Why do we use social media?

My Head of School has set me a bit of a challenge. I have to write something about why academics use social media and why it might be a worthwhile thing to persuade colleagues to get involved with. This post is a bit of a practice I suppose, or maybe I will make this my report (that would be really novel). Until the beginning of 2013 I really couldn’t see the point myself and thought that Twitter was a pointless load of tosh, where morons followed every decree of celebrities or trolls patrolled on the hunt for vulnerable souls. I have since seen the light (or maybe become one of the morons…) and am an avid twitterer (tweeter? twit?) and of course have two blogs to manage.

As I see it social media serves several purposes for me:


Communicating science!
Public comment on news stories and other people’s research
Dissemination of my activities and results from our work
Keeping in touch with what people within my collaborator network are doing
Finding about about BBSRC and other funder priorities as soon as they announce them
Monitoring publications from my favourite journals
Showcasing what our students are doing
Celebrating achievement within the School of Biosciences
Showing students that I just human and approachable
Outreach activity- the next generation of scientists are social media savvy and find this mode of communication normal and palatable

Messing about… laughing at pictures of kittens, etc (but we can gloss over that)



Publicity and an opportunity to comment on certain issues: I blog a lot more on my other channel for the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics and have used that site as a chance to produce some non-standard publications (guides on writing, guides on peer review) which get a lot of visitors.

Dissemination: I can write about lab activities and our published papers on here. I can discuss results ahead of publication if I really want to and generally use this as a shop window for what we do.

Keeping in touch: I know that there are some people who read my blogs regularly and so I have begun to shape my posts for that audience. The coverage is immense. This blog for example attracts maybe 10 hits a day, with good coverage in the UK and USA. but the JHND blog gets an average of 100 visits per day, with global coverage.

‘Social’ media is just that- this is not static writing

Dissemination of information via social media is useful as it sparks debate in real time and is an interactive experience. It can provide a medium for open discussion of research (e.g. a new paper is published and people discuss and critique on Twitter), relevant news stories (e.g. in Nutritional Sciences we often openly respond to nutrition in the news stories via Twitter), publicise conference material for those who can’t be there, showcase student activity. Post a story and nine times out of ten, somebody will respond and pass it on to other people. We can get people and excited by posting simple comments about much deeper subjects. On Twitter it is OK to be quirky and funny to gain interest and prompt a more serious debate.

The great thing is- it isn’t time consuming. Stories can be initiated and read in a matter of minutes. There is no need to sweat over the quality of text. We can just say ‘Look at my new paper- it’s really exciting! Here it is.’ Users of social media form networks and groups for discussion. I know of many instances where postdocs in the lab tweet each other for advice on technical problems. The power of being able to tweet the whole world with ‘Does anybody know how to grow HUVECs #cellculturetips’ is awesome- because somebody WILL respond. Some of the networks that are made include people that we wouldn’t normally meet and as such it is a tool for the initiation of collaborations that may be built through other means. The conference that I am attending next week for example has set up a conference app that allows us all to exchange contact details, including Twitter addresses and follow each others reactions to the presentations. This may be a good way of finding the like-minded people in the hotel so that I can go and talk to them.

How could social media be used more widely?

The use of these tools could be greatly extended and there would be further advantages for the University community. In my area, we get many requests from the media to comment on stories about nutrition and health. 90% of these are real horrors that we shouldn’t touch wit a bargepole and the remainder usually require us to say something authoritative about work from another institution that we haven’t yet had the time to read in detail and provide a fair critique. It would be great if the media contact we had was about our own work for a change. Social media would be a great vehicle for driving that. Tweet an eye-catching picture with a link to a news story on our web pages, or just direct to our journal articles. If the picture is good, it will be retweeted many, many times and may eventually catch a journo’s eye.

It is the exponential nature of Twitter that makes it so attractive as a tool for communication. if you tweet something to your 500 followers and just half a dozen of them retweet it to their 500 followers each and then a couple of the next group do likewise, then you have potentially hit 10000 recipients of the message. It is instant too and doesn’t require anyone to go searching for information- these things just pop up on their phone. Some of the key institutions that we deal (BBSRC for example) with have Twitter feeds too and they will pick up on our news and activities by reading our tweets. Maybe they will pass them on by retweeting to many thousands of followers, and maybe they will note what we are doing and be impressed.

Any other reasons that I should be considering? Let me know. Go on! Prove that this is an interactive experience!

There are of course dangers- it is very easy to be unprofessional via social media, so it is really important to either keep control over idle fingers after a glass or two of wine, or ensure that you insert a disclaimer against your name to make it clear that your views are your own and not those of the University… However, what our School has to consider is the value of having an official Twitter feed or blog that is used in marketing, recruitment, news dissemination, etc, so these issues should not be a problem.


Update- this really is instant. I posted this blog at 1636 and by 1640 it had received 15 visitors…

7 thoughts on “Why do we use social media?

  1. An excellent summary Simon. I would add that, as one gets older, it becomes all too easy to rely on methods of communication that one has always felt comfortable with rather than experiment with other, less familiar ways. For me, my use of Twitter has been one of trying to remain a “digital resident” and very much a learning experience. So a good reason to use social media is just to keep learning and the grey matter in shape.

  2. Evil head of school I say.

    Very helpful summary. I guess many people worry they don’t have enough of a flow of interesting stuff to tweet, blog and so on? Does occasional or intermittent tweeting create the same impression as an out of date website?

  3. Also – its possible to have a common Tweet box that a number of people can feed into so that it doesn’t all rest on one person – this might be a way of having a School twitter account that picks up a variety of content e.g. via Grouptweet or similar. It’s also possible to schedule Tweets using a whole variety of apps. so that either Tweets happen at the best time for the audience and / or there is no noticeable silence (Simon’s point on silence wholly agreed with though).

  4. Really good Simon – thanks. I enjoy using Twitter and find it quite fun. One thing I like about Twitter is that it is a great leveller. I may not be invited into exciting academic meetings but through Twitter I can engage with academics that is not always possible within other university structures. Can we get students to engage with others too – engaging beyond the walled garden analogy?
    This link is also interesting:
    I’m not sure of Twitter’s true value but James Wong tweeted about our Summer School in Plants and Crops today to 19.7k followers. Now if we get a year 11 pupil to our Summer School because of that; that would be fantastic.

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