Social Media Are Not Evenly Distributed

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...

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Something that surprises me with physicists and Twitter is how much derision can come from those physicists who know what Twitter is. I don't understand the source of that derision, but I've seen it come up a lot when I mention to other physicists that I am a Twitter user.

I guess I would have to consider myself one of those physicists who derides Twitter. I have never seen a use for it. What exactly is the advantage over having a facebook page for the event? There is this commercial where a guy walks into a phone store with a bunch of gadgets and the guy hands him a smartphone and says, "Try this." That is kind of how I feel about things like Twitter. They do very specialized things, and it is easy enough to find yourself keeping track of 10 or so(off the top of my head, e-mail, facebook, google+, twitter, rsa(blogs), instant messenger, text message alerts, flickr...) with no real advantage over having just one that works well(which both google+ and facebook seem to be competing for)

Maybe they need Tex for equation formatting in twitter? ;)

By Sideshow Bill (not verified) on 19 Aug 2011 #permalink

I have never seen a use for [Twitter]. What exactly is the advantage over having a facebook page for the event?

My viewpoint roughly aligns with this. I generally don't adopt a communications tool until I can see that there are enough clear advantages to it to outweigh any disadvantages. E-mail was a relatively easy sell, since it improved my ability to collaborate with people in other locations. I resisted getting a cell phone until I noticed that pay phones[1] were disappearing, and I would need to have a cell phone to ensure that airport shuttles would pick me up. Facebook is close, but not quite there yet.

Twitter is nowhere near that point for me.[2] When it does, I might join Twitter, or some other thing which takes its place. But for now I think I am a few years away from that point.

[1]Once upon a time, people relied on land line telephones to communicate in real time with people in other locations. Since it was sometimes necessary to call people from locations other than your residence or office, the Phone Company (there was only one, when I was a kid) provided devices where you could insert some coins and make a call (or, in an emergency, call in police/fire/ambulance for free). Most gas stations, restaurants, and airports had one or more of these things, and you could sometimes find one on a street corner. The exterior of Doctor Who's TARDIS looks like the UK version of this device.

[2]This is partly but not entirely because I live in the US, where sending or receiving text messages beyond your allowance is expensive, and my cell phone plane dates from a time when hardly anybody I knew texted, so I chose a plan with zero text message allowance.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Aug 2011 #permalink

I use Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook and Google+) as an adjunct to the blog. On the incoming side, I get a lot of material for the daily Links Dump posts from Twitter. On the outgoing side, I post links to blog pieces that I think deserve some wider circulation, post the occasional short thought that wouldn't quite make a blog post, and re-tweet things that I find amusing from other people. My Twitter posts are mirrored to Facebook. As there didn't seem to be a good way to copy them to Google+ as well when I looked a while back, my Google+ activity is mostly limited to promoting the occasional good blog post.

I suspect Twitter can be very useful as a social medium, once a certain critical mass of people who are interested in the same things you are is achieved. The problem is, while there are tons of science writers and biologists on Twitter, there's not that much physics-related activity, so it doesn't do that much for me.

There are also a lot of Twitter features that strike me as effectively broken, in terms of my use of the service. Unless you're following all of the participants in a conversation, and reading in real time, trying to figure out what other people are talking about is pretty hopeless. TweetDeck (which I use because I also have a Twitter account for Emmy) offers some limited ability to view a "conversation," but it's really not very good, and again, if you're not reading in real time (which I'm generally not), it's a gigantic hassle to try to fill in the gaps.

Hashtags seem like a nice idea, but the implementation kind of sucks, because any serious hashtag that is remotely popular gets overwhelmed by people re-tweeting the same two or three things over and over and over. So again, unless you're reading in real time, it's just about useless. I could probably set up a filter to screen out re-tweets, but it would need to be done for each individual hashtag that I want to look at, and that's just enough of an energy threshold to keep me from bothering.

So, like I said: it's a source of light entertainment and material for Links Dumps and occasional longer posts, and that's about it. I can see how it could be useful, which is why I was willing to give the DAMOP hashtag a shot, but there just isn't enough interest in the things I find interesting for it to be worth the bother, most of the time.

Interestingly, Google+ is awash with physicists (at least quantum information/foundations types). I have seen several serious research discussions already and there is an attempt to start a quantum journal club on hangouts.

I guess that the lesson is that physicists will adopt tools that let them do whatever they were already doing more efficiently, e.g. physicists were sharing preprints by post before the arXiv, having research discussions by email, and streaming seminars using cumbersome software. They are not so interested in adopting completely new habits, e.g. sharing links and writing in new formats. This makes sense given that the system of academic credit strongly compels scientists to prioritize existing types of activity. I don't know why things are different in other sciences.

You'd have to ask Derek Lowe and his regulars why chemists are so reactionary (I think we have a fair number of Creationists around as well). But my guess would be that it has something to do patents and prior art.

The last conference I attended â in the materials/electronics field â similarly had a conference hashtag, and the only uses were some belated announcements from the conference itself and an ad from one of the vendors. The lack of Twitter users probably played a part, as did the spotty wireless connection, but the medium doesn't help; 140 characters doesn't give you the space to say much more than you're attending a talk, which will be over by the time most of your followers read it.

Now, my fiancée works in social media, and has the opposite problem. She's been at small conferences where half the people attending her talk have their heads buried in their phones the entire time. I've read the tweets from that conference, and again didn't get much out of it.

Arxiv has recent papers and preprints. The web has home pages full of useful information about people, projects and papers. Blogs are full of short articles and essays. Email works for short messages. Phone calls work when you just need to talk.

I still haven't found a use for text messages, twitter or facebook. The general unit of information is too small to be useful or entertaining. In the latter two it just seems to be a broad spray of uninformative data. They're like those countdown clocks in the movies that announce the remaining time to doomsday every ten seconds. They aren't really being helpful.

Besides, there are bloggers like Chad Orzel who watch the twitter streams, looking for interesting stuff, so the rest of us don't have to.

I meant to add a thanks to that last comment.

I have looked at Twitter and failed to find any redeeming value in it, at least as a physicist. Absent other means of communication such as IM, text, and email, that might not be the case. I am somewhat saddened to also relate that my colleagues, the ones I share effort and information with on a daily to weekly basis, are also of that opinion. And absence of use.

By Bruce W. Fowler (not verified) on 20 Aug 2011 #permalink

new technology? the old tech is just fine!

you can have my 8 track player when you pry it out of my
broken down '73 chevy!

i haven't looked into twitter much. but it just seems like a way to send a text message to the whole universe. since i hardly text anyway, twitter seems a bit much for me.

plus, why is it limited to 140 characters? why not 144 or 169? those are squares and it woulda been geeky cool.