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May 19, 2012 / caitlynzim

All A’Twitter: How Social Media Aids in Science Outreach – Chapter 1

Introduction to Social Media

What is social media? One definition of social media describes social media as electronic communication platforms that convey content generated and exchanged by networks of users (Auer 2011). In a general sense, that would seem true. Social media sites are online communication tools that allow users to communicate in a fast and effective manner by a variety of means with various multimedia types. Depending on the site, users can share text-­‐based messages that can link to photos, other websites, videos, and much more. Other sites allow for the sharing of specific multimedia but most will still allow some form of text-­‐based communication whether in the form of comments or something similar. After speaking with Bora Zivkovic (Chief Editor of blogs for Scientific American) I decided to focus on four main social media sites. Here, I will describe them in more detail.

The first site is Twitter (Twitter.com). This site is a microblogging site, meaning that users share text-­‐based messages no longer than 140 characters in length – this includes periods and spaces. These 140 character messages are known as “tweets” and help to deliver news and information to the users of Twitter (Twitter.com). By following other Twitter users, their tweets will show up in a feed on your page, allowing you to gather information on topics that interest you. Many people use Twitter simply as a listening tool; news stations, major networks, large science foundations all use Twitter to disseminate information and regardless of whether or not you contribute to the conversation, you can still listen in on what everyone else is saying (Twitter.com), and there is never a loss of information to listen to.

One of the best qualities of Twitter is that the short form of tweets force users to be concise in their statements. This means that the reader can gather a great deal more information in a shorter amount of time and still obtain main points. If the user then wants more information on a topic, they can follow the links within the tweet – assuming there are links, which most tweets have but it is not required – to learn more details. Another great feature of Twitter is the mobile platform. Twitter.com developed its’ own mobile application for Twitter. This allows users to tweet from virtually anywhere, anytime and get updates at the same time. With Twitter, you are always connected and never at a loss for information. The second site Zivkovic recommended is Facebook. This site allows users to share long form text-­‐based posts – 420 characters, pictures, videos and links to other websites or other multimedia. Most people are familiar with Facebook in terms of social networking – catching up with friends, sharing pictures from the latest social events and keeping tabs on people you are out of touch with. Thus far, few people have thought of using Facebook for distributing actual information. But more and more, Facebook is expanding towards this purpose. Facebook pages allow users to create a page devoted to a specific topic, cause, organization or anything else a person has in mind. The page can then gather “likes” – when people are interested in the information the page posts and want to show their support, they can “like” the page – allowing you to share information with more and more people.

Facebook is a large social media site, boasting the largest and most diverse number of users. This means that is has great potential for sharing information on any topic to a wide variety of users. Facebook is also available on a mobile platform allowing users content on the go.

A great site for video sharing, also widely known, is YouTube. This site can be a great way of sharing video content in an easily searchable format with the addition of tags and descriptions to allow searching users to know what your video is about before viewing it. Uploading your video to YouTube also allows users to embed videos within a post on a different social media site or within a blog. YouTube has updated and adapted its website in order to give users a more friendly and inviting social networking experience. YouTube now suggests videos within known subjects’ fields of interest, tracks which videos are most popular and allows users to connect in more ways than before. YouTube also lets users fully design their “channel” by creating categories of videos uploaded, “favoriting” other users videos and interacting in more ways than before. YouTube, as with almost all other social media sites, also has a mobile version. However, the mobile version is geared towards searching and viewing videos, not towards the social part of YouTube’s new online interface.

Lastly, Zivokic suggested investigating Flickr. This site is geared towards sharing photos but does have limited – unless you pay for it – video sharing capabilities as well. Flickr is the photo version of YouTube. Users can share photos, create photo albums, follow other users, add captions and tags to their own photos and even instill copyrights and sharing capabilities to their photos before interacting with other users through comments and “favoriting” others’ photos (Flickr.com). Flickr allows search options for photos using the tags you created, current events, places, and galleries, just to name a few. It is a great site to house all of the photos you post on your blog in one central location. Furthermore, you can organize the photos by categories, expand on the photos from your blog and add more photos from the same event or on the same topic. As you might have guessed, Flickr also has a mobile version. This application works similar to the website, in a much simpler way, and allows you to take photos from your phone and directly upload them to Flickr. A bonus social media site that I have been talking about – albeit indirectly – through all of these other descriptions is blogging. Many people do not consider it to be a form of social media, but I would argue against that perception. Depending on the platform you use to blog – I use wordpress.com – you can interact with other users by following their blog, searching for them using tags and categories and comment on their posts to start a dialogue (wordpress.com). Blogging is extremely long form text-­‐based communication. There is seemingly no limit to word count, number of other places on the Internet you link to, photos or videos you embed or any other aspect – as with all things, I am sure there are limits, it would just take a good bit of creativity and effort to reach them. A well-­‐written blog can be an invaluable tool in communication as well as the source for content for other sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Most, if not all, blog platforms are formatted for viewing on phones and tablets allowing readers to access your information anywhere and anytime. Some platforms, such as wordpress, even have mobile version of their platform in order for writers to post new blogs from their phones or tablets. Blogging is a valuable tool in the social media tool pack, without a doubt.

These five social media products do not even touch the tip of the iceberg of social media as a whole. There are sites that cater to compiling everything your friends do on all other social media sites and putting it in one place for you (FriendFeed.com); sites that work towards science collaboration and research paper citation such as Mendeley.com (mendeley.com); and sites that mimic the previously mentioned sites, such as Tumblr.com, which is very similar to Flickr. There really is a social media site out there right for everyone’s needs and purposes. You just have to look. 

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