Science and the social web

15 January 2009

94943906_ea1b13eb3e_mIn my recent post about why I blog and podcast, I discussed how these activities allow me to think more about virology and to teach far more people than I ever could in a laboratory or classroom. Is there even more value in the web for scientists?

There are three different web activities, besides blogging and podcasting, that enhance science in new ways. The first is the ability to post comments on blogs and podcasts. In so doing, people can interact in ways that were not previously possible. Scientists who have never met, or students hoping to learn, all can connect and create an instructive and creative dialog. Don’t understand something in a post? Just ask. Have something different to contribute? Post it. Science can only benefit from interactions not limited by geography or time.

The second powerful web tool for science is the social networks. We know how MySpace and Facebook made it easy to meet and interact with new people. These networks also allow scientists to connect and talk about their profession. There are various groups on Facebook that enable focused, productive discussions among scientists. Even more useful are the social networks that have been developed specifically for scientists – well over 20 according to this  blog post. These networks exist to foster interactions – meeting other scientists, looking for jobs, troubleshooting experiments, finding answers to thorny questions. The value of scientific social networks is that they enable dialogue far beyond what you could achieve on your floor, in your building, by telephone or email. The result is scientific interactions at unprecedented levels.

The third web tool for scientists is Twitter. This microblogging platform restricts users to posts of 140 characters or less – the end result is concentrated information. For scientists, Twitter can be either a distraction or a gold mine. If you choose to follow individuals who are interested in science, you will, in the course of a day, find tweets with links to interesting science – news or journal articles; comments on science; questions about science or science methods – in brief, the kind of exchange originally facilitated by email but far more immediate and pithy. Follow the right people on Twitter, and receive useful information. I keep an eye on Twitter to find tips on how scientists use the web, the latest science news, and comments on science in general. In turn, when I learn of an interesting science news event or article, I tweet it. Mr. Tweet’s discussion of  the evolution of a twitter user crystallizes this concept.

There is also great value for scientists at FriendFeed. No, it’s not a fourth category – it’s an aggregator of the three activities described above, one-stop for all your blogging, podcasting, social networking, and twittering.

These three aspects of the social web are revolutionizing science. By using them, I am learning more about my field than I ever have before. Those who choose not to take advantage of the social web will miss the opportunity to become more creative and productive scientists.