These days it seems like everyone is on some kind of social media, whether it’s Instagram on your smartphone, Facebook on your desktop, or YouTube on your tv. Still, many of us haven’t started using social media to effectively talk about our science yet.
In our November 2020 meeting, we heard from four researchers who have become experts in this area, utilizing various social media platforms to talk about what they study, and why it matters.
Dr. David Steen is a wildlife biologist, the Reptile and Amphibian Research Leader of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, and the founder and Executive Director of The Alongside Wildlife Foundation. David uses Twitter (48k followers) and Facebook (another 9k) to convey the importance of wildlife conservation. He told us, “I have no official training in this and don’t study the literature on what works or doesn’t work,” reminding us that sharing our work on social media doesn’t have to be an arduous, scientific task in itself. The takeaway: don’t overthink it; just get your work message out there. One hesitation many people have about using social media for science communication is the potential blurring of lines between personal and professional communications (e.g., “am I allowed to say this as an employee of ____?”). David’s advice: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” aka use common sense when posting; avoid controversy when you can; don’t list your workplace on your social media accounts.
Niba Nirmal is a plant biologist turned content creator based in San Francisco. Niba uses her Instagram and Youtube channels to share the science behind makeup, fashion, skincare, and other products we use everyday. Niba spoke about the importance of highlighting the science that is inherent in all these products (like the chemistry needed to make our cosmetics) but has traditionally gotten less time in the limelight. She reminded us that womxn of color often face more of the harmful health effects of the fashion and cosmetics industries, making her well suited to communicate about the issue. Then she had us reflect on this. Niba told us to think about the groups we are a part of and the identities we have (e.g., racial, gender, parental status,geographic location) and use those to show our credibility and vested interested on a given issue. The takeaway: you have credibility; use it. Many people worry that once you start using social media it will take up a ton of your time. Niba’s advice: Block out chunks of time that meet your goals (whether that’s 15 minutes a week, or five hours a week) and stick to them (no doomscrolling!). Use an automated posting platform like Tweetdeck or Hoostuite so you don’t have to constantly check your accounts.
Emma Browning is a herpetologist and graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab. Emma uses her Instagram account to talk about the importance of all kinds of reptiles and amphibians. Like David, she had a very organic start to her science communication, turning her personal Instagram account into one almost entirely dedicated to her science communication. Emma talked about using social media to engage and build a following- following people with similar interests, “liking” people’s posts, and answering questions. By doing these easy steps (and posting really cool pictures), Emma’s been able to build a following of more than 16.5k people. The takeaway: Using social media is a lot like making friends.
Dr. Katie Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist at NC State. Katie has become quite famous, not only for her research itself, but how she presents it on Twitter (she was even the inspiration for a Hozier song, nbd). Katie started using twitter “a long time ago” (aka 2010ish) at a conference, and has blown up from there. She likes how quick and easy it is to communicate with people. Have a question for an expert in another field? Tweet it. Need to answer a misconception about the beginning of the universe? Tweet it. Katie reminded us that she is talking as herself on twitter, which for her means sprinkling in dry humor and even some non-science related posts here and there. The takeaway: Talk on social media like you’d talk to someone in real life. Katie also addressed the concern of posting on social media as a state employee, and addressing the boundary between outreach and advocacy. Katie’s advice: Don’t list your university name on your social media account, and keep your interactions professional and respectful.