Science Communication and Public Engagement: What Can Twitter Tell Us?

Can I first of all say thanks to the staff of Nature who took the time to make these fantastic Storify blogs of Twitter reportage of the Science Communication Conference? They’re broken down into Day 1 and Day 2 which nicely shows the range of sessions which people attended (I must declare a personal interest: I am quite heavily quoted). In addition, the Public Attitudes to Science 2011 Storify is also a useful reflection on a particular session.

So why Twitter, and what can it do that, say, a formal report of a session cannot do?

First, it’s important to locate Twitter in the spectrum of communication. Although “written” (ie. encoded in symbols), I personally see Twitter as, predominantly (and slightly paradoxically), an informal oral communication medium, more akin to conversation than to prose. It’s informal, it’s normally “spur of the moment” (as opposed to planned) and it has its own linguistic norms, which tend to be less strict and more forgiving than is normally aloud in written text. I’d love to say this is all my thinking, but Zeynef Tufekci over at Technosociology has already written an excellent piece on Twitter as an oral culture which is well worth reading.

So, live Tweets, to me, represent the thinking of people as they are in the situation; there is no time to reflect, to consider meaning or to parse it into an alternate interpretation: a live Twitter feed can approximate being inside the mind of people present at an event, and you can bring a range of tools to bear on this record and use it to notice things which might not otherwise have been obvious.

One way of doing this is frequency analysis; looking at the number of times significant words (as opposed to words which merely provide structure to text, like “as, to, which, the” etc…) appear in the text. Frequency analysis gives you an idea of how big a particular concept was, and how that concept was being presented. A great, visual way of doing this is to create a Wordle; here are three which people have previously created:

Day 1 (from an analysis of the Nature Storify):

A Wordle of words in the Day 1 Twitter Reportage of SCC2011. See text for description

Day 2 (again from the Nature Storify):

A Wordle of words in the Day 2 Twitter Reportage of SCC2011. See text for description

Over all days analysis, from @clivebgs:

A Wordle of words in the Twitter Reportage of SCC2011. See text for description

As you can see, words which are larger represent more frequent use within the Tweets; on Day 1, it’s safe to say that “SCC2011″ was used more than anything else. From Day 1 and the overall analyses, this word has been excluded, so creating a visual representation of frequency analysis is as much an art as a science. In addition, derivative words (eg. home/homes) are typically only shown as the word which had the greatest frequency.

Across all three images, the most common words are (ignoring SCC2011, broadly in descending order, but not able to quantify that!): science, engagement, people and public. All words we’d expect to see at the conference.

However, for me a couple of things jarred: both science and public are in the singular form. And this surprises me because science is not a single, monolithic entity and neither is “the public”. Indeed, both are sprawling, diverse concepts which can mean a multitude of things to different people.

Science can (in theory) be anything from physics to sociology, from biochemistry to neurolinguistics, and each of these have distinct characteristics which benefit from different approaches to communication. However, also interesting is the words not shown, words like “technology”, “engineering” and “mathematics”. Although STEM is common acronym, in reality the language is dominated by the natural sciences, with TEM (and medicine and social sciences) rarely having much of a look-in. I was pleased, incidentally, to see someone talking about communication of social sciences in one of the speed networking rounds I was in, but this is still definitely a minority sport.

The public are so segmented that representing them as a single entity is both foolish and counter-productive. In fact, publics are so segmented that identifying appropriate audiences in science communication is a key task: are we talking expert to expert (eg. journal articles, scientific conferences), expert to non-expert (eg. museums, schools, Cafe Scientifique), non-expert to expert (eg. consultation, public engagement) or non-expert to non-expert (eg. conversations in the pub, peer-support within the health sector). Even given four combinations of expert and non-expert, each of those groups will fall into sub-grops. ‘Climate sceptics’ are often expert, but a climate scientist would probably frame their messages differently than if they were talking to another climate scientist. This complexity, as well as the diversity of interest, attitudes and skills within each of those sub-groups, is why science communication courses often refer to publics rather than the singular public. I was surprised that the singular was used throughout the conference, as was the term ‘public engagement’.

