Why Should Scientists Tweet

It was inevitable that I would be a Twitterphile.

Other than bored adolescents and adolescents-at-heart, the main users of Twitter, and the ones who actually gain something from it, are technophiles, software nerds, journalists, and activists. There is so much of interest to me there that my head spins.

But of scientists, not so much. I follow a few scientists, some of whom I have briefly met, and a couple of others from far overseas. They say very clever things. I retweet them on occasion. I wish there were more. Most of them are science bloggers, but that sort of figures.

Here is an article that attempts to explain the attraction of Twitter to scientists, but I think it doesn’t entirely succeed.

Twitter finally solves the problem of asking the net a difficult question. Google serves well enough for easy ones; “What is the capital of Armenia?” “What was the name of the movie where Cary Grant’s crazy aunts kill people out of kindness?” And there’s a class of question for which Wolfram Alpha might be useful, too: “What’s the specific gravity of ammonium nitrate at room temperature?” But there are some questions which are almost impossible for most people and very easy for a few.

Take this one: “what’s the relaxation time constant for ocean acidification due to a CO2 perturbation?” This is a question for which the number of motivated querents is while modest, nonzero, and the number of people who know the answer is also small but nonzero. The answer is probably implicit, and possibly explicit, somewhere in the “literature”; however, there are enough ways to ask it that a Google search is not likely to succeed.

If biogeochemists participated in Twitter, though, I could just ask the question with a suitable “hash tag”, e.g. “#biogeochem”. Now, I don’t actually expect that to work, because David Archer is not the type to be playing around on Twitter. (I did try, for what it’s worth.)

But the #stats and #python hash tags have worked for me on various obscure questions. In a sense Twitter serves as all your usente groups rolled into one. So in addition to being a news and entertainment source, it can provide a means for asking the world questions, and for developing working relationships with investigators who have complementary skills. It seems to me a perfect venue for scientists, who often have many questions looking for answers and many answers waiting for questioners.

The crucial idea of Twitter is that it is a public datastream. While your view is highly filtered by default, (practically) everything anyone tweets is searchable, and most of it wants to be found.

Another point is that it is symbiotic with blogging. You announce your blog posts on Twitter, and hope others point them out in their own comment streams as well. And you can (as I have done recently) organize your blog so as to facilitate tweeting specific articles.

I especially encourage Twitter use among my readers. It doesn’t do me much good if you follow me on Twitter without becoming a participant, but if you do participate, I encourage you to link to articles on my blog. This is a far more effective way to help relatively obscure blogs gain traction than Digg or Stumble or the like, where you need to appeal to everybody. On Twitter, a self-selected subset of the general population will do.

So, whatever your intuition says, Twitter can be extremely useful in enhancing communication. The way in which it scales is strange and clever. It takes some time to get used to the whole thing but it’s really worth it for me. I think any individual scientist could benefit from Twitter already, and the more so the more its advantages are understood.

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Update:

Yes, it was a real question. And it yielded a real answer.

The "Back Channel" Rules (O/T)

Venturing a bit off topic here.

So the most interesting thing for me about SXSWi today was a meeting about “new thinking in the book publishing business”. I went because Clay Shirky was there. Despite the fact that I had never heard of him a week ago, he is now in my pantheon of heroes. And indeed, when he spoke he was great. But most of the panel presentation was irrelevant (and rather pointless) exposition on the part of the panelists of pretty much old fashioned editorial work.

This is hardly the first time such a thing has occurred, but the outcome was unexpected and enormously interesting. Why? Because almost everybody in the audience was on a pre-announced twitter channel #sxswbp. And by the time anybody in the crowd got to ask anything, most of the crowd was in a very collective and connected foul mood.

The twitter channel also caught some great bons mots, mostly from Shirky:

“Filtering is the single most important thing on the Internet today”

“Internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history.”

“Teenagers are rushing home to read and write!”

“Once you know who’s going to hate something, you don’t have to write with them in mind.”

“If you don’t like paranormal romance you shouldn’t try to fake it”

“Book writing is like driving an ammo truck; you can’t pull over.”

“Finding stuff you didn’t know you were looking for is still a hard problem.”

” Long-form writing must be relevant beyond NOW, by nature.”

No doubt these are all smart and articulate people. But what about, you know, the future of the book publishing industry? You know, the topic we came to learn about?

Here’s the upshot. Apparently, the publishers’ point is this: if we didn’t have publishers, who would discover brilliant new authors of literature?

I have an unpleasant little secret I want to share with you. I don’t care about “literature” very much and in fact very few people do. (I care about SF and graphic novels a little, tech books and software management books a good deal more, and science and math and pop science and math most of all. Other people have other priorities.)

I wrote a book once that while never fated for literary greatness could have been much better were it not for damage by the editor and the publisher. Is this because they were all focused on finding the next literature Nobelist?

Fine, your call. Next time I’ll take my business elsewhere. So this event confirmed my interest in self-publishing to, errm, “monetize” (eww…) my blogging. I’m not the issue here, but I got the sense that the members of the blogger-heavy audience (it was asked at one point and consistent bloggers formed a majority of the audience) were all making similar calculations.

The event was ironic because it was ultimately not about long form writing at all but about the very short form, i.e., the 140 or fewer characters in a Twitter message. For all I know it was a watershed event in the history of instant messaging. It certainly was a revelation for me, and that’s why I’m glad I was there.

Twitter is nowhere near as silly an idea as it appears at first glance. If you still think it is, go look at the #sxswbp (yes, same as above) link. It was an amazing event, though not in the intended way.

(Picture: The Lego alcove at SXSW from above)