Back in June, when I was headed to DAMOP, I got email telling me that they had an official Android app. I installed it, and in with the meeting program and maps and things was a “Social Media” section, that included an official hashtag: #apsdamop.
I posted a few things using it, but it rapidly became clear that there was only one other person at the meeting using it. I happen to know him, so when I ran into him later at the poster session, I commented on how we were the only people at the meeting using the official Twitter hashtag. Someone else nearby looked baffled, and we had to explain. Not just what a hashtag was, but what Twitter was.
I was reminded of this by the 20-year anniversary of the physics arxiv, commemorated recently by an article in Nature by Paul Ginsparg (posted a week ago, but only just removed from behind the paywall), and, appropriately, the posting to the arxiv of an older article. Physicists, as we never tire of telling anyone foolish enough to make eye contact, pioneered a lot of electronic media, including both the arxiv and the Web itself.
But, as my experience with the DAMOP hashtag makes clear, while social media have arrived, they’re not evenly distributed.
Physicists took to the arxiv very quickly, and remain its primary users, though math and computer science have also embraced the idea. As Ginsparg notes in Nature, though, numerous attempts to make an arxiv-equivalent in the life sciences have failed. Biologists and chemists stubbornly resist the sharing of preprints, even in an arxiv-like format that could clearly be used to establish priority (as is the case in physics).
But it’s not like physicists are great social-media users. The number of physicists using blogs hasn’t really changed that much in the last five or so years. A few new people have started, but some old blogs have gone dark. This, despite a rapid growth in the number of science-related blogs overall.
And mathematicians are way better than physicists at using blogs. Terry Tao’s blog is famously a hot place to do mathematics, and there are numerous other mathematicians using blogs as a research platform, working at a very high level. This idea hasn’t really taken off in any other discipline, though.
And, of course, there’s Twitter, circling back to the story beginning this post. I jumped on the DAMOP hashtag idea because the last conference I had been to before that was the AAAS meeting, where there was a ton of live-tweeting of talks and other interesting exchange going on via Twitter. Twitter is huge among life scientists and science writers– when there’s a big biology meeting, I have to think about unfollowing people so I don’t get completely swamped. But physicists? A surprisingly large number of physicists still have no real idea what Twitter even is.
Is there a clear and obvious lesson to draw from the uneven distribution of social media use among scientific disciplines? Beats me. I don’t really see one, but I haven’t given it all that much thought. If you think of one, though, leave it in a comment, or send it to me on Twitter…