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)