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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!


The Future of Online

Social media is here to stay, and whilst people have become very good at selling on the Internet, actually engaging with publics, developing the brand and establishing credibility is very different; so Vicky Reeves (@vickyreeves) opened this plenary session on the second day of the conference. Reeves predicts that the future will be focussing on engaging with diverse audiences, be that social minority groups, different age groups or going international.

Shane McCracken (@shanemcc) focussed instead on trends in government and civil society. The Martha Lane Fox Report proposed a single domain for government so that citizens can find what they’re looking for. is the result of intensive development project (see their blog), focussing not only on information findability, but also on exposing data so that it can be consumed in mash-ups and other applications.

For example, local government have to publish details of any spend over £500, and the progressive councils are using XML (a format computers can use to convey data to other computers) to expose the information. This is being exploited by Openly Local to hold councils to account for their spending.

Other examples include Open Corporates which exposes information about revenues received from government, and Who’s Lobbying which shows who is lobbying government.

Remember that if you want to engage with the public, then you can’t control the discussions, but if you want to hold people to account, ensure they have to register using their real name. This helps to ensure that timewasters are weeded out. The recent outing of Ryan Giggs as a superinjunction beneficiary on Twitter is an example of mass civil disobedience facilitated by social media.

There are questions on the future of search; Google and Facebook are engaged in a face-off because of hidden content on Facebook which you can only access if you are member (and which is therefore invisible to the Google search engine). Google have introduced Plus One to capture the social dynamic of the Facebook Like button. It’s vital to ensure that your information is findable, and if you want to publish data then publish it: the BBC’s blog syndication (RSS) feeds only include the first paragraph of stories, which will limit the amount of people who will read the full content.

The main error people make when moving into social media is to jump in with both feet, starting with the premise “we need to do some online engagement”, but without identifying objectives or understanding their audience. For example, Barnado’s advert in 2009 caused some controversy by people who were upset at seeing the effects of child abuse. However, instead of wading in and defending the advert to all and sundry, Barnado’s held back, listened to the contributions from different people and were able to post an appropriate response from an individual within the organisation. In contrast, the BBC’s online editor lost thousands of hits by responding in a way that appeared to alienate the audience.

By ensuring you have a clear set of objectives, you can focus on the message you are intending to convey and the audience you want to hear it.

Daniel Glaser (@bnglaser) outlined some of the work being done by Wellcome Trust in the online world. All papers produced as a result of Wellcome grants now have to be placed into a public access repository so anyone can access the information generated. They’re looking at how to ensure accreditation of work by using ORCID, a system which manages the identities of researchers, even where there are name collisions, as Daniel noted, “there’s a lot of Wangs in China.”

Wellcome Trust also found it difficult to write the blog post in which they celebrated 10 years of the Human Genome Project (HGP). There was plenty to write about, but the outcome and benefits of the HGP are still unrealised, the genome being more complex than originally thought. Glaser also highlighted the decision taken by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) which showed that one of the first places that people go for information about cancer is Wikipedia. CRUK therefore decided to commit resource time to maintaining the accuracy of relevant Wikipedia pages.

Wellcome aren’t sure if the time investment needed to maintain personal profiles on all of the available network has a good return on investment, and they’re not sure how to exploit the existing networks to their maximum potential, or whether they should build their own. Reeves pointed out that 5 years ago she’d probably have advised developing their own network, but now expectations for social networks are so high that the investment isn’t worth it. She recommended that people engage with people where they are (ie. Facebook), and that this is part of the “never leave Facebook” strategy.

In addition, Reeves said there was talk of developing a single sign-on identity which would allow a single profile to be managed across multiple social networks simultaneously.

Sue Nelson (@supersue), chairing the session, told how she had found that Facebook, and in particular photos, add real value to the podcasts, adding a new dimension to the listener experience.

Fiona Fox (see Fiona’s blog), from the Science Media Centre, said she felt like a rabbit in the headlights, that she must tweet, that she would be no-one if she wasn’t tweeting. She likened this to the Today programme’s message boards: they were excited when they started, but soon nobody had the time and it rapidly became an echo chamber for one or two contributors. She asked “What two things should we do before diving in?” Reeves stressed the importance of firstly identifying why you’re doing it, and secondly how you’re going to measure its success.

Reeves also stressed the importance of ensuring that if it’s someone’s job to manage online media that they are given the time to do the job; just because the tool is free doesn’t mean there are no time implications. An alternative to being on Twitter all day is to schedule tweets at the beginning of the day to go out periodically, and then to monitor Twitter to engage in conversations. And whilst Twitter may run its course (cf. MySpace and Friend Reunited), social media as a concept will continue, whatever its new format is.

McCracken summed this up as “listen first, talk second”.

The Research Information Network highlighted the availability of their report on using social media effectively, and asked about the idea and benefits of sharing data using an open access model, particularly when raw data is not usable, so it would have to be published as a translation or interpretation. They also asked about trust and attribution issues around such sharing. McCracken pointed out that trust increases with openness, and that a Creative Commons licence requires attribution if the data is reused.

