Saturday, January 9, 2010

Socializing scientists

I recently attended a roundtable discussion that was supposedly aimed at telling faculty and postdocs how to use social media to develop networks for collaboration and career development. The concept is a great (although in this case, the execution fell short). Although I blog anonymously, I find a surprising sense of community here, and I am intrigued about how scientists are using social media to connect and collaborate.

There has been explosion of networking tools over the past few years. If you are reading this blog, chances are you have a good idea of what these tools are. So first, a poll:

One point that emerged in the roundtable discussion was that each media outlet serves its own unique purpose. You choose the ones that suit your style, your personality, and the amount of time and effort you want to commit. Facebook has been a way for me to keep tabs on family and friends that I rarely see, but given its casual nature, has never moved beyond that. Twitter and blogging have become my primary connections to the online science community. Twitter is stream of almost constant chatter. It has become a place to exchange snippets from everyday life or share links to interesting articles or blog posts--the sort of things that might be of interest to other people but not needing a full blog post. Blogging allows me to share my views and experiences or to solicit opinions on a given topic. Thus far it has largely been an outlet for discussing the culture and politics of being an early career scientist. It also provides a place for me to develop ideas about mentoring and research issues and philosophies. Plus blogging gives me a chance to write with no limitations, which is necessary to developing writing skills (I might take up some research blogging to hone my science writing skills, as well). I'm very interested in hearing ways others are using social media.

The reason blogging and Twitter have worked so well is that there is a sense of community. We talk about science, but we also throw in personal tidbits along the way. Even if I don't know your real names or where in the world you are, I do feel like I'm talking with "real" people. There is a refreshing level of honesty and personality. And this is where professional social networking sites have thus far failed, in my opinion. I have an account with one or two of these science networking sites. I can't even remember my logins for them. One I would look at maybe every one to six months. Although professional networks will always be different from more casual ones, such as Twitter, Facebook, etc., they suffer from a lack of engagement. (As an aside, the people involved in setting up the NIH-funded $12 million network for scientists would do well to take note of what has and hasn't worked for both professional and open social networks.)

This is where we run into a major issue with convincing other scientists to get into social media. With open networks, anything goes. With restricted networks, nothing is going on. What to do? How do you get skeptics involved? Marketing people and techies are not going to convince scientists and physicians that they should be tweeting or Facebooking or blogging. There are many scientists who are doing great things with social media. These are the people who should be in the room telling other scientists of the utility of these networks.