Social media and microbiology education

29 October 2010

Readers of this blog know that I embrace social media for teaching virology. My experience with two types of social media, blogging and podcasting, has been published as an Opinions piece by PLoS Pathogens (read the full text or download the pdf file). In this article I discuss how social media is becoming an increasingly integral component of both research and education in the world of science. My experience has convinced me that scientists must embrace these applications to not only better communicate their work to the public, but to facilitate the progress of research.

Blogging and podcasting are not the only forms of social media that I have found useful for teaching and research. I use Twitter to locate or disseminate information about virology. I often tweet when I write a new blog post or release a podcast, or when I find an article of interest. You can see what I post on Twitter without ever visiting the site – my most recent tweets are listed on virology blog, in the lower right hand column. The individuals who follow me on Twitter can investigate further by clicking on the links that I provide in each tweet.

For me the value of Twitter lies in the individuals that I follow – mainly scientists and science writers. You must be judicious in selecting who to follow, otherwise your Twitter stream will be too dense. I have found that following 100-200 individuals provides just the right amount of information. Unfortunately, there are few microbiologists on Twitter, and even fewer virologists. And the science writers far outnumber the scientists. I do not see this situation changing in the near future, so I conclude that for me Twitter is more about giving than receiving.

Another service that I find very useful is FriendFeed. This site provides a means for aggregating all of my online activities – tweets, blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, to name just a few. My followers can then see everything I do online at one site. In turn, I can follow others and track their online activities. An advantage of FriendFeed is that you can comment, like, or share any item, a feature can be useful for scientific discussions. For example, I can post links to interesting journal articles, and if my followers are interested they can begin a discourse on each one.

Then there is Facebook (which recently acquired FriendFeed). The sheer number of people there make it impossible to ignore. For example, I started a virology group on Facebook over a year ago, and even though I did not publicize it, 417 individuals joined. I just started a Facebook page for my podcast ‘This Week in Virology’, where I will post news about TWiV, and which I hope will become a gathering place for people who want to learn more about viruses. You can find it here.

Racaniello VR (2010). Social media and microbiology education. PLoS pathogens, 6 (10) PMID: 20975949