In summary, the future of online is the future of people interacting using social media, and communicators using the appropriate tools for engaging with them.

Bright Club: A Twitter Chat with Dr Martin Austwick

After posting my initial post on the Bright Club, Dr Martin Austwick (@sociablephysics) and I had a conversation on Twitter in response to my post. I’ve got his permission to post a transcript of the conversation as I think it allows both “sides” to explore what the other “side” intended. As you can see, it turns out there wasn’t a huge amount of disagreement, and the discussion allowed us to see the position of others.

The transcript is not direct as that would be impossible to read; Twitter conversations can often evolve into what is effectively a multi-stream oral discussion where points are not picked up in order and are addressed separately. I have arranged it into a coherent stream which should make it comprehensible, correctly misspellings, grammar and a couple of cognitive typos. I don’t believe I have missed any pertinent contributions, and any errors are mine alone.

MA: The two female performers are researchers and not professional comedians and I felt you were being oversensitive about a talk which accused heterosexual men of being “one-dimensional”.

DW: I don’t think heterosexual men are one-dimensional and didn’t intend to convey that (goes to prove the impact of language)

MA: Me neither – but if I had taken offence to that I think I would have had more cause!

DW: That’s a really good point which I am guilty of missing; such stereotypes also harm straight men by being over-simplistic

MA: I felt that any overgeneralizations were simply the result of inexperienced performers trying to find their comedic voice and we should have cut them some slack!

DW: That’s a fair enough point, I think. But if true, does it not raise questions about appropriateness as a method of public engagement?

MA: comedy is specific because people have different senses of humour and appropriateness.

DW: *nods* But that raises interesting points about humour and comedic boundaries

MA: But everything offends *someone*. I don’t want to see young researchers put off communication by fear of failure, even offence.

DW: I completely agree. My point is they could have been *more* successful by considering use of language

MA: Is it necessary for every form of public engagement to connect with everyone? (Which is different from the question “Should public engagement as a whole attempt to connect with everyone?”)

DW: no, completely not, and I’m fine with not being in any particular target group. But the venue surely influences them [the performers]

MA: I should say that I don’t agree that they were particularly insensitive and I thought that your reaction was quite strong

DW: as to personal sensitivity, I was quite worried I was “over-reacting” and ran it past a few people first, but the broad consensus was that as a broad issues (not just about Bright Club, but about public engagement) is that it’s a legitimate issue. In addition, my background includes outreach work with young LGBT people, so I’d guess my personal experience has influenced my sensitivity.

MA: Well, accusing someone of having no sense of humour if they are offended by something is an easy reply .. 🙂

DW: Indeed, and a reply someone has already made. And saying I’m less intelligent than the rest of the audience 😉

MA: I did see that, yep. From a gay man who didn’t feel excluded, and I think you both make the point that yours is an individual and not monolithic [ie. attempting to represent the entire gay community’s] viewpoint.

DW: Completely and utterly agree. I also think the conference was actually very good, and said so in the piece 😀

MA: This is the nature of performance art and the fact that it’s public engagement is not the issue but, even if they did get it a bit wrong, they should have the freedom to experiment, fail and improve.

DW: That it’s *also* public engagement should also bring other expectations to bear. Performance art is notorious for challenging boundaries

I don’t think “fail” is the right word, and I would love to see an evolved iteration of those acts.

MA: I should also say that I do Bright Club podcast so have a bias. Which is why I hadn’t commented before…

DW: I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t said. I think we’re broadly in agreement, though. I don’t think what I said was particularly controversial. I’d just like science communicators to be self-reflective to improve what they do, regardless of medium. If a performer was told they’d upset someone and replied “yes, I intended to insult group X” that wouldn’t be an acceptable outcome; reflexivity is a way to avoid that ever becoming an issue, and to improve if it does.

MA: Agreed. Perhaps I read your blog as more negative than it was intended. I am keen to see researchers step outside their comfort zone and do scary things like science stand-up. It’s important that the criticism doesn’t destroy their self-confidence

DW: I would hope it didn’t. I thought the 4th dimension thing was clever, and a minor tweak would resolve my observation. The initial bit was clearly getting into the patter at the beginning of the show (and anyone who lectures can say that is the most difficult part of any performance).

By the way, I have had to review my presentations in the light of subsequent comments on a session I taught once, and I apologised and improved the session plan as a result.

MA: Also, Bright Club is generally a more diverse night. You saw 2 acts and a compere. There have been dozens of performers at the regular night, which starts to represent a more diverse community.

DW: Of course.

MA: Thanks for chatting, sorry I didn’t engage directly to begin with, but felt I was too partisan 🙂

DW: Partisanship is only an issue when you don’t acknowledge it’s influencing your perspective. Thanks for constructive contribution.

