This was initially posted at: http://www.nature.com/spoton/2013/04/social-media-for-science-outreach-a-case-study-that-social-media-thang/ as part of a series of case studies exploring how academics use social media.
Jon began university life as a geologist, following this with a treacherous leap into the life sciences with a course in biodiversity and taxonomy. Now undertaking a PhD in tetrapod biodiversity and extinction at Imperial College London, there was a brief interlude were Jon was sucked into the world of science policy and communication. He blogs at http://blogs.egu.eu/palaeoblog/, tweets as Protohedgehog and co-runs an [infamous, probably] podcast series called Palaeocast. Jon can usually be found procrastinating in pubs, trying to exchange bad science, usually about dinosaurs, in exchange for food and beer.
Tell us a bit about you and your social media project
I’m currently a PhD student at Imperial College London, investigating the biodiversity patterns of tetrapods (anything with four limbs/wings/flippers) about 145 million years ago to see what we can figure out in a macroevolutionary sense, and whether we can find a ‘hidden’ mass extinction in the fossil record. I commit some of my time to 3 major social media platforms: blogging, tweeting, and podcasting, with a bit of Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and others on the side. These activities are less of a project, per se, and more just stuff I do in parallel, and often with overlap, with my PhD research.
Why did you decide to start this project?
The main reason that I initially got into social media, was because I was chronically unemployed after my second Masters. Delving into the world of tweeting and blogging seemed like a great way to develop my writing skills and online networking, alongside volunteer work at the University of Leicester. Some time after,Dave Marshall mentioned his idea for the Palaeocast podcast, and we launched things from there.
So to begin with, my aims were a little uncertain, but after some time (I’ve been involved with social media for almost 18 months now), I’ve begun to refine my activities in response to experiences, and the fact that I’ve recently started a PhD. I’ve narrowed the focus of my blog posts to covering recent scientific research as a way of making the science more accessible and improving the reach of new developments in the field of palaeontology. When I began my PhD, I also began to use the blog as a gateway for opening up the processes involved in my research. Twitter has proved invaluable for many reasons including disseminating my blog posts, developing contacts with those outside, as well as those within, academia, and keeping up to date with scientific and science policy developments.
How did you get started and did you encounter any problems?
Getting started was actually pretty easy. To begin with, I used the WordPress platform for blogging, which is just a case of making a free account and figuring out which template you’d like to use. About 9 months after, the blog became part of the launch of European Geosciences Union blog network, and has been there ever since. This is managed externally so I don’t need to worry about any technical issues. It was also easy to get started with Twitter; finding networks to integrate into was just a case of being active and sending out a few exploratory tendrils. Podcasting was a little more complex, as we had to acquire equipment and build a website. We’re now also looking into setting up a dedicated server to host the material. To help us get started with the podcasting we applied for education and outreach grants from relevant societies, and were fortunate enough to be successful with both The Palaeontological Society and Palaeontological Association. We added a third member, Joe Keating, to our team then, and have been palaeocasting ever since, with big plans for the future!
In terms of support, I actually had very little from friends, family or colleagues. In fact, it was mostly the online community which I primarily knew through Twitter (and subsequently in real life) which supported my development as a fledgling science communicator. Colleagues have warned me to make sure my social media activities don’t detract time from my research, which is fine, as I’m technically paid to be a researcher. This means that I do commit additional time to these things, both inside and outside of work. Some fellow PhD students from within my department have very occasionally said they like my writing, but that’s about it in terms of support from within academia.
What were the outcomes of your project? Was it a success or were there also downsides?
I’d like to think that my time committed to social media has been pretty successful. I now have many academic and non-academic contacts, many of whom I consider as friends after meeting them in real life. I have also greatly improved my writing skills (apparently), to the extent that I’ve been fortunate enough to write several guest posts, write for a European organisation, and am soon going to be part of two new science blog networks. Through all of this, I haven’t been paid a penny. It’s all volunteering, and I do it in my ‘spare’ time.
There are some financial benefits, such as a fully-funded trip to a conference in Vienna to discuss social media as an academic (where I’m writing this from!) In terms of results, it’s a blend of qualitative and quantitative outcomes. Anecdotally, I’ve had many great experiences with people and events that are outside of the ‘typical’ academic sphere, and am sure I will continue to do so. I think that my writing skills have vastly improved and I guess the only way I can hesitantly say this is from the comments that I get from readers. In terms of stats, visits to my blog posts are substantially higher than when I first started (about four times as much, on average, with the usual Twitter boosts!). I now have over 2500 Twitter followers, and have just hit 10,000 episode downloads with Palaeocast, which I guess is an indication that some people are listening to, or at least interested in, what I have to say and the content I deliver. So, although I’m in this primarily to disseminate my research and research field, I do feel like my online profile is beginning to naturally develop in concert with this, which may lead to additional opportunities in the future.
How did you assess whether the project was a success and whether it achieved your original goals?
Given that I didn’t really have any initial goals, I guess this meant that I initially lacked direction, but it has also meant that every reward, no matter how small, seems like a great success to me. This is anything from receiving positive comments on my blog posts, to achieving statistical milestones, such as the 10,000 downloads for Palaeocast. I think impact assessment is one of the most difficult things about these types of on-going social media activities. We can look at simple dissemination metrics which give an indication of the reach of article or podcast episodes, using tools such as ImpactStory or CrowdBooster, but for me the success comes from the comments and feedback I receive, in real life, on blog posts, and on Twitter. It’s these anecdotal experiences for me that make it all worthwhile. I’d like to think that Palaeocast is going from strength to strength too, and has most certainly achieved our initial target of delivering scientific content directly from scientists with great success, based on feedback we receive and on the increasing download statistics.
Did you unexpectedly achieve other things as well? E.g. Did you form unplanned collaborations?
Most of the effects of what I do have been largely unanticipated; being invited to talk about social media at events is always an unexpected email to receive, for example! The main thing, I guess, has probably been the welcoming nature of the social media community, both online and in real life, to both myself as a researcher and the things I produce. The whole experience has generally been pretty awesome because of this, and presumably will continue to be in future! One thing that I’m currently working on is a collaboration with two people involved with the more social aspects of science, who are interested informally assessing a scheme initiated by a learned society. Hopefully, we can reveal more about at this new project at some point in the future!
List your five top tips for anyone wanting to start a similar project
- Be brave. It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to. Or something like that – you’ll never know where your social media journey will take you, but you certainly won’t without taking the initial plunge.
- Be adaptive and be flexible – social media changes, and your audience will too. So stay on theme, but don’t be too rigid.
- Don’t be afraid to ask people for tips and advice – the social media community is totally awesome, extremely friendly, and helpful.
- You will get better over time. Don’t expect to become Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer overnight. It takes at least 3 weeks to hit that kind of status.
- There is a danger that you might, be perceived as ‘self-promoting’ by your peers or others. Let them have their opinions; as long as you are promoting your science, then passive self-promotion is a natural part of this.