Well, Christie Wilcox has completed her series on scientists engaging with social media and unsurprisingly, I’ve got some thoughts. I’m not going to spend time recapping her argument here, because the points I’m going to make are fairly targeted so if you haven’t read what she’s written, you should go do so now. Done? Before we go on, let me reiterate what I’ve said before: I like what she’s written, and I think there’s some great stuff in it. Don’t mistake my disagreement for belief that there’s nothing valuable in what she says; I just want to broaden the conversation a bit. Okay. So, let’s take a look:
Sure, if you don’t build it they can’t come. But just because you do build it, doesn’t mean they will.
Christie continues to gloss over the hard work required to build an audience in social media, and I’d like to take the opportunity to point out – again – that it’s not as simple as getting a blog, a Twitter account, or a Facebook page and starting to write. Her first benefit to blogging is “If It Was Worth Doing, It’s Worth Telling Someone About”, which she illustrates with an encouraging tale of the success of social media:
Just ask Peter Janiszewski, of Obesity Panacea. Last year, he and his colleague published a fascinating paper in the prestigious journal Diabetes Care. The problem was, it went unnoticed. For three months, his study wasn’t blogged about. It wasn’t picked up by the press. No one seemed to care.
But Peter cared. He decided that the paper fit well into his blog’s theme, and wrote a 5-part series on the topic of metabolically-healthy obesity, the final post of which was a discussion of his recently published paper.
The series was a hit. Peter’s blog posts received over 12,000 pageviews and more than 70 comments from readers during the week of the series. As Peter recounts, “Put another way, the same research which I published in a prestigious medical journal and made basically no impact, was then viewed by over 12,000 sets of eyes because I decided to discuss it online.” A few days later, an article about his study was published on MSNBC.com.
Sure, Peter’s tale might be exceptional, but the point is there is a lot of potential to expand the reach of your research over social media. This kind of exposure isn’t just for the sake of communication. As Daniel McArthur noted, “A fairly hefty proportion of the readership of most science blogs consists of other scientists, so having your work disseminated in these forums both increases your profile within the scientific community, promotes thoughtful discussion of your work and can lead to opportunities for collaboration.”.
That’s great! Well, it’s great if it happens. But the argument of her post is essentially a cost-benefit trade-off, and I feel that Christie overemphasizes the benefit while ignoring the cost. As to benefit, I’d like to ask a question here: how likely is it that any given post on a scientific topic will receive n (here, n = 12,000) pageviews? To answer that question quantitatively would require access to data that I don’t have – we would need to get traffic logs from multiple blog sources and use advanced statistical methodology to work out the distribution of page views as a function of source, content type, and so on. But in the absence of such a data source, we can proceed by approximation and see if we can come up with some reasonable thoughts on the subject.
As evidence, I’ll use this post from Nate Silver (who writes the genius FiveThirtyeight blog, and from whom I’ve shamelessly stolen the title of this post) on the traffic at the Huffington Post. Nate was making a point there that I would like to similarly make here: most blog posts sink into obscurity. He shows that page views at the HuffPo can be reasonably assumed to follow a power law, where a few posts get major traffic and most get very little, if any. (Seriously, read Nate’s post – it’s a great analysis). I would extend this argument to science blogging and suggest that it’s extremely likely that science blogging follows the same distribution of attention: most posts get little to no attention. The same relationship probably carries over to the blog level, where some blogs get a lot of attention and most receive none. Using Nate’s comments metric, I’d guess that Pharyngula gets an order of magnitude more page views in an hour than I’ve ever gotten here. That’s not a whine about my traffic, but a comment on building an audience. I’m enjoying the process of writing and blogging, and I’m slowly starting to get a few regular readers, but it’s been nearly a year for this blog; unless I’m willing to put a lot more work into it my numbers aren’t going to be anywhere near 12,000 page views for my upcoming seventeen part series on the spatio-temporal dynamics of producer-scrounger games.
You might think that this is sour grapes on my part, because Christie has a much broader reach than I do, but you’d be missing the point on two fronts. First, I like doing this, and I’d do it no-one was reading (arguably, I have been doing just that for most of this blog’s existence. 🙂 ). Second, I’m trying to say that a great audience doesn’t just show up. It requires a lot of smart, interesting posting which requires time and effort punctuated by long periods of little to no extrinsic payoff. It’s also an unavoidable and often unremarked truth that long, detailed posts on scientific topics receive less attention than short, snappy posts with squid videos. Does the benefit of the possible wide attention that comes with social media outweigh the cost of building and maintaining that audience? That’s an empirical question, and I’m going to suggest that for some people it’s possible that the answer will be “no”.
I’d also like to ask two shorter questions here. First, is it reasonable to assume that anyone who wants to build an audience will be able to build an audience, even assuming that they all put in the required work? And second, what happens when the market of science bloggers gets flooded with new entrants? Does it make sense to assume that building an audience will remain as easy or hard as it is now when the room gets more crowded and you have to shout harder to be heard?
