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2014 Annual Meeting: How to Start Sharing Your Science on Social Media

Some scientists have taken to social media like flies to honey, while others are more reticent. Communicating science through Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other platforms can be a great way to make connections with colleagues and do outreach with the general public. But what are the best ways to get started in this Brave New Technological World?

Social media maven Danielle Lee, Ph.D. (who goes by DNLee on the Web) is a role model for scientists looking to expand their social media presence. DNLee is a postdoctoral research associate at Oklahoma State University's Department of Zoology and will soon be joining a new lab at Cornell University's Department of Psychology. She blogs at The Urban Scientist and has an active Twitter presence. DNLee delivered her presentation "Raising STEM Awareness Among Under-Served and Under-Represented Audiences" on Thursday, Feb. 13 as part of the AAAS Annual Meeting's Communicating Science seminar.
AAASMC's Summer Allen spoke to DNLee—via Google video chat— about what scientists can expect from social media and how to get started.
AAASMC: Why do you think scientists should use social media? How do you think they can benefit from using it?
DNLee, postdoctoral researcher and science communicator: Social media is just our most recent tool. Twenty or thirty years ago we would have had this exact same conversation about op-ed pieces in newspapers. It's about what media we have available to us. So social media is the primary medium of choice now for not just information but also interpersonal communication. But because it has this opportunity to do what all those other forms did—it replicates the responsibilities of the phone, email, letters, newspapers, radio, television and movies—it represents all those other media all in one. We've used all those other media so it only makes sense that we evolve with the technology.  That's why we should use it. That's where the communication is happening. That's where the entertainment is happening.
AAASMC: Let's say someone has been resistant to trying social media. Where do you think they should start?
DNLee: There are still a lot of people [who are resistant] out there. I also believe in respecting people where they are. You shouldn't jump all the way into something if you're not comfortable and if you're not going to fully commit to using it. There's nothing wrong with staying in your lane. Start with where you are. When I first started, I wasn't very big on being very public on social media. I started with emails. I would send a mass email to all my friends and family, letting them know about interesting science news clips or I would give response pieces to something on the news. Then I evolved into writing a blog because it gave me an organized place to put all that information. It also was a relief to my friends who didn't want me just pushing information out to them all the time because sometimes it can be worrisome to always have someone bombard you with information that you're not ready for or are not in the mood for. A blog became a place to park that information so those who wanted to read it could check it out on their own time.

AAASMC: How do you think having a social media presence has influenced your career?

DNLee: I have gotten a lot of positive things from it. But keep in mind that there are different ways to judge one's success in a career. A more traditional way of evaluating a scientist's career is how quickly they matriculate through the academic pipeline—from postdoc to tenure track professor to full professor—based on your research and based on your publications. I am a bench scientist. I still do bench science. I enjoy it. It's what I do. It's what I've been trained to do and it's what I like doing. Has it [social media] helped me? I've definitely gotten some [postdoc] offers, but I already have a postdoc that I'm very happy with. And I've gotten the attention of, what I would call the "superstar professors" who I would love to work with. So I think, yes, it helps you get the attention of people. But attention goes both ways.

Particularly on my science communications and outreach side, it has absolutely been beneficial for that part of my career. It's raised my profile—and not just my profile but the profile of the issues that I've been struggling to bring to the fore both within science and outside of science. I've definitely had a lot of success when it comes to science outreach and science communication by having social media. I don't understand how anyone who is interested in any kind of science communication or outreach is going to navigate their career efficiently and effectively without the use of social media from this point on.

AAASMC: How do you find people and get them to come to your blog?
That was my struggle early on. You don't. You can't. The first thing you have to do is find your voice and cultivate content. Content is king. It really, really is about content. So you have to do good content, and you have to do it regularly. You don't have to blog 15 times a day. In the early days of science blogging, between 2003 and 2007, it was all about pushing content—the more content, the better. Some of the most popular blogs at that time were also very productive in blogging. They posted a lot of information, not all of it good. They put so much out there that you would ping them. But now with so much information, that doesn't help you anymore. Now I think the thing is to have a good voice, to provide good content, and to provide something regularly. You can't just write something once and then not come back to it for months on end, which is what I did when I first started blogging. I thought, "Wow, this is such an awesome thing I just wrote that people are going to come and are going to love it." But if they did and there was nothing there for them to get back on in a week then it was nothing. I realized you have to have something regularly—that's the thing to do.

Since then, particularly in the last two to three years, Twitter has become a more visible platform. But I was slow to adopt [it]. I'm actually a slow adopter. I take my time adopting things because once you've adopted something, you're committing to it. How many balls can you have in the air at once? I was slow to adopt Twitter, but now that I have and I know how to use it, it's easy to integrate it. I do a lot of microblogging. I go on lots of Twitter conversations and rants, and I really should collect them and make a blog post out of them but I don't have the time right now because I am personally deciding to spend more of my energy on my research. I don't have the time to do the in-depth blogging that I'm used to. I miss it sometimes. I really, really do. But I still make a point to blog routinely because I really do enjoy blogging and I can't imagine quitting any time soon, although I have found it harder to do. For the first time since I've been blogging (I started in 2006) over the last six months I found it harder to find time to blog.

AAASMC: There has been a lot of discussion about pseudonyms among scientists and science communicators on Twitter lately. Do you have  a recommendation whether people new to social media blog or tweet under a pseudonym or their actual name?
DNLee: I don't really have strong feelings about that either way. I don't believe that you have to blog under your own name or a pseudonym. I think you should do what's most comfortable for you. I think the most important thing is finding your voice—it really is about finding your voice. You want a Twitter handle that's not too hard to remember or to type in. It doesn't matter what name you go by. Names are just labels anyway.

AAASMC: But if you want to get career benefits from Twitter, is it important to integrate your social media persona with your academic identity?
DNLee: There are academics out there who talk a lot about their research but never give their real name. If you're an academic interested in that research, you can still absolutely contact that [pseudonymous] person and have them work in your lab or write for your journal. It's just a portfolio. It's just a label. I've met people [online] with real life names that would rival [anyone with] a pseudonym in terms of creativity and strangeness so I don't know that it matters in the end. It's just what you're called by.

AAASMC: Any last pieces of advice for people who are new to social media?
DNLee: If you're going to get started, start slow. Don't try to take over the world. And I think the one thing that gets a lot people—especially seasoned scientists who jump into it—[is that you shouldn't] assume that the rank you've earned in one area of life professionally carries over to another area, because this is a completely different playing field and there are completely different hierarchies and you don't get to keep your rank, necessarily. That's the one thing I'd really like to share with folks. When you're new to something, you're new. You're at the bottom. So take your time. Don't try to take over the world all at once and don't assume that you are taking over the world.