Bright Club More of a Dim and Ignorant End

I’m starting my blogging about the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference 2011 at the very end but because of that I want to start with a quick summary of my overall impressions. Firstly, I declare an interest in that I received a bursary to attend, and I am grateful to the BSA for funding my attendance, accommodation and travel expenses. I also need to mention that I’m gay (my reason for mentioning that will become clear).

This was a great conference, aimed at practitioners, and full of ideas for practitioners about how to engage with publics in different ways. The theme of the conference was Online Engagement, and there was a great range of many and varied sessions on different aspects of this issues, which is central to much of the fantastic work being done. There were some fantastic opportunities to network, and I would go so far as to say this was the most friendly conferences I have ever attended.

Indeed, one of the messages which I felt was most reinforced and important was the importance of understanding the audience for your work. For example, if you are engaging with people who are, in the parlance of the Public Attitude to Science Survey 2011 (about which more later), “Distrustful Engagers”, you need to approach communicating with them in different way than if communicating with, say “Late Adopters”.

Nobody felt the need to mention the importance of ensuring your message doesn’t have boundaries which exclude minority groups; this is, I would like to hope, because inclusiveness is such a core part of science communication that it proverbially doesn’t need to be said. However, its worth point out that all of the speakers that I saw were white, and all were middle aged, and although there was a good number of women (yay!), it’s hardly representative of wider society. Perhaps what happened next shouldn’t be a surprise.

The final “session” (I think perhaps “let your hair down at the end” might be a better description!) was a mini Bright Club. Bright Club is a stand up comedy session with “science-based” humour. The session we were in featured three comedians, one compering and two featured, and by general consensus of people in Hall Two was Jolly Funny. Now, I love comedy as much as anyone, and frankly the story of two fifteen year olds making napalm in the basement was hilarious (and I’ll bet the victims of napalm warfare would be prepared to admit it’s hilarious too), and also highly educational. If I ever need to cause fire-based mayhem, I now know the ingredients and will be well-prepared to burn pretty much anything (BTW, is this what is meant by science literacy?).

Unfortunately, I didn’t laugh along with everyone else. The reason was that I felt the compere had raised some barriers: subtle little assumptions that meant I felt slightly alienated. The compere (I couldn’t be bothered to remember his name) started by pointing out there was a seat between two very attractive young ladies, and inviting a man (any man) to fill the space. This itself is just cheap humour, trying to settle an audience but carries unspoken assumptions to which I do not subscribe.

  1. I personally think women should be valued for more than their looks. We were at a conference for science communication professionals. Perhaps a reference to an intellectual attribute might have been more appropriate?
  2. Not all men want to “sit next to women”. By which I mean, when you have sexualised a scenario, pointing out to a room of 100 or so people that you’d prefer to sit next to, say, two cute men feels uncomfortable.
  3. Conversely, not all women want to be sat next to by men; perhaps one or both of them would have preferred an attractive woman to sit there?

Now, this just meant that (as a gay man) I felt invisible. This sort of humour is only for men who like women, obviously. And that type of assumption winds me up.

The coup de grace was delivered by the second female comic, who delivered a routine about the utter hilarity of Picasso shagging his friends wives with the rib-busting hook of calling it “the fourth dimension” (and if that’s not comic gold, I don’t know what is). She wrapped it up by saying “Men, go home and find your fourth dimension. The woman in your life will appreciate it.”

First, the “woman” in my life is 6’7″ tall, has a penis and looks rubbish in a dress. Second, as far as I know women are allowed to initiate sexual contact with people people, so perhaps rather than relying on the convenient (hilarious) stereotype of women being passive and gratefully accepting pleasure from the male, it might be a woman wants to find her fourth dimension. Third, perhaps she wants to explore that with another woman, and not a man?

Normally, I’d just let this go over my head; after all we live in a heteronormative androcentric world in which it’s assumed that everyone is straight and that the archetypal human is male. Assumptions which form part of the everyday tapestry of life for myself and every other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered person, and for every woman. But this was at the end of a conference in which the desire to reach and engage with as many people as possible was espouse, dissected, rebuilt and promoted, and rightly so.

If Brightclub is intended to be a fun way of engaging with publics to inform them about science, and I can see that it could be a great informal way of bringing vaguely sciencey topics to a broad audience, it’s probably best not assume that everyone in the audience is heterosexual and subscribes to tired, old, inaccurate and ultimately demeaning stereotypes about normative behaviours. Again, this wasn’t intentional, but this failure to realise language can exclude people unintentionally is all too common. Where do gayers and women go for their dose of science humour when a careless word alienates them?

In the morning session, someone said “Identify the people who won’t like what you have to say: they’re not your audience.” The problem is, I am the sort of audience that shouldn’t be hard to reach, and I didn’t like what was said.

[edit: I put the points into the ordered list they were meant to be in and added an excerpt]

[edit 2: corrected Bright Club]