Insect Carl Sagan and science communication

The latest buzz going round the online science community is an article that suggests that scientists might not be doing enough to communicate with the public.  Scicurious wrote an excellent reply. I struggled to find an excerpt that I could quote here, because the whole thing had me jumping up and down and shouting “AMEN, SISTER.”  Here’s one bit:

“…all this emphasis on these BIG names bothers me more than that. Big names are fine. Everyone wants someone to look up to. But small name researchers make great communicators too. I know I’m not winning any big prizes soon, but I’d like to think I write a witty, educational blog post now and again. Why is fame the most important thing here? Why do we need a big scientific name? Why can’t we make our names, say, through the outreach we do (and some solid, but perhaps lesser known science)?

If no one knows who these big name scientists are anyway (as the article implies), then why is it necessary that they be the ones to do the outreach? After all, many of the science communication success stories the author cites GOT THEIR NAMES through their outreach. Who were the Mythbusters…before Mythbusters? No one outside his field knew who Neil deGrasse Tyson was before he started doing outreach. These people made their names THROUGH their outreach. The emphasis on Big Names that are ALREADY big seems really elitist.”

I’ve said this before, but it’s especially relevant to me now, as I’m in what seems to be the twilight of my career:

ehrmahgerd bertles!I will write this shit even if no one but me reads it.

I love insects, I love to write, and I love to find ways to get people to share my OMGBUGZ moments.  I’m busting my ass here and on social media every day, not because I am getting famous, and certainly not because it makes me any money. I do it for love.

We know, from decades of research, that what makes a good teacher is passion.  Why were Sagan, or DeGrasse Tyson, Nye, or Attenborough successful? Because they love what they do, they love their science, and it shows. (Also, they started in a completely different media environment. And are dudes. But let’s not go there right now.)

There are people out here online with me, passionately writing, podcasting, or videocasting their hearts out. A few lucky ones make a living at it. But just because I don’t have name recognition, that doesn’t mean that I’m not successful. I measure success one comment and one retweet at a time.  I don’t have a klout score as high as John Cusack anymore, but that’s not the point.

One person says they changed their mind about hating spiders.
I said something kind to a graduate student and encouraged her.
A local newspaper corrects a mangled insect factoid.

That is what online science communication success looks like now.

With the advent of the internet, ideas or passions bring people together, rather than physical locations or media channels. Scientists that do outreach online–even when it’s looked down upon by fellow scientists? We are modeling positive deviance.  It’s not so much what we write that is important, but THAT WE WRITE AT ALL.

We are creating a model for a new kind of science communication.  And we are having a bitchin’ time doing it, which invites new people over to have fun with us. We are modeling different ways to share science online to our friends, our friends’ friends, and to the random strange people who keep searching my blog for “sex with insects.” (You know who you are.)

It’s personal relationships that really change the world. I was inspired by Sagan and Attenborough…but it was my not-famous teachers and mentors that helped me get through school and believe that I could be a scientist too.  Small individual creative acts (tweets, blog posts, or just chatting on Facebook) can become a thing of lasting value.  Shared and random effort can produce useful and meaningful results.

The beauty of the web is that we don’t all have to have the same motivations or professional level of skill. We don’t all have to be working toward the same goal.  We can still make change happen simply by putting our ideas out there. The beauty of the web is that scientists can get online and screw around together, playing with ideas.

Who cares if we’re “doing it right.” We’re doing it.

Which is exactly how Insect Carl Sagan Happened. Enjoy.

And then things started to get really awesome:

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“Mine is Bigger than Yours”: Social Media Ranking and Scientists

Cartoon from Tom FishburneOne of the things I’ve struggled with during my online career is how to figure out what impact, if any, I’m actually creating with all my blogging, tweeting, and other online social media activity.   It would be nice to show a potential funding agency or employer that I’m not just farting around on the internet.  I’m actually accomplishing something.

By. Um.
Farting around on the internet.


There are a lot of different ways that you can try to measure how far your online efforts are spreading your ideas. (BTW, there is a large and argumentative literature about the differences between Assessment, Evaluation, and Measurement.  I am going to stick with the less controversial term ‘Measurement’ here.)

You can track your traffic using Google Analytics.  You can count how many followers you have on Twitter, Friends on Facebook, Followers on G+, and Pinheads (?) on Pinterest.  But before you jump into measuring, stop and think.  You are a scientist. Would you run around measuring all possible variables for an experiment?  I hope not.

social media planning strategyStart with WHY you are online. What do you want to accomplish? I really like this graphic, because it shows how what you measure should be driven by your goals.

When I started blogging, I wanted to try to get better at writing for a non-technical audience (personal goal) and I wanted to get more people thinking insects are cool (squidgy professional goal).  Those are not, of course, proper goals. But it’s a start.

I’ve had 1.3 million visits to my blog.  But what does that really mean in terms of my goals?   That traffic could just be the result of very good search engine optimization.  It might be a million people clicking through, going “Damn it, no porn!” and then leaving.

If you are counting followers, or blog visits, you probably have an upward trending line. Yay!  But that doesn’t actually mean that you are changing any behavior, or having any influence. What you want to know is how many “Likes”, RTs, comments, or other sorts of things that show people actually engaging with your content there are.

What’s an appropriate metric for those goals? Google Analytics data for length of time on a page tells me if people found my writing interesting enough to stay for a while.  Number of return visitors tells me if people ever come back, or if they read one thing, and then decide that’s enough.

Don’t measure everything from the giant firehose of internet data.  Choose metrics that actually help decide if you’re heading toward your goals, or at least give an indirect measure.

Do you really need to keep track of any of this stuff?

That depends on your goal! If you really are messing around on the internet just for fun, then why worry about investing time in this sort of record keeping? That’s time you aren’t writing awesome stuff.

On the other hand,  you might want this info for a portfolio.  Much better to have some data than none.  You can set up a few monthly routines or use some automated tools to gather basic info that you might want, so it won’t eat a lot of your time.

This post will focus on Quantitative data about your online activity–things you can measure.  You should also save things that are qualitative–really nice comments, emails, or other interactions. Those are nice for portfolios, and also preserve moments you can look back on for a warm fuzzy feeling.

There are good tools out there that can give you lots of data about your social media and blogs.   Many of them are expensive, but some are free. Lets look at some of the biggest free ones. (more…)