Public engagement is interesting because it tends to be used as a catch-all term, anything in which scientists descend from the ivory tower and engage with hoi polloi. This could be anything merely informing publics of their research (is Wakefield an example of public engagement?) to engaging with publics to debate complex issues from different perspectives (nanotechnology or genetically modified organisms). However, true engagement is iterative and is more complex than any single event, as Simon Burall (@sburall) illustrated neatly in his Rookie Session at the conference.

Inform to Consult to Involve to Collaborate to Empower to Inform...

Given that the theme of the conference was “Online Engagement”, I guess perhaps these are all assumptions which are expected to underpin everyone’s practice within the context of science communication. However, anecdotally, lots of people came to the conference having little or no experience of the world of science communication. It’s dangerous for natural science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine and social sciences if people go away thinking that the language used is the be-all and end-all of engaging with the public.

I, for one, want to see a society in which public engagement is a democratic right and responsibility and involves citizens and scientists to extent it is useful or interesting to them. Unless we ensure that attendees have a good understanding of publics, all the knowledge in the world about novel and engaging techniques is wasted. The public do seem to understand and want to engage with the sciences and allied disciplines; the question is whether we, as communication facilitators, can ensure that the scientists understand and want to engage with our diverse range of publics.

I’d love to know what other things you can see in the Wordles which surprise you, confirm expectations or concern you when they’re missing. Let me know in the comments!

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About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

5 responses to “Science Communication and Public Engagement: What Can Twitter Tell Us?”

  1. Jenny Woods says :

    Surprised not to see Radford in there (unless it’s just my bad eyesight!) his talk is the outstanding memory of the conference for me.

    • davidwaldock says :

      That’s a good point, actually, and he certainly held court with some amazing stories! It’s an exclusion for which I can’t entirely account.

      Couple of ideas though:

      1 – When I produce Wordles (and I didn’t produce either of these!), I normally exclude proper nouns, unless referring to specific concepts. That is to say, Parkinsons (as in the disease) would be included, but Parkinson (as in Michael) would probably be excluded (unless I was discussing, say, chat shows). That’s obviously not happened on 2, and only partially on 3 though.

      2 – Twitter reportage tends to hot up during events, so it may just be that people weren’t Tweeting as much at the beginning of the event as towards the end. This would mean that Radford might have been significant as a %age in the Tweets from his session, but insignificant as a %age in the total number of Tweets. After all, phrases like “public engagement” would have been used in almost every session.

      Interesting observation though…

  2. Jo Brodie says :

    A very minor observation – but at the beginning of a session people might outline what it is they’re tweeting about, eg a session on XYZ. Whereas follow-on tweets might be expected to ‘inherit’ that information without it being written in, so the phrase XYZ might appear less even though the tweets were ‘about’ that.

    For #scc2012 I think I might investigate the feasibility of asking people to add an extra couple of characters to denote specific sessions. Twapperkeeper (I no longer use it as I’ve used up my allowance of two archives) used to let you put #scc2011 !gm in a tweet, which would then be filtered into a separate folder from any tweets marked #scc2011 !tim – clearly we probably won’t be using Twapperkeeper to collect tweets but I wonder if subsequent searches for relevant tweets can let you pick out ones for different sessions.

  3. marilyneb says :

    Hi David

    Interesting how different people approach doing a wordle cloud – I also did them (from the Nature storify), and for one I kept in the main hashtag (SCC2011), and another I took it out. I alos took out Radford – yes he’s going to be prevalent because he’s the keynote speaker. I also removed words like session. There’s also a stray TM (tweet mention) in one of the above.

    I agree that we need to think of sciences and publics (the Public Attitudes survey and other work I’ve done aims for that). I don’t think anyone really believes that the public is a homogenous blob, and so you’re going to see the terms you dislike being used purely for shorthand purposes.

    Nice participation spiral – have you also seen the Science for All Group’s “triangle” conversational tool?


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