Recently, I’ve been thinking about the role that social media plays in science. And while friends are fond of pointing out that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, colleagues at various labs usually shoot me a quizzical look when I bring up the subject.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to social media is that it acts like a peer-reviewed lens that brings the latest developments in your field into view — a conference that runs 24-7 and acts as a form of social democratization for scientific thought. Someone you wouldn’t dream of approaching in the real world, is instantly more accessible on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus. They are also more frank than they might be if you approached them in person.
For me, I use social media to ask questions. And I try to keep the personal, professional aspects of my life separate on different networks. In practical terms, I tend to use Facebook to keep in touch with my rather widely dispersed family, and use WordPress, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google Plus as channels for professional communication.
In comparing Twitter and Google Plus, I’ve found that the volume of traffic is higher on Twitter but so is the noise. In most cases you get an interesting factoid or article title in a Tweet, which you I then Pocket and read later. Since tweets are limited to 140 characters, it can be a tad constraining when you want to express an idea. In Google Plus there’s usually enough space for people to summarize the article, thus saving me from more reading.
The communities and circles within Google Plus make it easier to focus on a particular type of content. In my case, I have a circle of cancer biologists and oncologists whose posts I looked out for. I can filter my stream to see just those people who are in the cancer research circle. Thus cutting down on the noise. You can also search a stream by hashtag, if you want to focus on posts around a particular topic or conference (most conferences have their own event hashtag).
The Advances in Medicine community is very active and has a lot of interesting posts, and recently I started my own community the San Diego Informatics Forum to help facilitate the sharing of ideas, technologies and techniques in research informatics. The local Science Online Forum is also a handy way to connect with your peers.
When I ask people why they started using social media, inevitably they mention the fact that it’s a useful way of being able to network. You can talk about developments that interest you, and perhaps in the process attract the interest of a potential employer. Recruiters can also get a better sense of you in ways that won’t necessarily fit on your resume.