Cultivating followers on social media when you want to communicate science

How do you explain why social media can be a good thing for researchers to look into? What advantages and what challenges are important to highlight? Next week, I’ll be introducing social media for science communication to the Danish Public Health Sciences Alumni (in Danish). It always helps being quite convinced yourself of what you are talking about, but reading other people’s arguments can also help. Especially, if they are in line with your own experiences.

I was therefore delighted to read a blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience, by Matt Shipman, a public information officer at North Carolina State University. He writes about using social media (like Twitter and Facebook) and science blogs for taking science to the public.

Building networks takes time

Apart from the simple and convincing argumentation, what I like about the blog post is that Matt Shipman points out the fact that it takes time to build up the necessary network to get the full value of social media. This aspect is not that often acknowledged. My own experience is also that it takes time, and that you need to be patient in the beginning and that it requires some work. Just like you need to be patient when building up networks in real life. As Matt Shipman writes:

“Just because you set up a social media account doesn’t mean that anyone will know about it. You’ll need to take the time to cultivate a following.” 

And how do you do that? Matt Shipman has a few suggestions, which match very well my own experiences.

“You can start by figuring out your desired audience. Who do you want to be following you? Other scientists? Relevant science writers? Potential grad students? […] Once you’ve defined your target audience (or audiences), you can begin reaching out to friends and colleagues who are already online. They can help point people to your Twitter account, Facebook page, etc”

In my experience making searches on e.g. Twitter and looking at who pops up is also a good start for finding out who to follow. And just like looking at the references in a scientific article can give hints on where to find more knowledge, so does it help to look at who key people are following – making chain searchers so to speak.

Getting people to follow you

One thing is finding out who you should follow, getting the relevant people to follow you is also a challenge, and probably a bigger one. Without followers you are missing the whole point of social media. To get full advantage you need to have the relevant people to follow you – and not only that:

“.. if you really want people to pay attention, you need to have something to offer. Content is king, and you need to contribute something to the online conversation. In other words, why should people be listening to you?”

Social media like Facebook and Twitter are good for drawing attention to things, and communicate short messages but not always for more extensive communication:

“Social media platforms can be very limiting. For example, can you define genotype and phenotype in 140 characters or less?

“If you want to use social media to communicate effectively, you need to drive readers somewhere.”

‘Somewhere’ could be an already published article, a new report or an event, but it could also be a blog. Matt Shipman goes on to write about the blog and how it is useful for science communication. I won’t repeat that but encourage potential new science bloggers to read the blog post.

Lots of advice on how to get followers

Searching Google for tips on how to get followers on for example Twitter, lots and lots of websites pops up. For new comers to social media and science, Matt Shipman’s blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience is a good starting point on why the combination of social media, blogs and science communication is not such a bad idea, but also that it requires some work.

A small treasure box of essays on social media and health from NEJM

Once again, Twitter uncovered for me a small treasure box on the web. By following a link in a tweet I found a box full of stories of how social media and medicine and public health can benefit from each other. The treasure box is part of the NEJM (New England Journal of Medicine) 200 years anniversary site and is shaped as an essay contest, which celebrates medical accomplishments over the past two centuries, but with a special focus on the profound changes which has taken place in how information is communicated. To quote from NEJMs own introduction:

“The internet and social networking have enabled everything from romance to revolution. In the healing arts, this change has transformed how the public accesses and uses health-related information. What used to rest solely in the hands of medical professionals now is easily accessible to the public. This paradigm shift brings with it benefits and challenges.

As future members of the medical profession and current users of these communications tools, students and residents are uniquely poised to apply and evaluate the impact of these evolving methods of information exchange on the art and science of medicine.

Essay Question: How can we harness this technology to improve health?”

This question has been answered by a wide range of people. The Gold and Platinum Winning Essays are online for everyone to read.

From Framingham to Facebook

My entry point into this little treasure box was an essay by Michelle Longmire, from Stanford University Medical Center, called From Framingham to Facebook. The name Framingham should ring a bell with almost any public health’er and refers to the Framingham Heart Study, a cohort study which began in 1948 in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. Michelle Longmire compares the magnitude of social media networks with the Framingham cohort and the possibilities which lays in the tremendous amounts of data that social media offers. And the possibilities for sharing information, keeping people informed etc. The commercial sector has already discovered this. When will medicine and public health?

A Move towards Evidence-Based Conversations on Social Networks

Another nice essay is by Daniel Imler from Boston Medical Center, who writes about the potential of social media to pull from two very different worlds, the emotion of social sharing around health issues and the scientific rigor of medical literature. And how social networks enables evidend-based conversation rather than rumour and emotionally based discussion.


I also very much enjoyed reading the essay #Healthtrends by Ryan Kahn from Johns Hopkins University. Ryan writes about the world of hashtags (#) and how they can be used in Public Health to do surveys and get people involved. He even comes up with a concept for and project with a hashtag called #healthtrends which he claims could be used to improve the public health of many. Maybe taking the mouth a bit full, but the conceptual idea is there.

And many more…

There are several other small essays which are worth a read – do take a look at them.