microsite called “What We Know.” If you’re on social media and you need some hard and fast information that you know is credible, it’s right there for you. And I think it’s a pretty fun part of the job to be almost a reference librarian—to be able to say, “Oh, you’re having this conversation? Here’s what AAAS has to say.”
Likewise, for gun violence, we have been very stalwart in our support of having CDC funding for studying gun violence form an epidemiological point of view. We have a number of statements that are available to our members about where we stand on the issue, about where we see the issue and why our position is what it is.
Q: The technology is always changing. In the coming year, are there any new platforms that you’re excited about, or want to see AAAS get into more?
Ben-Yehuda: I think we could be doing more on LinkedIn, especially with our career scientists. We have about 10,000 followers on our LinkedIn corporate page right now, and I think we could be doing more now. I think LinkedIn is particularly powerful for people who are already members.
And I would love to see what we can do with Instagram. The difficulty, as it is in so many fields, is we just don’t have enough bandwidth. I am but one person, and our social media managers are overtaxed, so Instagram has not been an organizational priority yet. But I’m hoping in 2017 we will be able to take advantage of it. It’s so popular among people who are undergrads or even high school students who are using Instagram and have an interest in science. Let’s give them visual content on their feeds to encourage their interest in science and connect them with AAAS as an organization that can help them progress in the field of science.
Q: How did you get into this? Did you come in on the content side, or the tech side?
Ben-Yehuda: I got into digital media in 1994, when I put up a poetry website and I ended up getting an e-mail from Maya Angelou. It was a short email [and] it said, “I saw your poetry on this website. Keep it up and you’ll go far.” I was at Florida State at the time, and I thought to myself, “It’s super kind of Maya Angelou to send me that e-mail, but I think the important thing was not that she liked my poetry, but that she found it at all.” So in the 1990s, I got into websites.
Then I had a similar experience in 2006, when I was at a conference with [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman. He was being interviewed and behind him was a Twitter wall. Someone on the Twitter wall asked him a question. And all of a sudden, he started having a conversation on Twitter rather than with the interviewer. And I had a breakthrough then, that this social media thing, it really matters.
So ever since then, I have sought to help people and institutions realize the promise of social media. The word is “disintermediating.” It’s kind of a big word, but it’s the ability for individuals to talk directly to organizations and the ability of organizations to hear directly from individuals. I find that so hopeful, and I want to be involved in a process that’s hopeful. In that way, I guess, it’s not too different from science.
Q: And speaking of "disintermediating," we have a U.S. president whose main means of communication seems to be Twitter. What pointers could you offer?
Ben-Yehuda: It will be even more important for organizations to participate in conversations that occur in social media, especially on Twitter. It is vitally important for organizations to have a plan in place in the event that either the president or one of his influential followers addresses the organization on Twitter.
Organizations need to be even closer with their followership than in years past. The incoming president has not only built a resilient network, he has activated and mobilized it. Organizations need to do the same. Social media, in the next four years—and likely longer—will not just be for talking. Or perhaps a better way to say that is the talk on social media shouldn’t be seen as a simple act of speech, but rather as an advance warning of some real-world action. The domino that is pushed over on Twitter may cause blocks to fall in real life.
You can email Gadi at GBYehuda@aaas.org