20 January 2012

What would sophisticated use of social media actually look like?

I've been asked to participate in a panel on "sophisticated uses of social media for science" at the upcoming Australian Science Communicators National Conference. I feel like something of a fraud for doing this.

Firstly, I'm not a science communicator. At most I'm an applied scientist with an annoying habit of over-sharing who likes using social media. Secondly, my use of social media probably isn't that sophisticated. I've been blogging on one form or another since 2003 and I've been a Twitter and Facebook user for four or five years. I've set up listservs (they still exist!), sent out e-newsletters, gotten involved in several wiki projects, actively participated in LinkedIn groups and even given Quora a go.

I've tried to use all these things to communicate with health impact assessment practitioners and researchers, but at a bigger-picture level I've been trying to create a community of practice. I've met with mixed results.

All this activity has been successful in broadcasting news about health impact assessment and my research. More people know about my work and me. It's done my work and my career no harm and I think people generally appreciate it. But it's been a lot less successful in bringing together that community of practice that I set out to create.

Why? I'm not entirely sure. There is of course a hierarchy of participation in all social media. For everyone who generates content there's many more who comment, and there's many more than them who share online information in some way (usually by email). The great bulk of people still engage online in (seemingly) passive ways. The number of people I know who use Twitter just to follow people but who never interact astounds me. This blog attracts around 3,000 unique visitors a month but I can't recall the last time we got a comment. There are a few more on our Facebook page, but there's a lower barrier to commenting because of the medium.

A lot of these shortcomings may come back to how I use social media, in perhaps unsophisticated ways. This blog is rarely written in a way that invites comments (needs more outrage!). Infodumps are often quicker and easier. The @hiablog Twitter account is principally for sharing links and retweeting others. It's useful but it's rarely dynamic and I doubt it's sophisticated.

All this prompts me to wonder, what would sophisticated use of social media look like? What should I, as an applied social researcher who's committed to social media, be trying to do?

I'll have a go at answering my own question in the comments. I plan to use any ideas you have shamelessly at the conference panel :)

Ben (you can also contact me at @ben_hr or @hiablog)


  1. In the spirit of discussion before the conference, I thought I'd break this blog's comment hiatus. I too probably shouldn't be called a sophisticated user of social media (I rely to much on all caps to make jokes, and I was told off recently by a radio listening colleague for not keeping my online presence up to date).

    But I do try to talk to people who are sophisticated

  2. Your Twitter links have incorrect URLs.

  3. Ben,
    Sums up a lot of the frustrations perfectly. I've shared your post on Twitter and FB, asked people in #socadl and other various places to share their insights. I'm also asking my video interviewees how they define social media, and what they are wanting to get out of it. But there is also a tension between how we do it (the technical) and the value we get (eg creating community). Will think a bit more and hopefully between us and others we can get a little further!

  4. Hey! My comment made it! Good little comment.

  5. @Lindy Thanks for the heads-up. Blogging on the iPad is clearly beyond my abilities :)

  6. First of all, you ARE a science communicator. You have a blog, twitter and you talk about science. I'm not sure what else you're waiting for?!? Hehe.

    I think that's actually the main point I'd like to make, especially in relation to @willozap's comment above. I think we need to stop waiting for people to be 'appointed' as science commentators and just begin linking and surfacing the people that are already doing it. Social Media is not something that needs experts. There are 800M people using Facebook now; not all of them are SM experts and they don't need to be. Communication is what communication does :)

    The community of practice stuff is important. Checkout the stuff on Anecdote for this - Shawn is brilliant at this stuff and the leader of the industry in Australia.


  7. Tell stories of the interesting use of social media that you have seen. One of my favourites is this one, Pete Williams (@rexster) talking about what happened in Flowerdale in the last place you would expect so much social media activity to occur. It helped them save parts of the town, then rebuild it stronger than ever and while involving many diverse groups (including sustainability scientists). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imnfn4dV2l8

  8. Hi Ben,
    It's interesting that you don't characterise yourself as a 'science communicator', yet describe yourself as a scientist who does communicate science related information.

    Also the mix of communication channels you mention is pretty 'sophisticated' in terms of corporate external communications.

    It sounds like there are some grounds for discussion at the very least.

  9. @Kate I may have to bite the bullet and accept that I'm a member of the science communicator caste :)

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