And the cost itself? Well, the cost is variable. Again, I blog largely because I enjoy it and because of of Christie’s fifth benefit: practicing my mad skillz. The opportunity cost in terms of lost research time or reading time is worth it to me, but it’s still a trade-off that I am consciously making. Academic advancement committees have yet to recognise blogging as a valuable activity, and they are unlikely to reward you for the number of Twitter followers you have; Christie is asking academics to make what could possibly be a significant sacrifice in terms of career advancement for uncertain returns in the social media space. I’m willing to roll the dice on that myself, but I’m not willing to claim that everyone else should too. Will the networking benefits that come from Christie’s second point or the branding benefits that come from her fourth point make up for this? I don’t know yet, because they haven’t happened to me. Check back in a year and we’ll see. In the mean-time, though, Christie has a lot of great sounding benefits with no evidence that they really occur to most people blogging science.
I’m going to make a counter claim, and leave it up to the reader to decide what they believe to be more likely (in the absence of data that I either don’t know about or which doesn’t exist yet). Christie’s argument carries the implicit assumption that nearly any scientist who blogs can, if they work for it, achieve great results and reap large benefits from the use of social media. I’m going to claim, instead, that science blogging shares more with most other forms of audience-building activities than we would like to admit: the outcomes will be highly variable. Just like musicians and artists, actors and authors, many more will try than will succeed. Some will gain much glory, while others will toil for months or years and either satisfy themselves with a small audience or give up in frustration.
“All you have to do is…”
Christie goes on to say that social media enhances non-social outreach, which is a point that we argued about on her previous post. I’m grateful that she’s addressed it, but unconvinced by her comments. Here’s part of her salvo:
All you have to do is be a little creative. Let’s say your lab currently does community outreach by going into local schools and talking about science, for example. Imagine how many more school kids could be reached if you made the materials you create or your lessons available online, complete with an outline of how the day was structured and reflections afterwards.
As Molly Wood has taught me, the phrase “all you have to do” and its variants is usually a signal that what follows isn’t going to be easy at all. And again, there’s a cost-benefit trade-off here. Packaging such a lesson for wide release and then actually releasing it in a form that will be of use to others requires a fair amount of work. What poor grad student or honours student gets stuck with that thankless task on top of what else they have to do? And where is the imaginary army of eager school children waiting around on the internet for additional work from some scientist they’ve never heard of?
Or, let’s say you organize volunteering events which benefit the environment, like beach cleanups or invasive species removal efforts. How many more helping hands do you think you’d get if you posted them as facebook events or developed a network of local tweeps who like to volunteer?
I just checked, and I have right now I have 80 followers on Twitter (huh, more than I thought!). Most of those don’t live in Sydney. If I combined my blog and Twitter accounts and organized a beach cleanup for Maroubra Beach, using all of my social media powers, it would still be a pretty sorry affair. Again, though, this isn’t a whine; it just shows that receiving the benefits requires a lot of work to build and maintain that network. All I have to do is … put months or years of effort into getting people to pay attention to me on social media so that I can leverage it occasionally? If building that network doesn’t come with its own intrinsic benefit, I don’t see this occasional payoff being the clincher.
But maybe my call will go viral, and a thousand people will descend on the beach! Ah, the promise of social media: an unexpected ballooning of your audience to hundreds, thousands, or even millions with little to no warning. That will still be cold comfort to me on the other 999 times out of 1000 that I’m standing on the beach, holding a trash bag and looking sorrowfully at miles of sand that I’ll be cleaning up by myself.
The good and the bad. There’s no ugly here.
Christie’s benefits – like the value of disseminating your research, networking, practicing skills, enhancing out-reach, and so on – are great things to highlight about social media. My point here isn’t to dissuade scientists from using blogging or Twitter as a tool for enhancing the communication of science or for their own benefit; it’s to point out that the relationship between the benefits that come from social media and the costs required to acquire those benefits is complicated and somewhat unclear. Christie herself is out on the forefront of blogging science, and from her platform at Scientific American she has the potential to get huge benefits from the work that she’s put in. But I have to ring the bell and point out the elephant in the room: Christie is pitching this piece to scientists who don’t use social media, and is asking them to take a risk on it. It’s not something that should be entered into without thinking about it first.
. It’s worth pointing out that some people would be happy to have a small audience of their peers consistently read their work. Maybe it’s not 12000 page views that are important, but getting 50 views from people in your field. As scientists we’re used to this model, because it’s how much of the science community operates. My response to this idea is three-fold. First, you still have to build the audience by reaching through the noise to those 50 people , with even more variance in possible outcome. With social media, it’s probably easier to get 10000 people you dont’ know than 50 people you respect to read your material. Second, if you’re publishing in the field, most of the people that you would want to be on that list are probably already aware of you and your work. Where’s the added value of social media then? Third, Christie’s piece focuses on big numbers (12000 page views, networking x 1000), and so I will too.